Updating American RV History – Part Three

by Andrew Woodmansey

Part Three – Early RV Design Trends

Three early North American RVs to feature strongly in current histories of the North American RV include the Pierce-Arrow Touring Landau (1910), the ‘camping auto’ of Thomas Coleman du Pont (c1911) and the ‘gypsy van’ double-decker bus of Roland P. Conklin (1915). Their place in RV history is well deserved, but each was a highly specialised vehicle built for a specific purpose. They were not designed to introduce consumers to a new hobby and had limited influence over future RV design trends.

The Pierce-Arrow was built for millionaires to travel long distance between hotels (and there are reports than only 3 were ever built), the Du Pont Camping Auto was designed as a work vehicle to help Du Pont construct a new highway and the Conklin trip across America was a publicity stunt by a bus operator to highlight the poor road conditions of the time. All eye-catching certainly, but not trend-setting.

Du Pont’s Camping Auto (1911, courtesy US Library of Congress)

One of the biggest trend-setters in early RV design was the Ford Model T. Not because it was an RV, but because it was the first affordable automobile that could tow a tent trailer or be converted into a camping auto. Camping accessory makers, especially in the Detroit area,  offered trailers and camping equipment that made independent exploration of the new national parks affordable for the first time. Joel Silvey has an excellent website with details of early tent trailer makers at popupcamperhistory.com

The Four Vagabonds (Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and John Burroughs) further helped this trend along by promoting camping in the wilderness between 1915 and 1924, echoing ‘Murray’s Rush’ of 1869. Of course the Tin Can Tourists did likewise from 1919. New highways to the south allowed heavier and more luxurious housecars to be used for winter vacations, whilst more powerful tow vehicles ushered in the era of the large travel trailer from about 1930.

The Curtiss Aerocar, the Bowlus Road Chief and the silver Airstreams were design icons but not built for the masses. Let’s not forget that Wally Byam’s first Airstreams were simpler and more affordable Masonite affairs that formed part of the travel trailer boom in the early 1930s. It was Covered Wagon, Schult and about 400 others that saw the demand for large, appliance-laden travel trailers  offering both part- and full-time living accommodation for the millions on the move during The Great Depression. Roomy ‘toaster’-shaped trailers could also be used by traveling salesmen, boosting demand when leisure sales were slow. 

A self-built trailer (1935, courtesy US Library of Congress)

The other important RV movement of the 1930s was the self-built trailer. Trailer plans appears in their hundreds in magazines and a number of innovations in self-built trailers found their way into manufactured products. The self-built RV industry continues to keep manufacturers on their toes to this day. 

As we move into the next era of the RV, the electric era, it will be interesting to see if we will return to the days of smaller and lighter RVs that don’t impact the range of EV batteries in the same way that the current RV giants of the highway would. Perhaps before we look forwards, we should take a look back into RV history and ponder the inventions, designs and lifestyles of the past that may yet inspire the next generation of RV builders and users.

A picnic tender (from Motor magazine, December 1909). Will RVs ever be this small again?

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

3 comments

  1. Thank you, the history of trailers is so interesting. We have a 1949 Traveleer built in Hawthorne, California but we can’t find any information on the Traveleer Land Coach Company. If you have found anything on these trailers we would really appreciate hearing it.

  2. Your posts are Enlightening and Enjoyable! We’re having a wonderful time looking and learning. THANK YOU!

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