RVing in the Reagan Era
by Valerie Law
August 31, 2016
Filed under Feature Story
On the road again with downsized cars and unleaded gas
In 1981, the year Trailer Life turned 40, Ronald Reagan entered the White House hoping to boost the nation’s confidence after nearly a decade of “stagflation.” The 40th president promptly ended price controls on domestic oil, which had played a role in the fuel shortages of the 1970s. The 1980s also ushered in stricter government standards for more efficient vehicles and completed the phaseout of leaded gasoline — positive steps for energy conservation and the environment, but real challenges for RVers.
With automakers rolling out smaller, less-thirsty cars, Trailer Life readers were making the switch to tow vehicles built on light-truck chassis. As Editor Bill Estes pointed out in his April 1986 column, “Big-Car Squeeze,” this was another positive trend. “Frankly,” Estes wrote, “most of them are better and safer tow vehicles than passenger cars because they are designed to handle more weight. Their wheelbases often are longer, which adds to towing stability.” And it didn’t hurt that the fuel economy of pickups, vans and the new class of sport-utility vehicles, launched by the Jeep Cherokee XJ in 1984, was regulated less strictly than cars.
Even so, readers still loved their old sedans. When Trailer Life asked for nominations for the best tow vehicle ever built, the most-coveted models were four-door V-8s from 1970 to 1973. The top vote-getter, announced in July 1983, was the robust 1972 Oldsmobile 98.
President Reagan reflected on the environmental and economic policies of the 1970s in a February 1981 Trailer Life interview, calling for “balance” and “common sense.” He also voiced his ardent support for outdoor recreation. Echoing those sentiments in the October 1982 issue, Vice President George H.W. Bush stressed, “Recreation isn’t a luxury. It’s the stuff that recharges our batteries and keeps us going.”
By the end of Reagan’s two terms in the Oval Office and the start of the elder Bush’s four-year tenure, the Cold War had thawed, and the RV industry was heating up again. With rising optimism and lower fuel prices, Baby Boomers in particular were buying RVs in greater numbers, investing in then-innovative models with slideouts, basement storage and garages. For RVers, America had indeed become the “kinder, gentler nation” coined by Bush at the 1988 Republican National Convention.