If you want a new RV, you will find plenty of options in this month’s issue. We showcase everything from modest travel trailers to lavish motorhomes, all making their debuts in 2011.
In selecting RVs for this issue, we try to highlight innovation, but as clever as manufacturers are today, there may be no RV quite as innovative as the Bowlus Road Chief was for its time in the 1930s. There aren’t many left, but you can buy a Road Chief—the world’s first riveted aluminum travel trailer and the forerunner to the Airstream—at Gooding and Company’s Scottsdale Auctions in Arizona January 21 and 22.
The 1935 Road Chief for sale is owned by Leo Keoshian, a retired hand surgeon who lives in Palo Alto, California. Keoshian has two Bowlus trailers: a rare Papoose model that he carefully restored over a five-year period, and the Road Chief, which he acquired five years ago from another early RV enthusiast, Tom Williams.
Keoshian, who also collects old race cars, other automobiles and antique farm equipment, won’t part with the Papoose, but he is putting the Road Chief up for sale for a simple reason: his collections are getting too large. “It takes a lot of room to store these things,” he said.
The trailer is the 30th Road Chief built by William Hawley Bowlus, an aviation pioneer who introduced aeronautical design to the trailer industry. Keoshian and Williams did some research and co-wrote a paper on “The Evolution of the Bowlus Travel Trailer” that provides some backgound on Bowlus and his company. Bowlus was a pilot on the first scheduled airline service in the U.S., gained prominence as a designer and flyer of gliders, and served as plant manager at Ryan Aircraft in San Diego when it built the Spirit of St. Louis for Charles Lindbergh.
He got into the trailer business partly as an outgrowth of his experience with sailplanes. He and fellow gliding enthusiasts would travel to remote Southern California locations and camp. That gave Bowlus a personal need for a trailer, but he also saw a business opportunity, with trailer manufacturing being one of the few growth industries during the Great Depression.
Bowlus manufactured trailers in San Fernando from 1934 to 1936. Drawing on his aircraft experience, he used aluminum construction to create trailers that were all metal, light and streamlined. Instead of the platform design that was common for travel trailers, he used a monocoque design integrating the body and chassis into a single unit, with panels of riveted aluminum screwed to a galvanized steel tubing that was acetylene welded together. To reduce drag, Bowlus designed the 18-foot Road Chief with a pointed rear, and for easy towing, he kept the weight a low 1,100 pounds.
Keoshian’s Road Chief is believed to have originally served as the Bowlus family trailer. Charles Bowlus, the son of Hawley Bowlus, restored it in 1970, and it retains most of the original aluminum interior and ancillary components, as well as the original aluminum exterior. Except for new upholstery and flooring, the interior, which includes cedar veneer paneling, is original. Amenities include a dresser, wardrobe, cupboards, skylights, fan, lighting, a kitchen icebox, a sink with a water pump and a space designed to accommodate a portable stove.
In the 1930s there were no restrictions on riding in trailers while on the road, and Keoshian said Hawley Bowlus’ widow, Ruth, told him she frequently made a one-pot dinner on the stove in the Road Chief while being towed at 50 miles per hour. The Road Chief was equipped with a radio intercom system that allowed passengers in the trailer to communicate with the car’s driver.
About 175 Road Chiefs were built before the company folded, a victim of overexpansion, high costs and other problems. Wally Byam acquired the designs and tooling from the bankrupt company and created the Airstream Clipper in 1936. The first Airstream was essentially the same as the Road Chief, but with one major improvement, the entrance door was moved from the front to the side.
Keoshian said he has towed the Road Chief with a 1934 Ford roadster and a 1935 Ford pickup, going to shows and on camping trips to Yosemite and elsewhere. And everywhere he went, the Road Chief attracted admirers.
Gooding and Company, an automotive auction house based in Santa Monica, has estimated the value of the Road Chief at $75,000 to $125,000, but it is being auctioned without reserve. Included with the trailer are items from the 1930s, including a Bowlus sales brochure and a 1936 issue of Travel Trailer magazine with a Road Chief on the cover. For information on the Scottsdale auctions, visit goodingco.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.