Trading the Vail Valley for Navion |

Trading the Vail Valley for Navion

RV’ing in winter? Why not? Former valley resident Don Cohen hooks up his RV in Ouray during a cold-weather trip.
Peter Holcombe |

DENVER — I never would have guessed that four years ago, when we traded our Vail Valley life in for being full-time downtowners in Denver, that a part of that journey would also include 65,000 miles of motorhome travel.

We are now on our second Navion, which is the flagship of Winnebago’s fuel-efficient, compact motorhome line. Apparently, we are not alone in our interest in this great way to travel. I know of several Vail Valley friends and acquaintances who are also happy owners of this great Mercedes Benz-based product. That interest in motorhoming isn’t confined to the petite size of coach that we drive. A couple of weeks ago, we rendezvoused with a some of our former Singletree neighbors in Santa Fe, where they arrived with their ultra-luxurious rigs that are the size of a city buses — including washers and dryers, residential refrigerators and dishwashers.

While these big rigs are truly condos on wheels — and cost as much, too, my wife Terry and I love the go-anywhere nimbleness and stylish European feel of our Navion. I’ve always wondered, “who dreams up these products?” Not surprisingly, I learned that it takes a team. However, the real vision comes from one guy in particular.

Russ Garfin is probably going to wince when he reads this. You see, in the worlds of technology and finance, you often hear about superstars. But, in the RV world, Garfin qualifies as an industry luminary, as it’s his passion that has defined this wildly popular class of Euro-inspired motorhomes.

An RV visionary

Typical of his Mason City, Iowa roots, Garfin is that humble, aw shucks kind of guy that anyone would want as their next door neighbor. He’s an easy-to-laugh fellow who finds happiness in paddling boundary waters, biking rails to trails, and hiking in the desert southwest. But first and foremost he’s a true visionary in the RV industry with a highly informed world view.

Out of college and out of the service, Garfin and his wife Kathy left Iowa for Japan, where they both spent several years teaching. They traveled extensively, including to various destinations in Europe. And when it seemed time to return home to their native Iowa, Garfin was told by the founder of Winnebago, “Son, you’re going to work here and that’s that.” That was more than 30 years ago, and along the way, the company tapped into the young adventurer’s experience and sent him off on several international assignments.

A visitor to Garfin’s office is struck by stacks of European RV magazines on his desk. And each year Garfin leads a contingency of other product managers, engineers, designers and executives to the world’s largest RV show in Dusseldorf, Germany.

More than any other American RV manufacturer, Winnebago has developed fuel efficient compact motorhomes for the market throughout the past three decades. Back in the 1980s and 1990’s, it used chassis from Renault, Volkswagen and Toyota.

With high fuel costs and smaller roads, the European RV industry has excelled at creating compact motorhomes. Yet in the States, where everything is bigger, the industry has super-sized its view of coach design. The average Class A motorhome now runs 35 feet in length with a 45-foot maximum. Back in the early 1970s, an average-sized coach was 25 feet — the size of today’s Winnebago compact View and Navion brand models.

Smaller is appealing

Garfin saw the appeal of fuel efficient, easy-to-drive motorhomes. He was intrigued with the emerging delivery van platforms being designed for the European market. First among those was Mercedes, with its Sprinter van chassis. Concurrent with Mercedes’ plan to bring the Sprinter to the U.S., Winnebago was the first to use it to build a motorhome upon. Today, Winnebago is Mercedes’ largest motorhome customer and builds more Sprinter-based products than all it’s competitors combined.

In seeing how quickly the Sprinter motorhomes and van conversions were selling, Garfin continued to closely track the plans of both Ford and Fiat-Chrysler to bring their European van chassis to North America. Today, Winnebago builds the Travato and Trend on the Fiat-Chrysler RAM Promaster, and the Fuse on the Ford Transit.

That Euro influence also shows up in the adaptation of ingenious interior designs that maximize living space and components from sleek Italian cabinetry to ultra-efficient German instant water heaters.

I know through firsthand experience that Garfin has an affinity, understanding and passion for the growing adventure motorhome market. Each year he makes it a point to show up at the informal national Skinnie Winnie rally of View/Navion owners. This group has the largest RV forum on Yahoo — with more than 8,000 members — and a far more exploratory and outdoorsy outlook than traditional RVers. It’s that personal closeness and experience that Garfin has — he and his wife vacation in their own Travato model, complete with an Italian bike rack, which shows up in Winnebago’s most adventurous class of vehicles.

Don Cohen was a longtime valley resident. He and Russ Garfin will be at the Winnebago display at this year’s GoPro Mountain Games.

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