Over the past century, the RV industry has grown exponentially! Modern RV’s come in all types, shapes and sizes to fit all types of camping lifestyles, but how did we get to that point? Review the evolution of RV’s below to see where and how it all began.
Before automobiles were invented, RV’s were simply horse drawn carriages, used primarily as a curious form of personal transportation for those who lived life on the road, like circus performers and gypsies.
It is believed that ancient “ambulance wagons” may have also helped inspire the first future RV. Developed before and during Europe’s Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800’s, they were simple, lightweight wooden boxes build on wheels, meant to accommodate wounded soldiers and transport them to medical assistance.
During the American Civil War beginning in 1861, the new ambulance wagons were improved with suspension for smoother transportation, folding benches to treat injured patients, cabinets for medical supplies, and even attachable awnings, all features that are found in the modern RV today.
In mid to late nineteenth century eastern Europe was crowded with immigrants, limiting the waste and sewage systems, and leading to a surge of Tuberculosis. The only prescribed “cure” from doctors was to spend more time out in fresh air, and so thousands of “lungers” headed west in attempt to escape the disease. Most travelled in converted ambulance wagons, leading to a growth in new inventions and ideas that were later incorporated into the early RV design.
1885 – Britain’s Gentleman Gypsies
As the 1800’s progressed into the 1900’s, “recreation” slowly became a new social concept. Before, nobody could afford free time away from work, but times were changing. The industrial revolution lead to a massive increase of population within cities and factories, and disease and sickness prospered. Those who had the money and privilege, moved away from the city to the countryside, and rural skills such as carpentry, blacksmithing, woodworking, and many others were being lost as workers became urbanized.
Dr. Gordon Stables was the first gentleman gypsy. He completed his first caravan, the Wanderer, in 1885, and wrote books about his adventures around Britain that sparked the interest of thousands of readers. In these changing times, the gentleman gypsies aimed to retain traditional skills by commissioning caravans built by traditional carriage builders, and they hired unemployed people to cook, clean, and care for the horses who pulled the wagons.
Although these were among the first real “RV’s”, the caravans were incredibly heavy and difficult to maneuver. The first purpose built RV made in the USA came in 1889, and was a bit more lightweight. Alonzo J McMaster from New York City patented his McMaster Camping Car, and two of them were hired out by camping concession holders at Yellowstone National Park.
1896 – France Builds The First Steam Powered RV’s
Fueled by his fear of France getting invaded by land, Emperor Napoleon had an extensive network of high quality roads developed. These roads were wide, and built for heavy military equipment. By late nineteenth century France had one of the best road systems in the world, as well as an extensive river and canal network. As a world leader in transport technology, the French government supported road races for “horseless carriages”, with engineers competing for prizes and public attention. Steam engines were heavy, relied on a constant water source and coal, but they did deliver the maximum torque from a standing start. There were very few that were built to completion, and they were mainly used by Royalty or rich tourists. They weighed up to 10 tons, and had to follow reads along rivers and canals so that the steam boilers could be refilled. Passengers travelled in a separate coach behind the steam tractor to reduce the risk of injury if the steam engine exploded.
Pierce Arrow Touring Landau
Built by luxury automobile maker Pace-Arrow, the Touring Landau made its debut at the Madison Square Garden Automobile show in 1910, and is considered to be the first ever production “motorhome RV.” It could seat 7 people, the rear seats folded down into a bed, and there is even a fold down sink and chamber pot, making it the first ever vehicle to have a toilet on board.
The Gypsy Van is considered the first ever motorized “motorhome” to embark on an extended trip across America. Roland R Conklin was a wealthy man who owned Roland Conklin Gas-Electric Motor Bus Company, and he had a desire to show the world that the country would benefit from motor coaches and improved infrastructure. With this goal in mind he built the 8 ton, 25 foot long Gypsy Van, and embarked on a 5,000 mile journey over 3 months from New York to San Francisco.
