You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby: A look back at the beginnings of Tiffin Motorhomes

They don’t make them like they used to back in 1972. Not at all.

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Allegro wasn’t the first motorhome built in Red Bay. In March of 1967, Commodore Corporation of Omaha, Neb., announced plans to sublease a portion of the Sunshine Industries facility and build mobile homes and travel trailers in Red Bay. Three years later, in February 1970, Commodore announced it was leaving Red Bay. In its place a company called Sandpiper Travel Trailers would be filling the void.

In January 1971, Sandpiper began producing self-propelled motor homes here.

Tiffin Supply Company in Red Bay, owned by Alex Tiffin, had been key in providing building materials for Commodore and Sandpiper, and the Tiffin family had grown familiar with the supplies needed to build motor homes and the processes for doing so. In September 1972, Bob Tiffin, Alex’s son, announced he had bought a building and the equipment needed to begin building self-propelled motor homes in Red Bay at a new company called Tiffin Motorhomes. The name chosen for the motor home was Allegro, as that name would show up much earlier in the phone book and in manufacturing registries than would the Tiffin name.

The motor home industry in the United States was in its infancy, and the Tiffins were among the first manufacturers of self-propelled motor homes in the United States, behind only Winnebago and Champion. Sandpiper didn’t remain in the self-propelled market or in Red Bay.

The early 1970s was a challenging period economically for many industries and launching a motor home factory and selling enough to stay in business was no easy feat. The country was hit by an oil crisis in October 1973, when members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) established an oil embargo. This embargo hit the U.S. particularly hard, raising fuel prices and resulting in significant changes to fuel economy standards in automobiles. Additionally, the U.S. stock market was rocked by a crash in 1973-74, when stock values were eroded by approximately 40 percent, furthering the country’s economic malaise. Compounding problems was the increase in interest rates in the 1970s. The rate for borrowing money rose past 20 percent, making loans unaffordable for many and causing many businesses to founder. Another oil crisis in 1979 didn’t help matters any.

However, some very key principles in the operation of his business helped Bob Tiffin weather the storms and keep Allegro on the road. According to the company’s history, Tiffin Motor Homes was guided by these goals: “Build it well. Make it better. Back it with good service. Treat customers the way they would want to be treated. Always answer the phone.”

The rest, to use a cliche, is history. The company has seen good times and bad – the bad primarily due to the U.S. economic fallout after the terrorist attacks on the country on September 11, 2001 and then again with the skyrocketing of fuel prices and a massive drop in the stock market and the economy in 2008. The issues that have caused the company hardship through the years have been external and economic, completely out of control of the Tiffin family. The argument could be made that the level of customer service and loyalty, as well as the lengths to which Tiffin Motor Homes has gone to ensure product quality, are what have built the foundation of a company in a small town in northwest Alabama and maintained it through thick and thin.

They don’t look like that anymore

Through the years the look, size and amenities of the motor homes have changed dramatically. The early motor homes were not much bigger than travel trailers themselves. An example of an early Allegro Motor Home sits beside the visitor’s center at the company’s headquarters in Red Bay. One peek inside this model lets one know really quickly just how much things have changed in 44 years.

Avocado shag carpet. Wood paneling. Those are the first details that leap out to those seeing the interior of the early model on display. In all fairness, these interiors reflect the tastes of the period in which they were built. And in their day, they were among the very best.

A funny thing happens when you build a quality product and keep it fresh, adapting for the times. It stays relevant, desirable even if it’s done well. In the case of Tiffin Motorhomes, time has proved this. Since its founding more than 60,000 motor homes have rolled out of Tiffin Motorhomes and the company has expanded to additional factory space just a few miles down the road in Belmont, Miss. It is the largest employer in both Red Bay and Belmont, and the future looks bright for the company.

Bob Tiffin’s dream against the odds in the early 1970s, to build motor homes in a converted cotton warehouse, and his perseverance to succeed is no doubt one of the greatest American success stories. Its fortunes helped carry this community through other manufacturing sector losses, such as in textiles.

The real winner in this story, actually, is the surrounding community. The early railroad launched Red Bay. Tiffin Motor Homes has kept the community “Roughing It Smoothly.”