RV History: Thor Industries

RV History with Al Hesselbart

Wade F.B. Thompson

Thor Industries, the world’s largest RV manufacturer, was created by Wade F.B. Thompson, a wealthy immigrant from New Zealand, and Peter Busch Orthwein, an heir to the Busch brewing fortune.

Peter Busch Orthwein

Having previously together purchased Hi-Lo, a manufacturer of unique, expandable travel trailers, Thompson and Orthwein came together again in 1980 to acquire Airstream, the oldest existing RV company. Beatrice Foods, a well-known food distributor, sold Airstream because they were unsuccessful in their venture into the American RV world – primarily due to the economic conditions created by the fuel embargoes and extreme interest rates of the 1970s.

In creating a name for their new holding company, Thompson supplied the TH from his name, and Orthwein provided the OR from his name. A venture, sounding like the evolution of a Greek god, was created.

Airstream’s new business plan worked on reducing costs and emphasizing quality. With 50 years of worldwide name recognition, Airstream returned to profitability in its first year under Thor leadership. Over the ensuing 40 years, the partners acquired many successful RV and transport bus manufacturers in the U.S. and Canada. In most cases, as additional brands joined the Thor family, the existing leadership and management was maintained to keep the successful business model alive and growing.
 
While both Hi-Lo and Airstream were Ohio-based companies, by the early 1990s Thor began to focus its attention mostly on Elkhart, Indiana. Over the next 30 years they acquired a large collection of Indiana companies and a few Canadian and U.S. West Coast operations.
 
The Thor path to dominate the RV industry included the acquisitions of:
1982 – Citation, Corsair and General Coach
1986 – Okanogan
1988 – El Dorado
1989 – Traveleze
1991 – Dutchman, National and Four Winds
1995 – Komfort, Skamper and Aerolite
1996 – Thor California
1998 – Champion
2001 – Keystone
2003 – Damon and Breckenridge
2004 – Crossroads
2005 – Goshen Coach
2010 – Heartland (which had just acquired the rights to 29 brand names of the towable division of the bankrupt Fleetwood Enterprises, including Prowler, Terry, Mallard, and Wilderness)
2013 – Livin’ Lite and Bison
2014 – K-Z
 

By the late part of the first decade of the 21st century, Thor had moved its headquarters to Elkhart and was locked in an annual tug-o-war with Forest River, another industry giant, over which company was the world’s largest. The argument was settled in 2016 when Thor acquired 100 percent of the stock of Jayco, which had been arguably the third largest RV manufacturer, cementing Thor’s position as the world’s largest RV manufacturer.

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8 Thoughts to “RV History: Thor Industries”

  1. Troy

    I have a 2017 Thor Challenger 37 LX, and so far it’s been a pretty good coach. The reasons we went with Thor to start with were the 8k hitch, the floor plans, and all the options that they have. We have had a few small issues and some of them are due to poor quality control, but overall this has been a great coach to full time in.

  2. Scott

    Look North to Canada, where Escape and maybe Big Foot build much better quality RV’s. I had my Escape for over a year before I had any issues at all. (And that included a trip to Alaska which is pretty tough on any vehicle because of the rough highways.) Then it was just one of the LED lights that went bad. When I contacted the company they immediately sent me a new one. Knock on wood, but I’ve had a very good experience thus far and the company seems to take a real pride in their craftsmanship. Maybe that’s why there is a six month wait- they r more interested in quality vs quantity.

  3. Ronald Payne

    My thoughts are in America when the big 3 ruled in the car markets, the Japanese cars made the big 3 more competitive,perhaps we need a European competitive influence on the rv industry when it comes to build,parts engineering,competion will make all companies more efficient,and the consumer ends up with more choices and better products,

    1. Sherry Dawson

      I agree! I wish Volkwagen had not closed their U.S. manufacturing operation and had expanded it to larger RVs. I’m still driving and camping with a 1986 VW Vanagon camper that was bought new by my mother. All its camping equipment is like new, and the engine and drive-train only need the normal maintenance and replacements expected. It’s only real problem has been the factory-installed air conditioner. I see lots of elderly VW campers still giving great service for other RVers today.

  4. Claud

    I have to agree with Mr. Chambers that, to me, the Thor name is far from synonymous with quality.

    By the way, Thor is the name of a Norse god – not Greek.

  5. Nick

    I don’t see this as a quality problem relateing just to Thor. I’m a manufacturing professional, a Blackbelt in Lean Manufacturing and just retired from an ISO 1345 medical device contract manufacturer. The RV industry in general has insufficient or poorly defined quality standards but mostly is lacking in robust highly specific and capable “process controls”. I’ve seen videos where they have invested heavy in “product handling” technology (for safety) but there isn’t any evidence of automation in the physical manufacturing process and they still rely heavily on craftsman. Additionally there is an absence of industry regulation similar to automotive or aerospace. I don’t see things getting exponentially better until these industry deficits are changed

  6. martlin c chambers

    I will not even look at an RV made by Thor’s brands because of the lack of quality of most, if not all, of them.

    At a recent RV show in Tampa I did look at some of the Thor companies and was amazed at the shoddy condition of “NEW” rvs being shown by dealers for sale.

    And it seems that many of the recalls we see everry week are also Thor products. Yes, I know that they own most of the makes these days but still, you would think they would put out a better product for what they charge for them.

    I think it would be a wake up call to Thor if people would start avoiding even looking at their products. Obviously complaints are not working, don’t buy their products, hurt them in the wallet. That is the only way to deal with greedy businesses.

    1. Booneyrat

      Don’t look at any Grand Design junk either,especially after Winnebago took them over.

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