The Gypsy Van
Conklin modified a three ton Packard truck to create the Gypsy Van. He designed the lower level to include multiple rooms, starting with the rear kitchen that included an ice box, large enough to hold supplies for 8 people up to one full week. There was a folding sink, burner and oven, pantry, and the dining table, hanging from the ceiling, could be lowered for meals. Two water tanks on the roof allowed for a working bath including a porcelain sink and a shower with hot and cold water. Passengers could even enjoy filtered water, designed to first pass through the icebox. 8 people could sleep in the bunk beds, and you could seat 17 passengers! Each bunk included privacy curtains, individual lighting, and a wardrobe. The wooden staircase that lead up to the roof deck could be converted into a cards table, and behind the bookshelf was a retractable writing station. The upper deck included a small vegetable garden and a cover, so guests could even sleep up here too!
The road trip party included Roland Conklin himself, his wife and their two children, two nephews and a friend, a governess, cook, chauffeur, and mechanic. Their travels were documented heavily in the New York Times, as well as other Newspapers across the country. The attention from readers came at the perfect time, because as the automobile industry began to grow, people began to see the appeal of hitching up to an “RV” and hitting the open road.
1916 – The First Fifth Wheel
Blacksmiths designed the first Fifth Wheel hitch in the 1850’s. This hitch helped loggers and heavy transport drivers maneuver rough terrain, and make tight turns without having to unhitch horses from the wagons. Later, in 1916, the Freuhauf company patented a floating fifth wheel hitch that helped commercial trucks haul heavy loads.
Aircraft engineer Glenn Curtiss designed the first fifth wheel “RV” in 1917, when he realized he could use an airplane tire mounted horizontally on the back bumper of his car as the base for his fifth wheel hitch. In 1928 Curtiss improved his design with the Curtiss Aerocar, but he had a goal of keeping 5th wheel camping exclusively for the wealthy, so Aerocar prices began at $3,500, while Travel Trailers were priced from $300 – $800.
1920’s and 1930’s
The Great Depression lead to an increase of people living in their cars, and travelling more. Manufactures started to product Tent Trailers beginning in 1910, because small and lightweight was what everybody wanted in an RV! In 1929, Airstream founder Wally Byam redesigned his personal leaky tent trailer into a permanent teardrop travel trailer complete with a stove and ice chest! By 1931, the first Airstream factory was opened in Culver City, California, and Airstream began to pave its way in the RV industry.
Along with Airstreams Wally Byam, Detroit bacteriologist Arthur G Sherman has also earned credit for the early design of the Travel Trailer with his “Covered Wagon” design. Sherman rented out a garage and hired carpenters to create a wooden trailer that included the comforts of home, and the first prototype was shown at the Detroit Auto Show in January 1930. In its first year of production, 117 trailers were sold, and despite the hardships of the Great Depression sales continued to grow. By 1934 an additional production line was opened to keep up with demand, and by 1936 1000 units were being produced per month! The company introduced the use of electric brakes as standard on their trailers, and created a new, more weatherproof exterior covering called Shermanite. As the bestselling trailer in America in 1936, this marked the end of the Tent Trailer era.
1940’s – RV Manufacturers Aid World War II
World War II impacted the RV industry dramatically. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, aluminum became very difficult to find, and the government ordered that travel trailers could only be made as part of the war effort. Airstream production stopped for the duration of the war, and Airstream crew members found employment in various aircraft factories across California during this time. The experience of working with military planes inspired and improved the engineering of future Airstream design.
Motorhome producers supported the war by providing coaches that were used for prisoner transportation, mobile hospitals, or even morgues. In 1942, the US Military purchased thousands of the “Palace Expando” model trailers to house newly enlisted military men and their families.
1950’s and 1960’s
Up until this point, RV trailers were small and lightweight, and RV motorhomes where massive, heavy, and only affordable to the wealthy. However, by the 1950’s the industry had grown enough that many big name manufacturers we love today had started production. RV’s from this decade suddenly included bathrooms, refrigeration, plumbing, more space and household appliances! Soldiers coming back from the war were eager to travel with their young families, and RVing was a cheap way to do it!
