A Short History on the Clark Cortez Motorhome

The moment Andrew and I saw a Clark Cortez motorhome, it was love at first sight. Truly.

I had been stumbling around the internet, focused on digging up classic vehicles when this steel beast was uncovered.

Image courtesy The Van Project

Honest to goodness, the moment I saw it, I gasped so loudly that I even covered my mouth. Andrew sort of had a similar reaction, except he took my laptop from me while exclaiming, “That’s awesome but what the actual fuck is it?!” Listen, there are two things Brits are passionate about and that’s beer and cuss words, and I’m not tryin’ to change my man.

Plus, he had a good point: What the heck is a ‘Cortez’?

Besides being super cute, we were drawn to this vintage beauty because of one word: unique. This is why even though we had never — ever — seen a Cortez, an answer was seamlessly solidified: We were ready. After years of talking about restoring a classic vehicle and dreaming about a life of travel, we were ready to take the plunge and only this motorhome would do. Therefore, with determination to find and buy one, we set out to research all we could on the motorhome’s history . . .

In the 1960s, General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler released their new compact motorhomes. However, one company wanted to be a different: Clark Equipment Company . . . Clark, as in the forklift manufacturer. Therefore, in 1963, Clark decided to dabble in building and selling one of the first front-wheel drive motorhomes in America, and this is when the Cortez was born in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Images courtesy CortezCoach

From there, it was an immediate hit so welcome to the world, all-American RV! I wonder if #motorhomelife would have been super trendy then . . .

Image courtesy CortezCoach
Side note: This is my favorite original Cortez image. I love imagining the eager families that tucked themselves inside these motorhomes to set off for their next great adventure!

The move to build motorhomes seemed to be smart too because the vehicle immediately filled a void in the market.

Unlike motorhomes before that were “big, tall, ponderous, rough-riding, crude-handling and thirsty,” the Cortez had a different chassis, which revolutionized life on the road because it was now compact, efficient, and advanced.

Paul niedermeyer, curbside classic

The RV became known for its wide body and low profile, making it have great stability in high winds. With a length of less than nineteen feet (though in 1969, the Cortez was lengthened by one foot and the passenger door removed), width of less than eight feet, height of less than ten feet, and weight of anywhere from 8,000 to 9,000 pounds, the Cortez is much smaller than modern RVs. In fact, it is the same length as many large trucks today, or even as long as some sedans such as my main ride here.

Basically, all of this means the Cortez can easily fit into one standard parking space.

Even though it is compact, the vehicle should not be overlooked. Simply put: It is a beast due to its forklift background and inspiration. Don’t believe me? Check out this amazing promotional video:

On the outside, an all-steel body and many large windows are noticable — both traits, unheard of for its time. Inside, the Cortez is often described as “roomy” due to its ability to sleep six, among other reasons.

Image courtesy CortezCoach

Mechanically, a four-speed manual transmission was driven by Chrysler’s slant-six motor, though in 1969 this engine would later be replaced with a Ford 302 V8 that bolted to a modified heavy-duty transmission. However, both were held in place by a removable cradle for easy servicing.

Image courtesy CortezCoach

It should be noted too that this engine has around 140 horsepower, which is medal-worthy for the vehicle’s size and time of built. All in all, drivers touted great handling but that wasn’t it either.

“[O]wners tell me it rides better than a luxury car of the same era. That’s quite a statement.”

Tony Barthel, stressless camping

Turns out, Clark liked these Cortez aspects so much that it also marketed the vehicle as a mobile classroom, office, and sales room; ambulance; and even NASA astronaut shuttle — where the vehicle carried astronauts from Apollo 7 through 11 missions to the launch pad. (Fun fact: An original Cortez is still on display at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.)

Image courtesy CortezCoach
Image courtesy Jim Goodall

Sadly, the end came too soon for Clark and this is primarily due to two factors: First, sales were low because the Cortezes had an expensive price tag — Reportedly, they cost as much as a small home so they could only be purchased by wealthy families. Second, the company could not keep up with the devil Winnebago, who was mass-producing vehicles for half the cost. Because of this, Clark decided to sell its motorhome rights in 1970 to Kent Industries located in Kent, Ohio; and that’s when Kent Cortezes were made.

