Travel bugs are hitting the road these days, finding the conveniences—and safety—of home in an RV purchase or rental. Sarasotans Danee and Bob Barnett were ahead of the trend when, two years ago, they took on a restoration project: a 1948 classic Marmon-Herrington motorcoach. And there’s a story here.
Way back in 1983, Bob spotted the turquoise-and-chrome coach at Marina Jack while the couple were living on a vintage Chris-Craft sailboat. The original owner, Ed Martell, welcomed Bob aboard for a beer and a tour. Bob learned that in the late ’50s, Custom Coach Corporation in Columbus, Ohio, converted city transit buses into motorhomes, with prices starting at $15,000.
It’s safe to say that Martell was obsessed with an all-out customization of the coach. Rooftop solar panels were installed to power the electrical system, which allows the bus to go off the RV campsite grid if desired—no need to plan a stop to plug-in and recharge. But Martell also wanted it to shine; he outfitted anything he could with chrome and stainless steel—even the engine—from inside to out, earning him the nickname “Chrome Kid” from the Family Motor Coaching Association.
That was the last Bob and Danee saw of that gleaming coach until a chance encounter 35 years later. In July 2018, they hired a diver to conduct routine maintenance on the hull of their boat. Bob struck up a conversation with the diver, whose last name happens to be Martell, telling him about a man with the same surname who owned the coolest motorhome he had ever seen. Turned out, the diver’s uncle inherited that coach, and it had been sitting, unattended, in a Sarasota driveway for nearly 15 years.
Bob set off to see it immediately. “I was completely surprised that it didn’t run. The motor was taken apart and the chrome was corroded, but I saw the potential in the raw bones of it all,” he says. “Plus, Martell had stockpiled enough backup parts that I could have built another bus entirely.”
Later that same day, Bob told Danee, “You won’t believe what I found.” For $10,000, and with Danee’s resounding approval, the vintage coach was their new old toy. (“We had to buy it,” Danee says. “How could I say ‘no?’ My husband was like a kid in a candy shop.”)
Their passion project took four hours every day for a year, plus an additional $15,000 investment. Bob, with the help of a friend from time to time, rebuilt the motorhome from bumper to bumper. Suspension, transmission, brakes, electrical, windows and beyond; it has been fully and lovingly restored to its vintage grandeur. Everything is original, except for the period-inspired upholstered cushions and curtains. And that chrome? It shines like the day Martell drove it off the lot more than 70 years ago.
Danee and Bob are planning an inaugural journey to Cross Creek, inspired by her favorite book and movie, The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Many say this enchanting Old Florida setting, 10 miles north of Ocala, has stopped in time. Sounds just right.