The Rhapsody 900, built by Country Coach in Junction City, is 45 feet long, 13 feet, 6 inches tall. It weighs 53,000 lbs. and has a fuel capacity of 211 gallons. - AP

You CAN take it with you

JUNCTION CITY — What do you call a $1.3 million motor coach so powerful it can burn rubber, so luxurious it features two bathrooms, so over-the-top it boasts no fewer than four flat-screen televisions and two home-theater systems?

You could call it Extravagant or Audacious or Conspicuous Consumption. Country Coach, the Junction City motor home builder that makes this vehicle, picked Rhapsody. As in: The enthusiastic expression of joy; a state of elated bliss; ecstasy.

Whether a 53,000-pound, diesel-powered land yacht can elevate a person to a state of elated bliss is an open question. But there's no doubt the Rhapsody represents Country Coach's boldest bid to live up to the promise of its slogan: "The world's finest motor coaches."

In the Rhapsody, Country Coach is offering a combination of "extreme performance" and "ultimate luxury," marketing director Matt Howard said.

"This is a product for somebody who lives a life without compromise," he said. "It sounds trite, but it's true."

The Rhapsody 900 is for people who don't blink at price tags with two commas. And in the early going, it appears there's no shortage of big boys who like big toys — NASCAR drivers, professional golfers, hedge fund managers, retired entrepreneurs — willing to pony up seven figures in hopes of attaining Rhapsody.

Country Coach spent more than two years and $2 million on research and development to build the Rhapsody, Howard said, and the company is confident that the demand will outstrip production.

A New Jersey dealer sold the first Rhapsody in April. The second production model is on a dealer's lot in Florida. The third one is under construction and will be on the market by next month. The waiting list is already up to nine, Howard said.

The Rhapsody story began in September 2004, when Country Coach CEO Jay Howard laid down a challenge to his designers and engineers: "Build me a motor home that is better than anything out there on the market. Give me the best."

At the time, Country Coach was a subsidiary of National R.V. Holdings Inc. The Perris, Calif., company was in the midst of a serious losing streak that continues, posting red ink in 18 of the past 22 quarters. In February, National R.V. sold Country Coach to a group of investors led by Los Angeles investment banker Bryant Riley for $38.75 million cash and the assumption of $13 million in debt.

The Country Coach division, though, was profitable, which Howard said made it possible to sell the Rhapsody project to his corporate overseers.

"The numbers are so compelling and the market potential so compelling the board couldn't tell me no," he said.

What Howard saw was a gap in Country Coach's offerings and a market opportunity. The company's most luxurious motor home, the Affinity, has a list price of $870,000. Its Prevost bus conversions sell for $1.45 million to $1.6 million. Howard figured the brand needed a model somewhere in between.

With his marching orders from Howard, Gary Obermire, senior vice president for operations and the man in charge of the project, gathered his engineers and designers and went to work. The "blank sheet of paper" directive, Obermire said, is "an engineer's delight."

Exterior designers looked for ways to make the outside of the coach look good. Taking styling cues from automotive design, they created body lines that carry for the 45-foot length of the vehicle.

Another team worked on the interior of the vehicle, striving to create something distinct and luxurious within the confines of a 45-foot-long, 8.5-foot-wide, 7-foot-tall box.

Inside the coach, designers tried to create the same kinds of amenities as a luxury home, Obermire said. A key piece was installation of a Crestron system, which allows the Rhapsody owner to control audio-visual systems and other electronics, heating and air-conditioning, shades and lighting from a hand-held touch screen.

Instead of the standard wood cabinets with raised panels, designers went for sleek, European-style cabinets with automotive-like paint. Four slide-out rooms expand the interior space when the Rhapsody is at rest.

The designers created a master suite with a full bath in the back of the coach, with a guest bath in the main compartment.

Perhaps the biggest challenge was finding the right power train. Engineers went looking for the biggest, most powerful diesel engine they could find, and settled on a Caterpillar C-15 that generates 625 horsepower and a whopping 2,050 foot-pounds of torque.

"Torque is what the driver feels as they step on the gas and go back in their seat," Obermire said.

But to get all that power to the wheels, the engineers needed to mate the engine to an equally mighty transmission. And at the time, no transmission existed that could do that.

Caterpillar made a beefy transmission to get its 150-ton dump trucks up 30 percent mountain grades, but it was made of cast iron and weighed too much to put in an RV, Howard said.

So Country Coach struck a deal with Caterpillar to jointly develop a similarly powerful eight-speed automatic transmission with a lighter cast aluminium housing.

The result: a power train that can spin the tires on a 53,000-pound coach, that powers up hills with no hesitation, and that exceeded 100 mph on a test track, according to Jay Howard.

"We may go for an RV land speed record," he said in all seriousness.

By September 2005, the engineers and designers began extensive testing and engineering to make sure the various systems would work together and hold up under daily use.

In March 2006, workers began fabricating the first Rhapsody.

The chassis and exterior fiberglass shell of the Rhapsody was built at Country Coach's main plant in Junction City, then driven over to the nearby Prevost bus conversion plant.

Five months later, in August 2006, the Rhapsody was ready for road testing. Crews took it to the GM Desert Proving Grounds in Mesa, Ariz., for three grueling weeks, checking all the systems — engine-cooling, transmission, brakes, suspension and the steerable axle as well as overall durability — to find out, as Obermire said, "Is anything going to fall apart?"

After more work and fine-tuning in Eugene, the Rhapsody was ready for its coming out party: the Bass Pro Shops 500 NASCAR race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in October 2006.

To get it there from Oregon, a Country Coach engineer and a Cat engineer drove it cross country, stopping only for fuel, testing it all the while. In Atlanta, County Coach officials parked the Rhapsody and showed it off to dealers and NASCAR drivers.

Country Coach plans to ramp up production and eventually build about 20 Rhapsodies a year, Matt Howard said. It could, but won't, build many more than that, because "we want to make sure it's the world's finest coach," he said.

Given the early demand, Jay Howard said he's confident that the Rhapsody will do well.

"It would have to be a huge disaster to do us, or me, in," he said. "It's a risky business. If you're not risk-tolerant, you don't belong in the RV industry."

Share This Story