The RV industry began 100 years ago, and within its first decade, nearly every type of RV we have today—tent trailers, travel trailers, fifth wheels and motorhomes—had been invented.
“As far as types of RVs, there hasn’t been anything new since 1920,” says RV historian Al Hesselbart.
Even the truck camper, which didn’t emerge in its current form until the 1940s, had a pre-1920 predecessor—the Automobile Telescope Apartment, which was built in San Francisco and was designed to be mounted on a roadster like the Model T Ford Runabout. It even had an early version of what seems like a modern innovation—the slideout. The Automobile Telescope Apartment had a sleeping area in the middle and storage units on each side that slid out. One side held an exterior kitchen and the other had wardrobe drawers. The advertised price was $100.
RV historians have pinpointed 1910 as the start of the RV industry because that’s when companies in Los Angeles and Saginaw, Michigan, began selling camping trailers and Pierce Arrow introduced its Touring Landau. The Touring Landau was a chauffeur-driven limousine that had a back seat that converted into a bed, and included a chamber pot, a fresh water tank, a fold-down washbasin on the back of the front seat, and storage boxes in place of running boards.
The Pierce Arrow touring car, which linked the chauffeur to his passengers by telephone, was only for the rich, but when the Ford Model T went into mass production in 1913, automobiles became readily affordable, and it wasn’t long before they were adapted for auto camping.
Hotels in the big cities were expensive and in smaller towns were often the province of traveling salesmen and not suitable for families. Restaurants, too, could be expensive, and so people began outfitting their cars so they could sleep in them and cook their meals. Companies sold stoves and other camping accessories along with devices to turn auto seats into beds. Before long, some people wanted something even better equipped for camping and so they replaced passenger bodies on automobiles with custom coaches. These were called house cars, the early versions of today’s motorhomes.
A series of highly publicized camping trips by Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and the naturalist John Burroughs popularized auto camping in the years just before and after 1920. Calling themselves the vagabonds, the group traveled to camping destinations in a fleet of cars, accompanied by a staff and a Lincoln truck outfitted as a camp kitchen. Although they stayed in tents rather than sleep in their vehicles, they were models for the RV lifestyle.
At about the same time, auto campers began journeying to Florida for the winter and before long had formed a group they called the Tin Can Tourists. The name may have come from the Tin Lizzies they drove or, some say, from the belief that most of them dined from tin cans. In any event, members of the group signified their membership by attaching a tin can to their radiator.
Tin Can Tourists became so well known as an organization by the 1930s that anyone who owned a house car or trailer was called a Tin Can Tourist. Membership eventually dwindled, but the name was revived in 1998 by a new organization for owners of vintage RVs.
Hesselbart, who serves as historian, archivist and librarian at the RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum in Elkhart, Indiana, said that while you can pinpoint the beginning of the RV industry at 100 years ago, RVing itself—if you consider it to be traveling with your belongings and a place to stay—goes back much further. Gypsy caravans in Europe could be considered forerunners of today’s RVs.
David Woodworth, an RV historian known for amassing the world’s largest collection of vintage RVs, said campgrounds also have a long history. As far back as the 1800s, he said, town merchants would create wagon yards with outhouses and even barbecue pits so that farmers and their wives could come to town and camp with their horses while doing errands and shopping. When the era of the motorized vehicle arrived, these yards attracted a mix of horse wagons and automobiles.
Almost from the inception of the horseless carriage, people used the vehicles for recreational trips. The New York Times reported in 1922 that of the 10.8 million cars on the road about 5 million would be used for camping. By the late 1920s, the American Automobile Association was reporting that the number of motorists going camping had reached 10 million to 12 million. Most camped in tents, but some had trailers or house cars.
Carriage makers or handymen produced most of the early RVs. The idea of a trailer being pulled by a car wasn’t much different from a cart hauled by horses. The first trailers were built to carry tents and other equipment. Then folding tent trailers appeared, followed by hard-sided travel trailers with sleeping quarters and eating areas. Aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss invented the fifth wheel trailer in 1917, selling it to the well-to-do as the Adams Motor Bungalo and later as the Curtiss Aerocar.
Woodworth said campgrounds tailored for tourists began to appear and by 1922, for example, there was a municipal campground on the Platte River in Denver with 800 spaces, a nine-hole golf course and lots of other amenities including electricity.
The depression that started in 1929 was a setback for the nascent RV industry, but soon became an opportunity.
As Hesselbart relates in his history of the RV industry, The Dumb Things Sold Just Like That, people who had lost their houses in the Depression turned to mobile homes and helped create a boom in the trailer business. At the time, there was little differentiation between trailers that were used as family homes and those that were intended for camping trips. So some people were buying trailers to live in while looking for work and others where buying them for vacations.
In 1936, the New York Times estimated there were 100,000 trailers on the road. “A new industry is rapidly coming to the front,” the paper said. “It is not an uncommon sight these days to drive past a factory making trailers and find it operating full blast in the middle of the night.”
One of those manufacturers was the Covered Wagon Company in Michigan, which was the first to build trailers on a large scale, using the production techniques of the automobile industry. Its founder, Arthur Sherman, has been called The Father of the RV Industry, but there were numerous other pioneers too.
In the 1930s, Elkhart, Indiana, began emerging as the center of the industry. Hesselbart said the impetus came from the Chicago World Exposition in 1933, which featured a trailer industry exhibit. The exhibit so impressed several young men from Indiana that they went home and got into the RV business. Elkhart’s pioneers included Harold Platt, who bought a furniture company with his father and brother and turned it into a builder of house trailers; Milo Miller, who founded several trailer companies, and Wilbur Schult, who started as a trailer dealer and then acquired a trailer manufacturer that became the industry’s largest in 1939.
