When we last left our hero, Hawley Bowlus was an innovator in trailer traveling in the mid-1930s, and building his Road Chiefs using the most advanced technology and materials available.
His trailers were a monocoque design, that “nobody had ever heard of it unless you were an aircraft manufacturer,” said John Long, President of Bowlus Road Chief LLC. Long towed his prototype reimagined Road Chief to Alumafandango 2016 where he presented a seminar on the history of Bowlus—the precursor to the modern aluminum Airstream.
“Monocoque means that the outer skin held all the weight of the trailer with a frame on the inside to form its shape,” Long explained. Bowlus used strong aluminum, riveted together using aircraft rivets and “aircraft spacing,” said Long. “Where the panels are riveted together is as strong as the panel itself.”
Unlike the traditional trailers of the time that were 16 feet long and weighed about a ton, Bowlus’ aerodynamic invention was 23 feet long and weighed in at only 1100 pounds. “This is absolutely insane,” said Long. “Of course, that was very labor intensive—and really, really expensive; twice the price of a 1934 V8 Ford. It wasn’t a great time to make a high-end trailer, in the the middle of the depression.”
It came equipped with a telephone that was patched to a phone in the tow vehicle. “People at that time rode in the trailers while traveling down the road!” said Long. “The wife would be cooking inside the Bowlus trailer, and telephone the driver, ‘time for lunch’. And he’d pull off to the side and they’d eat. This was normal for those days.”
A “Jones plug” connected the telephone, radio, car battery, and lights. It came with newly-invented electric brakes and it was self-contained with water tanks, stove, ice box, and running water. “I mean, this was the top of the top,” said Long. “And it had a price to go with it. Nowadays, we don’t think this is very expensive, but Hawley’s wife Ruth said at the selling price of $1100 it cost ‘a buck a pound’. That kind of money could almost buy you a brand-new house—or two Pierce arrow trailers. It’s kind of crazy that they sold so many of them during the depression.” (It’s estimated that Bowlus produced around 80 travel trailers of various designs in the mid-1930s before giving up and returning to the aircraft industry.) To market his trailers Bowlus had a large presence at the San Diego Pacific auto show, where it’s believed that Wally Byam—founder of Airstream, Inc.—began his association with Bowlus.
Byam began producing a very Bowlus-y aluminum trailer as the new 1936 Airstream Clipper—it was the same size, with the same framing concept and monocoque design, with a few changes: the panel layout and frame were different, and windows of the Clipper could roll down, like a car. “It wasn’t a duplicate; there were some modifications,” said Long. “But it was very, very close. Call the Clipper ‘inspired by’ Bowlus.”
The vintage Bowlus and the modern version being produced today are virtually identical cousins on the exterior, and both reflect the Streamline Moderne style of American architecture and industrial design typified by the work of Henry Dreyfuss and Raymond Loewy. The curved forms, teardrop shapes, long horizontal lines, polished surfaces, and nautical details like portholes and oval windows suggest motion and speed.
Vintage Bowlus trailers “are real collectors items,” said Long—who mentioned that one recently sold at auction for $187,000. The modern version of the Bowlus “keeps the same kind of idea behind it”—and it comes with a similar price tag as a vintage model.
“It’s extremely streamlined, extremely lightweight, with extremely advanced technology. And you could pull it with virtually anything,” said Long, who tows his prototype behind a Land Rover Evoque convertible. The new Bowlus retains the original monocoque design and is crafted using strong 2024 aluminum, aircraft-grade rivets, and lightweight, hardened polycarbonate glass for the windows. During his Alumafandango seminar, Long dispelled a popular misconception about the front-rounded shape of silver trailers, which seems counterintuitive to their ability to glide firmly down the highway.
“It’s the low center of gravity that allows for the phenomenal aerodynamics,” he said. “The Bowlus is actually lower than other trailers, and it’s the air coming off the back end that creates the drag. How the wind leaves the trailer, not how it hits on the front, is the most important part.” Anti-sway bars and equalization hitches are unnecessary. “It takes about one minute to hitch it up,” said Long.
The new Bowlus weighs 2300 pounds and comes equipped with luxuries like heated flooring, built-in inverter and device charging station, a cell booster, and real wood finishes. The even-spendier (and slightly heavier) Lithium+ model—the world’s first lithium powered travel trailer—is a boondocker’s dream. The system, “a combination of high capacity batteries, lithium batteries, and the very efficient appliances,” supplies 12 V and 120 V throughout the trailer and powers the air conditioner and microwave as well. “You can actually go off-grid for a week without solar,” claims Long. “If you want to add solar, it’s almost indefinite.” The first lithium Road Chief was sold to a Tesla X owner, creating an all-battery powered rig that can be daisychained together and recharged overnight at campsites.
Long also owns a vintage 1935 Bowlus that he’s towed across the country four times (using a Saab convertible). His daughter Geneva, inspired by its technology and potential, had the idea to remanufacture Hawley’s trailers. “She studied business at Wharton,” explained Long. “We had always been entrepreneurs and she picked up the bug. She said, ‘I think there’s a business model in building the Bowlus again’, and making them as advanced as they once were.”
“She’s just 26 years old and running the factory,” added Helena Mitchell, Chief Marketing Officer of Bowlus Road Chief LLC and Geneva’s mom. “It’s unusual, and also to be a woman in this business.” The technological aspects of the product resonates with the young founder. ”For her, life is connectivity,” said Mitchell. “You can’t be on the road without it and the devices that you’re accustomed to at that age.”
Unlike most RVs on the road, Bowlus has no television. “One of our customers is president of a major network and we thought, oh my gosh, he’s going to come in and notice there are no screens,” laughed Mitchell. “But he said that he just finished the largest study ever about how America watches TV, and the screen they’re watching now is handheld.”
It will surprise no one that Bowlus customers are affluent, but with a practical streak. “They are CEOs, some around 35 years old, many women, and some people are doing their version of full timing,” said Mitchell. “But often they’ve already looked at an Airstream and realized that they also had to buy a vehicle to tow it with. They’d have the same expenditure if they buy a Bowlus and just use the vehicle they already have.”
“We build these to last eighty years,” said Long. “So far, no owner has sold one. That’s a good sign for how much they love them.” Like Airstream trailers, “people see them as intergenerational. They want to leave the trailer to their kids,” said Long. “Younger owners see sustainability differently and they only want to buy one trailer and have it for a lifetime. I think we’re sort of right on the edge of how consumers are looking at how they live, and trying to live meaningful lives.”