Image courtesy Shawn Cline

The Kents were larger (21 feet) and had features that I personally love, such as bringing back the passenger door with (applause) a side door (though the side door came at the compromise of no rear door). Unfortunately, the success of the Kents came and went quickly too and so the company gave up a short time later.

From there, in an effort to keep the Cortez alive, twenty-six coach owners/fans purchased the production line and created a new company. They continued to build motorhomes and made a few, but the work proved to be too hard for them as well and they had to call it quits in 1978.

From there, production for the last of these RVs were funded by the bank so that the one of the last motorhomes were made in 1979.

Interestingly, one year later in 1980, someone purchased a few unfinished units, tools, and spare parts before moving operations to Lafayette, Louisiana. Here, the company Cortez, Inc. took shape, and it is where Cortez and Kent owners could pay for parts and service, and Cortez owners could get Kent drivetrain conversions. Andy and I have messaged this man’s son, who has been so kind and helpful as he has shared memories and information of his father’s business. While there is information online about Cortez, Inc. producing one very last motorhome before the company — and all Cortez production after — ceased, we’re told this is not true. A final motorhome was not made; however, a new shell, along with all parts, tools, and more were purchased. The son added, “It was fun to walk around inside it [the shell] and see all the structure though. I was just a kid and then teenager at the time; this was my Dad’s endeavor and we were just along for the ride so to speak.” What an wonderful memory!

Overall, only 3,221 motorhomes were produced in sixteen years — and in the 1965 year alone, there were only 394 Cortezes made! Today, it is estimated a little more than 1,000 are still expected on the road, though some have theorized even less — only a few hundred.

If you’re lucky enough to spot one today, know the look can be dramatically different based on the year and, therefore, company involved in the manufacturing.

Even though we are talking decades past, Cortezes continue to claim a bit of fame every few years. Let’s start with film …

From what we’ve read, actor Steve McQueen owned a Cortez and was said to love his so much that he asked a movie production company to ship his Cortez from California to the film location so that McQueen could use it. McQueen’s Cortez made occasional appearances in shots between filming. Surprisingly, after filming was complete, the production company shipped McQueen’s RV (and a motorcycle) back to California where McQueen reportedly kept both for years.

A 1971 film called Switching Channels had a Cortez zoom past. By the way, this production logs top players: Burt Reynolds, Christopher Reeve, and Kathleen Turner.

Image courtesy iMCDB

In 1965, the Cortez was used in a musical called A Swingin’ Summer, starring actress and model Raquel Welch.

Image courtesy Lobby Cards

Along with this, the RV was found on location for the film Dirty Dingus MaGee, which starred actress Michele Carey.

The movie The Incredibles based the family’s vehicle off of the Cortez.

Image courtesy IMCDB

The President’s Analysis movie in 1967 featured shots with Cortezes in the background ….

along with the 2014 movie called Child of Grace, which had the RV shown many times.

Image courtesy iMCDB

Moving to music, singers and musicians, such as Janis Joplin, can be seen laughing next to the motorhome.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’s lead guitarist Mike Campbell posed in front of the RV, too.

The Cortez also made its way faintly into advertisements like this one for Wrangler. According to NSS Magazine, this “Summer of Wrangler” campaign was designed to “celebrate these unforgettable moments by evoking the retro atmosphere of a kind of America that we have learned to know in the movies with titles like Thelma & Louise.”

Lastly, many simply adored the Cortez …

They include Journalist Kathleen Mudge, who became known as “Lady Cortez” — and I confess that I love reading about her. She was one of the first brand ambassadors due to being a Clark Cortez demonstrator, which means she roamed America in her Cortez demo. Along with gathering material for a book she was researching, she was a contributor for Family Motor Coaching magazine. She also attended Family Motor Coach Association conventions, answering questions about the Cortez. Overall, she racked up 12,000 miles on her demo as she traveled with her poodle, named Dutchess or Dutch (websites report two different names).

