Updating American RV History – Part Two

by Andrew Woodmansey

Part Two – Not Always The First

An online search for the ‘first RV’ often directs us to a number of North American motorised vehicles, with the Pierce-Arrow Touring Landau of 1910 being a particular favorite. Although there is no doubt that North America was great at adapting RVs to local conditions and customer needs, most kinds of RVs were first developed elsewhere.

In Part One of this blog, we discovered that North America’s first, purpose-built RV was (as far as we currently know) the horse-drawn McMaster Camping Car of 1889. This came five years after The Wanderer, the English purpose-built caravan of Scotsman Dr. Gordon Stables.

The first person to conceive of a leisure trailer or caravan towed by a motorised vehicle was French automobile pioneer Émile Levassor in 1895. We don’t yet know if the trailer was ever built, but the concept was described in detail by a French newspaper of the time.

The first powered RV was also from France, but it may surprise a few to learn that it was steam-driven. It was a carriage and steam tractor combination built in Paris for Russian Prince Oldenburg in 1896. Also from France came the first steam-powered motorhome in 1900 (the Quo Vadis) and the first gasoline-powered motorhome in 1902 (the Passe Partout).

The first steam-powered motorhome, the Quo Vadis, in North Africa (1900, courtesy Gallica)

As we can see the Pierce-Arrow Touring Landau of 1910 was not “the first RV” – it was not even the first motorised RV in North America. A similar vehicle was built by Welch in 1909 and the touring landau concept was invented by the French company De Dietrich in 1904. Well before the Pierce-Arrow we find records of ‘camp cars’ used for hunting purposes in the USA from about 1904.

And whilst inventive genius Glenn H. Curtiss should be credited with many things, the first recreational fifth wheeler is not among them. Curtiss built a prototype Pullman fifth wheeler in about 1918, but Belgian motor vehicle manufacturers Auto Mixte Pescatore built an Auto Salon Deluxe for Baron Crawhez five years earlier in 1913. Its fifth wheel roots came from an earlier commercial trailer concept made by the same company.

When it comes to American firsts, there is little doubt that the USA pioneered the use of tent trailers from about 1911 and folding camping car concepts from about 1915. We know that Glenn Curtiss, Hawley Bowlus and Wally Byam perfected the use of lightweight aircraft materials and construction techniques in RVs from 1928 onwards, but we should also recognise the much earlier contributions in the field of aircraft-inspired RVs made by Frenchman Charles Louvet from about 1923 onwards.

Charles Louvet’s motorhome Carling Home No. 2 (France, 1923-5, courtesy Gilles Fillaud)

We also know that California was the birthplace of the teardrop trailer in or shortly before 1936. Whilst a few RV historians in France may quibble with this claim, we haven’t yet seen any evidence of a French teardrop (in the conventional sense of the word) before that date.

So when we now talk about the first of anything in the RV world, we should probably exercise care to qualify those claims with definitions and locations. A list of RV firsts as well as the story of the first fifth wheeler, the RVs of Charles Louvet and the predecessors of the Pierce Arrow Touring Landau can be found at rvhistory.com.

In the third and final blog of this series we shall explore the main RV design movements of the early 1900s and how they came to shape the RVs of today.

Andrew Woodmansey is the Australian-based author of a new book on the early history of RVs called Recreational Vehicles: A World History 1872-1939 available to purchase in all good bookshops both online and in the real world. He also has a blog at rvhistory.com.

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