“Elkhart had always been a wide and free entrepreneurial town,” Hesselbart said, and anyone who had a two-car garage and the ambition to be in the RV business could build a trailer. As RV manufacturing grew, suppliers gravitated to the area, and by 1947, Elkhart was being called “The Trailer Capital of the World.”
Although World War II interrupted the growth of the RV industry, the pace picked up after the war, and by the mid-1960s, Hesselbart said, there were 300 RV manufacturers within 40 miles of Elkhart.
It was a time when a person with a good idea could make a lot of money. For example, Hesselbart said, there was a bartender at the Elks lodge in Elkhart who heard some people in the RV industry talking about the hassle involved in getting and storing carpet for their coaches. The bartender rented a warehouse, obtained carpet, began supplying RV companies and was a millionaire in two years.
Of course, the RV business was growing elsewhere, too.
In Southern California, Wally Byam founded Airstream in the 1930s. He began by building his own trailer and selling the plans for $1 each through Popular Mechanics magazine. Although Airstream was not the first or only company to build streamlined metal trailers, it became by far the most successful, thanks to Byam’s ingenuity and promotional flair. Airstream, now based in Ohio and part of Thor Industries, is the only survivor among hundreds of companies that were building travel trailers in the 1930s.
Although a variety of house cars had been built almost from the beginning of the RV industry, it wasn’t until 1960 that the first motorhomes were produced on an assembly line. Ray Frank built his first motorhome for family vacations in 1958 and then started building them in Michigan for friends. He used a Dodge chassis and in 1962 formed an alliance with the automotive company to sell them as Dodge Motorhomes. His son, Ron, contributed his design talents to create a streamlined model with a fiberglass body. The family sold the motorhome business in 1967, and Ray Frank went on to create the first Class B motorhome, a van camper called the Xplorer.
In Forest City, Iowa, Winnebago Industries was created in 1958 by John K. Hanson and a group of investors who took over a trailer factory that had closed. Although it had some success with trailers, Winnebago found its real niche in 1966 when it started building motorhomes. By using mass-production techniques, it was able to sell its first motorhomes for as little as $5,000, and quickly came to dominate the motorhome market. By 1968 the company was earning $1 million a day.
Fleetwood Enterprises was created in the 1950s. Founder John Crean’s first experience with the RV industry came in 1929, when he was 4 years old and his family traveled in a homemade house car from North Dakota to California so his father could find work. Crean went to work in the RV industry in the 1940s and invented a style of Venetian blinds for trailers. He and his wife formed a company to build and sell the blinds to trailer manufacturers and then began building trailers themselves. Their company, Fleetwood Enterprises, headquartered in Riverside, California, became the nation’s largest builder of manufactured homes and recreational vehicles, selling $1 billion worth in 1989.
Up and Down
Like the automobile industry, the RV industry has always been cyclical, experiencing both periods of great growth and severe decline. The growth that propelled the industry through the 1960s ended with high inflation, gas shortages and high fuel prices during the 1970s and into 1980-81, causing the demise of nearly half the industry.
The RV business rebounded in the 1980s and in the years that followed as manufacturers broadened the appeal of RVs by building them bigger and adding amenities such as recliners, home entertainment systems and basement storage. Now, there were RVs not just for outdoorsmen who enjoyed camping, but also for people who liked to travel in comfort.
The RV industry hit another bump with the current recession. RV sales plunged in 2008, leading to the bankruptcy of such big manufacturers as Fleetwood Enterprises in California and Monaco Coach Corporation in Oregon. Elkhart, Indiana, became a focus of national media attention when its unemployment rate neared 20 percent, as RV manufacturers and suppliers slashed jobs.
But the RV industry has begun a comeback. New owners took control of the Fleetwood and Monaco brands last year, and the industry is forecasting a 30 percent increase in RV shipments to dealers this year. In the Elkhart area, where there are still about 100 brands of RVs being produced, Hesselbart said the RV-based economy is improving. “It’s no longer on life support, but it’s still in intensive care,” he said.
RV industry leaders remain optimistic that good times are ahead, as baby boomers enter retirement and look for leisure pursuits.
Woodworth said RV manufacturers can do well if they realize that it will always be a cyclical business and save money to get through the bad times. After all, RVs are not essential purchases, he noted. “You don’t need an RV; it’s a nice thing to have.”
The long history of RVing demonstrates its continuing appeal. Why will that appeal endure? Woodworth said that RVing gives people the freedom to travel and know that “wherever you are, you will always be at home.”
RV Celebration Planned:
The RV Industry is planning a series of promotional events during the RV Centennial, including a gathering of industry leaders in Elkhart, Indiana, on June 7 to celebrate the industry’s birth.
David Woodworth, who supplied the RV/MH Hall of Fame Museum in Elkhart with a substantial part of its collection of early RVs, is scheduled to launch a media tour from the museum on April 12. Plans call for him to drive a new Fleetwood motorhome towing an antique RV on a tour that will include Chicago, Indianapolis, Louisville, Cincinnati, Dayton and Columbus.
The Good Sam Club is sponsoring what it calls the RV History Caraventure as a prelude to the Affinity Group’s 2010 Rally in Louisville in July. As many as 100 RVs, both new and old, are expected to come to the RV Hall of Fame Museum, travel to the Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, and then go to The Rally, which will be held in Louisville from July 22 to 25.
Photographs from the collections of Al Hesselbart and the RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum
Nikki is a writer and editor for Do It Yourself RV, RV LIFE, and Camper Report. She is based on the Oregon Coast and has traveled all over the Pacific Northwest.