Image courtesy FMCA’s Family RVing

Another journalist, Charles Kuralt, wrote his CBS reports while traveling in his RV.

Others fans include Vincent Price, Francis Ford Coppola, cartoonist Bill Mauldin, and artist Peter Hurd.

Most recently there was the boom to the super popular “vanlife.” For people such as Amanda, Matt, and their super cute dog Royal, they have been around from the start. They’re known as The Van Project, and they rebuilt their 1964 Clark Cortez motorhome before closing the door forever on their San Francisco apartment to travel America.

Regardless of time period though, the Cortez has maintained a fan base. Even now, it still has original owner’s clubs, such as the Cascade Cortez Club. Many of these owners have kept their Cortezes too or they have handed their motorhomes down to family through the generations. For new owners (such as Andy and me), being accepted into clubs like this are more than helpful due to the knowledge and experience club members offer.

So back to our original story: The moment Andy and I saw the Cortez, we truly did fall in love and the more information we learned about this vehicle, the further we realized this motorhome was the one for us.

“Do you think we can find one for sale?” I asked Andy with hope and hearts and dreams in my wide pleading eyes.

“Definitely,” he responded. “You just need to know where to look” so that’s exactly what we set out to do . . .

For more on how you can track down a Cortez, read Where to Rent and Buy the Cortez Motorhome.

* * * * *

Interested in more Cortez history and images? Here are the incredible websites I referenced:

Author: L

Hi there! I am the impulsive do-er, the jumper, the one tugging to move past comfort zones to embrace a life of sheer surprise. I am a writer -- a pursuer of stories -- because I believe in the destination over the journey. I am a chaser of sunrises and sunsets and cherisher of the moments between. I have an overwhelming curiosity, an insatiable desire travel, and an obsessive yearn to turn dreams into realities. For all of these reasons, the word that best summarizes who I am is "seeker" -- I am forever a seeker.

11 thoughts

  1. Hi, I have a 1972. I’m wanting to share the magic of this rig with friends and linked them to your site (great job btw). I’m looking for the promotional video that you have linked in this page.. it’s not available. Can you share a link that works or the video itself? Thanks!! Troy

    1. Hi Troy,
      Thank you for stopping in and writing! We appreciate you linking your friends to our site and your kind words. We are also always happy to message with another Cortez owner!
      Sadly, we too found the promotional video gone and were saddened because it is great! The video did not come from our YouTube channel so we unfortunately have no control over it becoming available again. I’ve left the link up though with hopes that one day that channel will make the video live once more!
      I hope this helps,
      L (and Andy)

  2. My grandfather Preston Wright liked the Cortez so much he bought the factory in kent and was producing the Cortez until his purchasing agent bought 1100 drive trains (455 front wheel drive) a bankrupted the company or they could have possibly still been manufactured today.

    1. Hi Joe,
      Wow, this is super interesting and we are so happy you read and wrote. That is horrible news to hear about what happened to your grandfather and the other owners — Did anyone go after the agent to sue him/her? We feel they would have had a super strong case and, gosh, to imagine what could have happened in that order hadn’t gone through. Again, so interesting and appreciate you stopping in to share this story!
      L (and Andy)

    2. Ola Joe, muito interessante seu comentário. Sou brasileiro e gosto muito desses assuntos. Você não tem mais informações, fotos, reportagens, etc… para nos dar. Eu gostaria. Um grande abraço.

      Ola Joe, very interesting your comment. I’m Brazilian and I really like these subjects. You no longer have information, photos, reports, etc… to give us. I’d like that? A big hug.

      1. Hi, João and thank you for stopping in! I’m glad you enjoyed our writings. We have definitely still been working on our motorhome but progress on the blog has been difficult because we are trying to reformat it. That won’t be forever though so here’s to keeping our fingers crossed that we will be back writing soon!
        Thank you so much again and sending you a big hug back!
        L (and Andy)

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