The development of the motorized recreation vehicle.
By Al Hesselbart
One of the earliest motorized vehicles equipped for camping was called the Touring Landau, built by the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company beginning in 1910. This chauffeur-driven luxury auto included such deluxe camping appointments as a folding washbasin attached to the back of the front seat; a holding tank for fresh water; a toilet (chamber pot-style “” a predecessor to the portable potty) under one rear seat and a box containing a luncheon kit under the other side; storage boxes in place of the usual running boards; and a rear seat that could be folded down to make a bed.
These vehicles sold for $8,250 plus all accessories, at a time when the common Model T Ford could be purchased for well under $1,000. While these and similarly converted automobiles were not RVs in today’s sense, they demonstrate that the urge for motorized camping vehicles developed right along with the beginnings of the auto industry.
The earliest larger motorized “house cars” first appeared in the years following 1910 and were, for the most part, either homemade conversions of early passenger coaches or custom bodies made to replace the bolt-on passenger bodies on automobiles and early trucks. A few early units were custom-built from the ground up for the very wealthy. One of the first custom-made house cars was the Gypsy Van, built by Conklin’s Motor Bus Company. It was 25 feet long (a giant rig in the days prior to World War I), weighed more than eight tons, and was built on a custom bus chassis powered by a six-cylinder engine that produced 60 horsepower and used nine forward and three reverse gears. This behemoth traveled from upstate New York to the San Francisco World Exposition and back in 1915. Most of this round-trip journey had to be made on dirt roads and wagon paths, as paved roads were still a thing of the future outside of major cities.
In the 1920s, several manufacturers began to build special bodies that could be mounted on auto chassis to create house cars. A few of these were the Lamsteed Kampkar, the Wayne Touring Home, the Wiedman House Car, and the Zagelmeyer Kamper-Kar. These bodies were most often sold and shipped to the purchaser by rail to be mounted on Model T or other car chassis. Some were offered factory-assembled and mounted, and sold direct, often by mail order. The Wayne Touring Home featured a fold-down, tent-covered second bed that hung off the back of the body. When alcoholic beverage production was banned during Prohibition in the 1920s, the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company acquired the Lamsteed Company and built and sold Kampkar bodies. Having no dealer relationships, they advertised them for mail-order sales in Field & Stream and other outdoor magazines.
One well-known house car of the early 1930s was “The Ark,” built for W. K. Kellogg of cornflakes fame. Through the 1920s and 1930s, and into the late 1940s, most house cars continued to be built or converted on used bus chassis. Another one of these conversions, custom-built in 1930 by the Pullman Company, weighed more than 12 tons and pulled a Model T Ford as a “dinghy” for side trips.
In the years immediately following World War II, trailer manufacturers became attracted to the house car image, and many began to build what were truly motorized versions of their trailers. This changed the world of recreation vehicles nearly overnight. The future of the motorhome was assured, as many well-recognized trailer manufacturers began to make motorized versions of their products available, although still quite expensive. The design of post-war automobiles also eliminated the camp body manufacturers, as cars were no longer built with easily removable bodies.
In 1948 the Flxible Company, a leading bus manufacturer, began a division that made Land Cruiser custom coaches. This division was sold to Miles Elmers of Columbus, Ohio, in 1955 and renamed Custom Coach Corporation.
In 1950, Victor Coach, a trailer manufacturer in Bristol, Indiana, began buying bare rear-engine, pusher-style chassis from General Motors and building Victour motor coaches. These were probably the first factory-produced type A motorhomes, featuring a body and interior built by an RV manufacturer on what started as a bare factory chassis. These units were produced for both family and commercial use. In fact, legendary golfer Sam Snead used a custom commercial unit to display his signature brand of golf clubs for sale at the 1951 U.S. Open golf tournament.
The largest motorhome known was produced in the early 1950s for William MacDonald of the Mid States Corporation, an early RV and mobile home manufacturer. His “Flagship” was 65 feet long and articulated so that it could bend in the middle to navigate corners. It included a fold-out upper deck that doubled the width of the rear section. It also came equipped with a diving board to use with the included 4-foot-deep portable swimming pool, which could be set up behind the unit. The upper deck also could be used as a helicopter landing pad “” and it was on some promotional occasions. The company offered to build exact replicas of “The Flagship” in 1953 for $100,000 each; there were no known takers.
The modern era of motorized RVs began in 1961 when Ray Frank bought 100 Dodge truck chassis and began making the first assembly-line house cars. Mr. Frank originally called his creation the Frank Motor Home, but it shortly became known as the Dodge Motor Home and marked both the beginning of assembly-line production and the popularization of the term “motorhome” to describe what previously had been identified as a house car.