1952 Executive Flagship
William MacDonald and Peter Kohler set out to build “the most exciting mobile home” in the world, and thus the “Executive Flagship” was born. At 65 feet long, it weighed 18 tons and was built on 10 wheels! It included wall to wall carpeting, a stocked bar, air conditioning, a wine cellar, 3 elephant guns, a rooftop platform with a helicopter pad, and even a 6ft deep pool complete with a diving board! It retailed for about $75,000 and although they never did sell one, the original did earn lots of attention, and successfully got more people interested in RVing.
As the passion for camping and RVing grew, new design ideas were incorporated into construction. It was in the 60’s when “Thermo-Panel” wall insulation was invented, a design that is still used today! By 1965, most major automotive manufactures offered tow packages on their vehicles, and manufactures were able to build bigger, more luxurious towables thanks to more powerful tow vehicles.
In the early 1960’s, motorhomes were expensive and primarily used by the wealthy. This all changed in 1966, when Winnebago rolled out the F-19 motorhome retailing at about $5000. Advertised as “America’s first family of motorhomes” Winnebago was the first to produce affordable motorhomes that the average person could enjoy. By the end of the 60’s, Winnebago was the number one manufacture of Travel Trailers and Motorhomes.
1970’s and 1980’s
The American gas crisis of the 1970’s forced the RV industry to make some changes. As fuel became expensive and very limited, gas guzzling big block V8 engines that were previously put into motorhomes were no longer sensible to own. Instead, people started to show interest in more fuel efficient 4 and 6 cylinder engines made by Japanese companies like Toyota and Honda.
Travel Trailer owners started to return to the old ways, with Tent Trailers gaining popularity once again for their ultra lightweight.
In 1972, David Rowe created a lift system that created the first “pop top” truck camper, designed to be expanded for more space while camping, or put down to be more aerodynamic for travelling.
In 1980 Wade Thompson and Peter Orthwein formed Thor Industries, and acquired Airstream. The association continues to this day, over 30 years later.
Canada played a big role in the introduction of Class B motorhomes, beginning with Jac Henemaayer, a Dutch immigrant who lived in Ontario. He built his campervan in a 1974 Dodge Ram, and began Roadtrek. In 1986 Saskatchewan,
Merv Rumpel set up an independent shop and begin building Pleasure-Way Campervans, creating the first 10 models from the Dodge Ram.
Along with the start of Class B’s, Toy Haulers also started to become popular throughout the 70’s and 80’s!
1990’s – Present!
In 1990, Mahlon Miller, owner of Newmar, produced their first two Class A Motorhomes, the Dutch Star and the Mountain Aire. Miller had previously included slides on Newmar fifth wheels, but he was the first to include them on a Class A.
Newmar was the only company to include slide outs on a Class A motorhome for three years, but by the mid 1990’s, other manufactures caught on and started to follow Newmar’s lead.
The early 2000’s brought new designs and innovative ideas to the industry, including the invention of a more lightweight, durable, environmentally friendly composite material called Azdel in 2006. Produced using a patented blend of polypropylene and fiberglass to create a technologically superior wall that extends the RV’s life, building RVs with this material created much lighter RVs that helped lower fuel costs.
The 2008 financial crisis changed everything once again by forcing big name manufactures to close their doors, or merge for stability under new company names.
The next big impact to the industry happened in 2020, with the beginning of Covid-19 and a worldwide pandemic. “Social distancing” became strongly encouraged, and air travel and country boarders shut down entirely, causing everyone who didn’t yet own an RV to suddenly have an interest in camping. Many national parks reported record visitation numbers throughout 2020 and 2021, and manufactures could hardly keep up with the demand for new RVs!
Each year RV designs continue to become more and more luxurious and enjoyable. The internet and social media allows manufactures to experiment and design amazing new features, and engage with consumers for their feedback, as well as stir up sales. Campers #RVlife Instagram hashtags even contribute to the growing RV community! Technology has overtaken the ancient design of older style RV’s, but it is still important to look back at the past and learn about the legends who built the industry into what it is today.
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