Recreational vehicles have a rich and interesting history, with many innovative designs and manufacturers leaving their mark on the early history of RVing.
A pioneering RV design
One pioneering firm was the Clark Equipment Company, which produced the Clark Cortez motor homes in the 1960s and 1970s. These unique Class A motor coaches provided comfort and luxury for RVers. They also saw use by NASA for astronaut transport. They saw public service as ambulances and rescue vehicles.
The origins of the Clark Cortez motor home
The Clark Cortez motor home was a Class A motorcoach manufactured in the United States between 1963 and 1979, with 3,211 units built. The Clark Forklift Company, a subsidiary of the Clark Equipment Company, began producing these small motor homes in 1963 in Battle Creek, Michigan. The innovative design of the Cortez featured a unibody construction, which was a departure from the traditional chassis-and-body approach used by other manufacturers at the time.
The coach was a joint vision of the two executives at the head of the Clark Equipment Company in the early 1960s, George Spatta, Chairman, and Walter E. Schirmer, President, and CEO.
“We are an automotive‐oriented company,” Schirmer told The New York Times in 1964.
Clark Equipment Company was constantly seeking an outlet for its engineering talents. “The leisure market is one of the big growth areas of the future,” Schirmer said. Clark engineers designed the Cortez, named after the explorer. The coach sold at a starting price of $6,500—high for the era. Schirmer was an avid hunter and asked his design and engineering staff to create a mobile home for him. They designed a luxury coach for him and built every unit as if it were for the CEO. Rumors around the factory were that Clark lost money on every Cortez sold despite its relatively high price tag.
Cortez was popular for its unique design
The Cortez quickly gained popularity for its unique design, offering a compact and comfortable living space that could accommodate up to six people. The interior was well-appointed, with a convertible dinette, a full galley kitchen, and a bathroom with a shower. The Cortez also boasts ample storage space, making it an ideal choice for families exploring the great outdoors in style and comfort.
Clark equipped the Cortez with a four-speed manual front-wheel drive transaxle to eliminate the typical rear-wheel driveshaft tunnel that would have increased vehicle height and diminished interior headroom.
Initially, Clark equipped the Cortez with a bulletproof Chrysler 225cid industrial slant-6 engine. The engine was rugged and reliable but lacked horsepower on long grades, and so in 1969, a Ford 302cid engine was introduced, still using the 4-speed manual transaxle.
In 1970, Clark Forklift sold the Cortez Motor Home division to Alco-Standard’s Kent Industries in Kent, OH. The motor homes produced in 1971 are called the Kent Cortez. So in 1971, the Kent Cortez was repowered with the General Motors Oldsmobile 455cid V-8 with its front wheel transaxle coupled to a GM 3-speed automatic transmission.
In 1975, 26 owners of Cortez coaches acquired the company, and production continued through 1978, when the company folded. A final number of Cortez coaches were completed under bank receivership in 1979. By then, the Cortez line had much more competition from other manufacturers. Its sales figures lagged in the tough economy of the late 1970s.
NASA fame during Apollo Space Program
Clark management devised unique uses for the Cortez. They were sold as mobile offices, classrooms, and emergency vehicles. NASA used Cortez coaches to transport astronauts to the launch pad during the Apollo program.
Cortez owners included actor Vincent Price, whose Cortez was often spotted in and around Hollywood in the late 1960s. More than forty years after the last Cortez motor coach left the factory, Cortez coaches still enjoy a devoted following among classic RV enthusiasts who prefer its all-steel body, smooth ride, and moderate size. The Clark Cortez can be parked in a standard city parking space.
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Clark Cortez! Our good friends L and Andy have been diligently (albeit slower than they would like, haha) renovating one to take on the road. Definitely a labor of love for an RV of this age!
They are on all the various socials “Soul of a Seeker” and the videos of the Clark Cortez reno are on YouTube:
I like it, too bad they didn’t make it today. Nice size.
Fascinating! Thank you, Randall! RV Trader has none listed right now (4/30/2023). 🙁
I did find a listing from three years ago that is quite informative, although probably also no longer active. https://bringatrailer.com/listing/1968-clark-cortez-motor-coach/
It takes some sleuthing to find them these days, but they are out there. I found mine sitting in a scrap yard, waiting o be salvaged. I changed the oil an fuel filters and drove it home 200 miles on the interstate on its fifty-year-old tires. I completely enjoyed it and regret having sold it on the way up the RVing ladder to “too much motor coach.”
I love these motorhome history stories – keep them coming please!
Will do. Thanks!
I worked for the Clark Equipment Company from 1968 to 1975 in the Brown Trailer Div. I never heard of this branch before ,so thanks for that . It is amazing that a company headquartered in such a small Michigan town<Buchanan pop 4456 could create so many different products.
I owned a few Clark Forklifts over the years. Great product from a great American Company.
The ’66 Cortez definitely kept the distinctive fork lift feel.