In the late 1950s and through the early 1960s, motorhomes became popular partly because they were not affected by the 45-mph speed limits to which autos pulling trailers were subjected on most highways. During that period, most motorhomes were still custom-made, quite expensive, and targeted at an exclusive customer base. But the introduction of the nationally available Dodge Motor Home, which originally was ordered directly from the factory and later through Dodge dealers ($10,900), and the mid-1960s assembly-line built Winnebago coaches ($5,995) revolutionized the industry and began the popularization of the motorhome to working families who could previously only dream of ownership. Leaders such as Mr. Frank and Winnebago Industries’ John K. Hanson proved that the American public would buy their smaller “cookie cutter” vehicles. It didn’t take long for sales of the production motorhome to rapidly outpace sales of the larger and much more expensive custom-made units that had been the industry standard for more than 30 years
Other unique motorhomes of the 1960s included the Ford Condor, which was a near copy of the Dodge/Travco unit; the Ultra-Van, built using the Chevrolet Corvair rear-engine, air-cooled drivetrain; and the Clark Cortez, a front-wheel-drive model built by the Clark Equipment Company, a forklift and heavy construction equipment manufacturer. Through the latter half of the 1960s, Winnebago, Life-Time, and Beechwood all continued to make multiple models that retailed for less than $10,000, assuring the continued success of the revolution that brought the motorhome into its place as a popular form of RVing. Between 1963 and 1973, the nation’s registered production of motorhomes exploded from approximately 200 units per year to more than 65,000 per year.
In the late 1950s, slide-in pickup truck campers began to grow in popularity as an alternative to trailers or motorhomes. The manufacturers of these units soon developed the cab-over bed as a feature to increase available space. Demand grew for larger and larger slide-in units. In the mid-1960s, truck camper manufacturers began to buy pickup trucks, remove the beds, and attach their larger units directly to the truck chassis. This allowed the back side of the cab to be removed, providing easy access from the driving compartment into the camper body. Some of these early units were extended so long that they required dolly wheels at the back bumper to keep the front end in contact with the highway upon acceleration. This led to the extension of the truck chassis to place the drive wheels where they were needed. In the 1970s, these chassis-mounted truck campers evolved onto the extended van chassis, becoming the type C motorhome of today.
Also in the late 1960s, van campers began to be produced on early passenger vans such as Chevrolet’s Corvair-based, rear-engine Greenbriar; the Ford Econoline; and the air-cooled, rear-engine Volkswagen Microbus. Ingenious owners who saw the opportunity to transform a passenger vehicle into a camper converted these early units at first. Later, the growing popularity led to conversion by contract to the manufacturer and availability through new car dealers. The beginning of this movement was led by the European factory conversions of Volkswagen units imported in the early 1960s. These comparatively miniature units grew in popularity and became identified as today’s type B motorhomes. The popularity of these conversions led to the dynamic passenger van conversion industry of the 1980s and early 1990s.
Although interest in motorhoming skyrocketed during the 1960s, the industry was brought back to earth in the 1970s. Astronomical interest rates and the oil shortages of 1972-1973 and 1978-1979 drove more than half of the motorhome manufacturers out of business. Fortunately, the RV industry grew out of the 1970s disaster and a new era in motorhomes dawned.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, more and more comforts found their way into what previously had been identified as camping vehicles. Multiple air conditioners became commonplace as generator power was an expected service in many motorhomes. Full-timing began to grow in popularity with the development of huge basement storage compartments, first popularized in type A Fleetwood Bounders in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This gave motorhome operators the luxury of space that previously had been available only to conversion coach owners.
When RVers began to spend more and more time on the road, demand for other creature comforts grew. Washer-dryer units began to appear as vehicles approached 40 feet in length. Soon, longer was not enough. Newmar Corporation introduced slideouts to add even more indoor living area to its motorized units. At first a living-dining space enhancement was a rarity, but then multiple slideouts began to appear, adding more bedroom and kitchen space and creating a fully equipped modern apartment on wheels.
By the end of the 1990s, few observers would mistake the current motorhome for camping equipment, and the 60-year-old tradition of referring to motorized RVs as campers had mostly disappeared. Motorhoming had completely come into its own as a lifestyle choice for both full-time and part-time practitioners who loved to travel, but did not require a wilderness destination for their trips.
The motorized RV has had a place in the automotive industry since its very earliest days. Whether today’s RV enthusiasts choose to travel in type B van conversions, type A or type C motorhomes, or large bus conversions, the convenience of driving a temporary (or full-time) apartment-like home to the next destination continues to feed their wanderlust as much now as it did during the early days of the automobile.
About the author: Al Hesselbart, former vice president of the RV/MH Heritage Foundation Hall of Fame, Museum, and Library, has eight years of experience developing and researching RV industry archives and writing and presenting articles and programs on industry history. He has authored articles in many trade magazines and has been covered in newspapers and magazines. He also has appeared on cable TV programs from coast to coast as an authority on RV industry history.