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 . . . 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

With a length of less than nineteen feet, 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 — which was 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 office and sales room, ambulance, and even NASA astronaut shuttle — which is where the astronauts from Apollo 7 through 11 missions hopped inside before being launched into outer space. (Fun fact: An original Cortez is still on display at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.)

Images 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 to Kent Industries in 1970, and that’s when Kent built some Cortezes.

Images courtesy CortezCoach

Image courtesy Shawn Cline

The Kents were larger and had features that I personally love, such as the side 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 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.

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.

Images courtesy CortezCoach

Even though we are talking decades past, Cortezes still find a way to claim a bit of fame every few years. For starters, from what we’ve read, actor Steve McQueen owned a Cortez and it sometimes made appearances in shots between filming.

Speaking of movies, there was the movie “The Incredibles,” which based the family’s vehicle off of this motorhome.

Image courtesy IMCDB

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.”

Then there was the boom to the super popular “vanlife.” For people like 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.

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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.

7 thoughts

  1. 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)

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