If you missed your chance to buy a Bowlus travel trailer when the last one rolled off the line in 1936, don’t worry. After more than 75 years, the Bowlus Road Chief is back.
Like the 1930s model, the new Road Chief has a streamline moderne design and riveted aluminum construction, but it is longer and higher and has all the modern luxuries and gadgets.
William Hawley Bowlus, whose background was in aviation, invented the trailer design that people associate with Airstream. While working in 1927 at Ryan Airlines in San Diego, Bowlus led the crew that built the Spirit of St. Louis, the plane that carried Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic. Later he became a designer of high-performance sailplanes. When he wanted a travel trailer for his sailplane outings, he used his aviation design knowledge to create an aerodynamic aluminum trailer in 1934. He and an investor formed the Bowlus-Teller Manufacturing Company and built trailers in San Fernando, California, in 1935 and 1936.
Bowlus trailers were glittering and inventive, but the country was in the Great Depression, the trailers were expensive for their time (up to $7,500), and the company went bankrupt. Another entrepreneur, Wallace (Wally) Byam, saw the value of the Bowlus design and built his own version that he popularized as the Airstream.
Bringing It Back
Now John Long, a Canadian technology entrepreneur, and his wife, Heléna Mitchell, have come along to revive the Bowlus brand with a new travel trailer that updates the original.
The Bowlus Road Chief was the first trailer to use monocoque construction, integrating the body and frame in one unit. Its low weight, narrow body and tapered rear were key components of its advanced aerodynamic design.
For his new version, Long kept the aerodynamic features. The exterior looks much like the Road Chief of the 1930s. Air conditioning has been added but the unit is not on the roof, but concealed to maintain aerodynamic flow.
An oddity of the Bowlus design was the placement of the door at the front of the trailer instead of the side. Long has kept that element, too, for aerodynamic reasons, but also because it is surprisingly practical. It is much easier to carry something big like a kayak straight through the front door, instead of angling it through a side door, Long said.
The new Road Chief is built with aluminum alloy 2024, the strong but lightweight material used in airplanes. A thin outer layer of aluminum provides a gleaming polished look. Construction requires 5,000 rivets, and they are put together by hand. The intensive labor and the high cost of aluminum alloy 2024 are among the reasons the new Road Chief is priced at $100,000.
Long said the old Road Chief was a high-end luxury trailer, and that’s true of the new version, too. His goal is to maintain “the spirit of the original,” but adapt it to today’s needs.
The original had a two-burner stove, an icebox, a water tank and a telephone system that connected the trailer with the car pulling it. The new one has LED lighting, radiant heating on the floor, air conditioning, a ventilation system, Chilewich flooring, a modern kitchen, a cassette toilet, solar panels, indoor/outdoor showers, and accommodations for all of today’s electronics.
The furnishings are more durable than those found in the original, and the interior height, which was six feet in the original, has been raised by Long to accommodate RVers like his 6-foot-three son, Erik. People today are heavier, taller and more active than they were in the 1930s, Long said, so the original interior “wouldn’t really stand up to modern use.”
The new Road Chief is nearly 24 feet long, but is designed so that you can remove the hitch and rear bumper to make it short enough to store in a typical garage. Long said he is making it convenient to hitch up the trailer on a whim for an impromptu excursion without having to retrieve the trailer from a storage yard. The new Bowlus weighs about 2,000 pounds, making it light enough to be towed by nearly any automobile with a hitch.
Long, who collects antique automobiles, said his fascination with Bowlus trailers began when his brother sent him photos of vintage cars paired with vintage trailers. He acquired a 1935 Bowlus Road Chief that was in poor shape, and spent a decade restoring it. In the process, he learned enough about Bowlus trailers to write a book.
When he finished the restoration, Long and his wife took their Road Chief to the Palm Springs Modernism Show and were surprised by the reception. “I was blown away by how many people were interested in the Bowlus,” he said.
Building a Business
The couple had been looking for a company to invest in, but the extraordinary interest in their restored Road Chief led them to form their own company to build an updated version of the classic design. They acquired the rights to the Bowlus Road Chief name, which had never been trademarked. They are building the first Road Chiefs in Toronto, but plan to start building them in Oxnard, California.
Is there a market for an updated version of a 1935 travel trailer, even one as futuristic as the Road Chief?
Long knows it will be a small niche of the market, likening this venture to the Lotus sports car that has found a small, but dedicated, following in a market dominated by automotive giants. “We’re no threat to Elkhart,” Long said.
The company won’t disclose how many trailers it intends to build this year, but orders are being filled, and Long said, “We’ve had a great response.”
You can find out more about the new Road Chief at bowlusroadchief.com.
Write to Mike Ward, editor at RV Life magazine, 18717 76th Avenue West, Suite B, Lynnwood, WA 98037 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Find First Glance online at rvlife.com.