A Mobile Guest Room

It is odd but I tend to get fixated on things. It is like an invisible hand that guides me. Innumerable times in the past, decisions have been made that only became clear in retrospect. One thing I learned was not to ignore it.

The most memorable was in 1988 when I suddenly became interested in computer viruses, something that had been mentioned in a few sci-fi novels (as worms) and was the subject of a Scientific American "Matematical Games" article some years earlier. At the time I was designing embedded flight controls for aircraft, Mil-Std- 1750A and such so had an understanding of low level programming. Also in 1984 I had purchased a Columbia VP-1600 PC. At the time the decision was based on the amber screen but as it turned out it also had a BIOS debugger, very unusual in any PC at the time, but which allowed me to examine the first viruses (e.g. BRAIN) in operation. By 1991, that was my day job.

When I was in college in the sixties, some drawings were made of a compact trailer that could serve as both living quarters and study/office and the thoughts of mobile homes/cabin cruisers have been with me for a long time.

In the seventies and eighties, I thought the GMC motor home was a near perfect design having enough space and a passenger car based FWD. AT the time, drag and weight were both relatively low and the entire package seemed efficient. Later my enthusiasm convinced my best friend to buy one but it was just never quite right for me.

In the early eighties while at a Pontiac convention, I was invited by Bill Collins to lunch to discuss his plans for a small RV. The idea sounded interesting and a lot of thought had been given to the project and I remember not liking two of the major elements: a non-domestic powertrain and use of a turbo-diesel. These were essential to the goal of 30 mpg but unfortunately before the first production unit could be sold in 1986, GM destroyed the market for passenger car diesels in America with the ill-fated 350.

This so poisoned the public that Mercedes' plan to be all-diesel in the US in 1990 was shelved. Here in 2009, most have forgotten the incident but both Ford and BMW cancelled all plans for future non-truck diesels despite having introduced diesel models in 1985. European and Canadian markets went diesel some time ago and in TD form the Canadian Smart Car gets far better MPG than the US version.

Unfortunately the same Steyr diesel used both by Ford and BMW in 1985 was the powerplant for the Vixen motorhome. Quickly the planned powerplant servicing/replacement structure that could be leveraged was gone from the US. This 2.4 liter 115 hp Turbo-Diesel was surprisingly effective in the RV but there was another problem, it was not the original engine. The first prototype was owered by a 3 liter four cyl Isuzu diesel with a considerably different torque curve. This was intended for a line of small cargo trucks Isuzu planned to import but decided not to. Meanwhile the RV's five speed manual transmission had been geared for that application and the smaller 6 cyl turbo-diesel needed more revs to develop power.

The result was a first gear that was too high for comfortable starts and nearly impossible to start on an incline. Much later a lower gearset was available but was after production had ceased.

So the bottom line was that yes, it could get 30 mpg (30.74 mpg at 55 mph - then the National Speed Limit - in trials) and yes, it could fit into a garage, but in the "me" period of the late eighties mostly wanted the biggest box that could fit on the road and the major RV companies were happy to provide them. 6 mpg was not an issue. Then. Add in a dread diesel and the outcome was inevitable. The TD was built for three years with the highest volume (295 TDs) in 1986, 87 TDs and 40 XC (limosines) in 1987. In mid 1988 a revised version with a fixed (high) roof and 3800 gasoline powertain including an automatic transmission was offered and sales picked up somewhat but the doors closed finally in April 1989 after 171 SEs were built.. Total official production 1986-1989 was 578 units with a few being complete afterwards.

It seems strange how many such forward thinking vehicles came out of Pontiac and Flint that appeared for a few years only but were not appreciated untl twenty years later.

In about 2004, the same friend who had bought the GMC mentioned the Vixen to me. Since that one meeting I had forgotten completely about it (partly since AFAIR at the lunch, the name had not been finalized) but the first time I saw one, there was an attraction. I looked at a number of RVs in the next few years, mostly smaller, more efficient ones (LeSharo, Rialta, FMC) but the time was not right and there was no interest on the part of my family.

In 2006, I began teaching and saving all of the proceeds in an RV fund even though I still had not decided. After a significant life change, the objections were no longer there but I was still undecided. However by mid-2009 with the economy tanked, all RV prices were at the give away level and none were selling. Few could afford fuel at nearly $1/mile. I was offered a GMC for very little money but it just was not right (and needed a lot of work), I kept thinking in terms of a more modern/efficient powertrain than a 455 cubic inch V-8 with a three speed automatic but all seemed like to much work for something that was rally too big.

Finally I came back to the Vixen. Pop-top like the 1970 VW camper we had (slept two friendly adults, one not-so-friendly adult, & one midget), rear engine like the VW, Fiero and Corvair (which meant a cooler cabin in hot weather). Fully self contained with cooking, refrigerator, and toilet/shower. Even a 110 a/c for night use. A full class A and less.

Oddly, once again, as soon as I felt the urge to look, I found: a late (November) 1986 (for some reason all of my cars were made in even number model years) Vixen TD with dinette (for playing cards) and pop-top (to fit in garage), having a lot of road miles but only 40k on a new powertrain including the lower gears, suspension, and renewed interior. And a number of mostly electrical issues plus a motivated seller which negotiated a surprisingly affordable price. 30 miles from my house with a fresh coat of paint and running well.

So a Vixen is now in residence, fits in the garage, looks good, and can even raise the top when inside.

Seats and table are convertible from passenger (seats four facing front, to double bed, to "lounge mode" perfect for watching the 26" HDTV/DVD/PC Monitor/Camera picture display. In a GMC, each of these would require seperate furnishings. In the Vixen, the interior can transform into different modes as required (just not into a Camaro)


Lounge Configuration


Entertainment Center (netbook with wireless KM in foreground)
Work in Progress

There is an issue as might be expected with rearward vision. This is solved quite handily with a wireless back up camera with a wide angle lens. Modern technology has its place.

Also the period am/fm/cassette has been replaced with a single DIN AM/FM/CD/USB/MP3/SD/AUX with remote control.

Of course this is just the beginning. A rewire and eventually a digital dash that tells all is in the works.

But for now when I visit a friend for the weekend, I can bring my own self contained and air conditioned guest room. The odd thing is that the biggest of my vehicles (21 feet) has the smallest engine (2.4 liters)

For more information, visit the Vixen Owner's Association


A little extra clearance for the mirrors.