“You never know what is going to come through that door,” Rick Harrison, host of the Pawn Stars series on The History Channel, says during the show’s opening credits. But even Harrison was taken aback by what a man brought to -- or rather drove to -- his Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas in 2011: a 26-foot, six-wheel Coca-Cola themed motorhome.
Harrison, who in the episode says he’s sold a lot of Coke memorabilia, was impressed with the vehicle but wouldn’t bite at the seller’s final $42,000 asking price.
Was it the real thing?
The 1977 motorhome, built by General Motors’ GMC Truck and Coach Division and customized for Coca-Cola as the GadAbout, was one of five that Coke gave away in a national sweepstakes that year. Another four or five were offered to Coca-Cola bottlers. The GadAbout was based on the GMC MotorHome built from 1973-1978 and known by a fairly radical design that was lower, sleeker and easier to drive than other motorhomes of the time.
“We use one of our other GMC’s for short ski trips and day trips,” he says.
The “Pawn Stars” GadAbout had been repainted at some point with a different stripe pattern, and the interior also deviated from its original outfitting. Harr has begun to restore both vehicles.
“We’ll come as close to original as possible,” he says. He believes the “Pawn Stars” GadAbout was originally won by Charles W. Winter of Seattle.
Despite a difficult economic climate and rising gasoline prices in the 1970s, motorhomes captured America’s imagination. The big, boxy machines were more like mini vacation homes than campers, equipped with such amenities as kitchens, bathrooms, central air conditioning and televisions.
The aluminum and sheet-molded compound (SMC) was rust-resistant, and the 23-foot and 26-foot models were offered with a variety of floorplans and interior décor choices. Pricing in 1973 started at $13,600. A sensation when it was introduced, this unique vehicle attracted a strong following that endures today. The GMC MotorHome International (GMCMI) club has 21 regional chapters that hold regular events and an annual national convention. (The 2014 event was in Montgomery, Tx.)
Coca-Cola worked with General Motors to customize the GadAbout’s exterior and interior, according to Bill Bryant, historian for the GMCMI club. Bryant, who owns a 1976 GMC MotorHome, has extensively researched and documented the vehicles,. He believes that one GadAbout was wrecked but that the rest are intact.
Sweepstakes materials touted the grand prize as “The home away from home that’s something else!” The GadAbout’s white exterior sides were painted with a huge red Coca-Cola billboard treatment, with the “GadAbout” name painted on the front sides. A custom exterior spare tire cover resembled a Coke bottle cap.
In other respects, the GadAbout was a fully outfitted GMC 26-foot MotorHome with central air and heat, microwave oven and gas range, color TV, built-in vacuum cleaner, hot and cold running water, AM/FM stereo and tape player, CB radio and 6,000-watt electric generator. Sweepstakes materials stated a retail value of $40,000 (about $156,000 today).
The Coca-Cola Travelstakes ran from summer through December of 1977. Dottie West, the popular country singer who also wrote and sang jingles for Coca-Cola TV commercials, starred in a 30-second TV spot promoting the sweepstakes.
In addition to the GadAbouts, GMC built another 45 standard Coke MotorHomes, which were offered to Coca-Cola distributors for use in promotional activities. Externally, only a Coca-Cola red perimeter stripe distinguished these vehicles. The interior had the red velour upholstery and shag carpeting but lacked the special Coke GadAbout design features.
GMC made just under 13,000 MotorHomes through 1978, and Bryant estimates that perhaps several thousand may still be in active use. Many owners, he explains, update the powertrain, suspension and electrical systems to keep the four-decade-old machines viable as RVs.
At least one GMC Coca-Cola GadAbout owner is using his unique vehicle for the summer fun portrayed in Coke’s Travelstakes promotional materials. Chad Stelling of Portland, Or. bought a GadAbout two years ago from a seller in Washington State. He has not yet verified if it was one of the original five sweepstakes vehicles.
Stelling uses his GadAbout for tailgating at Oregon State Beavers football games and other outings. “Some of the games are 100 miles away,” he says.
He recently took a group of friends in the GadAbout to see the movie “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” because there was a GMC MotorHome featured in the film.
“When we came out, the GadAbout was surrounded by people taking photos,” he says. “It was a lot of fun.” He’ll continue to use his unique piece of Coke history as he restores it.
Thanks to Bill Massey of the GMC Classics Club and Bill Bryant of GMC MotorHomes International club for their assistance facilitating research for this story.
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