Published: Monday, July 04, 2005 -- The Truth, C1 - Original Location
Last updated: 7/3/2005 9:50:21 PM
By Steve Bibler
ELKHART -- At the age most people are looking to slow down and kick back, Bob Helvie is kicking his business in the RV industry into a higher gear.
The 65-year-old manufacturer recently purchased the assets of Xplorer Motor Homes of Brown City, Mich., and will move some assembly of the pioneering brand to the Elkhart area.
Xplorer makes a one-piece fiberglass "chassis mount" Class C motorhome on Dodge and Ford cutaway pickups.
Helvie, president of Starship Custom Vehicles Inc., said the unique vehicle will continue to be made in Brown City, but the units' production will begin in Elkhart, then be shipped to Brown City, where the fiberglass will be installed. Details of final finish have yet to be worked out.
He opted for an Elkhart location because most of his suppliers are nearby, he said.
Helvie has leased a 20,000-square-foot building at 4315 Wyland Drive that formerly housed Rance Aluminum Fabrication Inc. He has his production staff in place, but is just beginning to move into his new facility.
He is still working on the details of his business plan.
"Eventually, Lord willing, Xplorer will be the primary thing we want to do here," he said.
Helvie bought Xplorer's molds, Xplorer and Xcursion trademarks, patents and miscellaneous manufacturing equipment at an April 23 auction. Initially, he planned to move the entire operation to Elkhart, but decided to keep partial production of the Xplorer in Brown City because of the difficulty of moving the large molds to Elkhart, he said.
"The people who understand how they are built and created this are there in Brown City. It made more sense to build it there and bring them (units) here for final finish," he said.
He intends to focus future Xplorer minimotorhome development on the four-wheel drive market while expanding the Xplorer Xtreme's fiberglass construction into other areas outside the RV industry.
"This whole industry is run on trim and screws," he fumed during a recent interview. "Why not eliminate them?"
Xplorer's seamless fiberglass design eliminates the need for most of them, with the only true seam where the cabover joins the rest of the shell.
The new Xplorers are powered by diesel fuel, which also runs the cooktop, water heater and furnace, eliminating the need for propane. Some consumers will still want to use propane, so that will be an option, he said. Standard lengths will be 221/2, 261/2 and 271/2 feet.
He has lots of other ideas for his new product but can't get them incorporated into his first units.
"People call me 'the imagineer,'" he said.
He calls the Earth Roamer made in Broomfield, Colo., his main competition in this niche market and says the Xplorer will compare favorably in price.
Helvie's Starship Custom Vehicles Inc. builds and equips units for specialty purposes such as medical labs and clinics, while a sister company, Startrack Custom Lifts Inc., makes lifts that assist people into vehicles.
Helvie has found a huge demand for his lifts as an after-market add-on for Class A, B and C motorhomes, SUVs and trucks and recently received a patent for a new running board lift which will be compatible with many types of vehicles, he said.