Old Winnebago becomes one very Happy Camper

Larry Edsall
Special to The Detroit News

With the Labor Day weekend and the end of camping season on the horizon, it might be a good time to start thinking about a wintertime project. Here’s a thought: Build your own version of the Happy Camper.

The Happy Camper is the result of a lemons-to-lemonade project undertaken by the Ringbrothers, custom-car builders Mike and Jim Ring of Spring Green, Wisconsin.

The Rings own a piece of property on the Wisconsin River where permanent buildings are not permitted, but recreational vehicles are OK. They were talking about what sort of vehicle they might buy when a friend mentioned a customized 1972 Winnebago that was coming up for sale at the Barrett-Jackson auction in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The Rings frequently attend Barrett-Jackson auctions, but they weren’t scheduled to arrive as early in the week as the day the RV was crossing the block. So they instructed a friend who would be there to bid in their behalf if the price on the unit was low enough.

When they arrived and learned that the RV was theirs, and at the price of only $12,100, they were apoplectic!

“Mike almost had a nervous breakdown,” Jim Ring recalled, adding that the unit, its Chrysler V-8 engine, was operating “on a cylinder and a half and was basically junk, worth maybe $200 at most.

“We were sick to our stomachs,” Jim added.

There may have been thoughts of simply leaving the thing out in the Arizona desert, but after dinner and adult beverages the brothers decided to have the RV trucked to Wisconsin where “we spent two days just staring at this thing.”

The Rings then stripped the vehicle and used the shell to create the Happy Camper, which Hot Rod magazine characterized as the “Insane 900HP Party RV.”

Jim Ring said several automotive aftermarket suppliers with whom the brothers had worked on various customizing projects got involved with the Winnebago makeover. For example, the aged Dodge engine was replaced with a Wegner-tweaked General Motors LS, though it wasn’t quite strong enough to overcome the inertia presented by the 9,000-pound RV.

When Ring termed the engine “a pooch,” the supplier showed up two weeks later with a supercharged Wenger 408-cubic-inch LS. To handle the horsepower, a 4L80 transmission and Dana 80 rear end were added.

Ring said even though it was 28 degrees outside when that work was done, the brothers were eager to see how the new drivetrain performed. Fortunately there was no snow on the ground as the rear tires hooked up with so much thrust that the front wheels lifted off the pavement. Hot Rod reported the car sprints to 50 mph in just 3 seconds.

The RV’s interior was redone in the style of a World War II bomber meets Restoration Hardware and together they create a man-cave party place.

“We had a blast doing it,” Jim Ring said. “At the end of the day, we had more fun with it than probably any car we’ve ever done.”

And the Rings have done a succession of award-winning custom cars.

In fact, Jim said, the Rings took the Winnebago and a customized De Tomaso Pantera they’d just finished to a Goodguys Rod & Custom Association show in Ohio. The vehicles were parked side-by-side and “people would walk over the Pantera to get to see inside the Winnebago.”

“At the end of the day, life is about experiences,” he said, “and this sure was one.”

One of the Ringbrothers’ clients has purchased the Winnebago from them, but it will be back on display this fall at the Prestone Antifreeze booth at the annual SEMA Show of automotive aftermarket products in Las Vegas. In the meantime, the brothers are getting lots of calls from people with old Winnebagos for sale.

Larry Edsall is a Phoenix-based freelance writer. You can reach him at