Cruise America has been bringing RV life to Americans for 50 years now, but our history stretches back much further than 50 years. Our origins — which have led us to become the company we are today — began way back in the 1920s, sparking a timeline of success that’s still going to this day and showing no signs of slowing down.
As Cruise America turns 50, we thought it would be a great time to take a look back through the decades to discuss where we come from, where we’ve been, and where we’re going. Buckle up, and prepare for a wild ride through Cruise America history.
The 1920s: Where It All Began
The 1920s set the Cruise America storyline into motion. In 1923, our founder, Robert A. Smalley, Sr., was born in Detroit, Michigan. Just two years later, Smalley’s grandfather Frank B. Couture sold his holdings in Detroit to move down to Miami, Florida.
Couture was determined to get in on the latest trend — a travel boom in which older would-be “Snowbirds” were beginning to appreciate South Florida as a wonderful destination during the colder winter months. Later in 1925, Couture opened Couture’s Car Rental, a car rental agency targeting winter vacationers who reached Miami aboard the newly minted Florida East Coast Railway. He and his fleet of Ford Model Ts found success quickly.
A 5-year-old Robert A. Smalley, Sr., moved to Miami from Detroit with his family in 1928. Shortly after, Smalley’s mother Marguerite joined her father, Frank Couture, at Couture’s Car Rental. The Ford Model A soon joined the Model Ts in the fleet at Couture’s.
The 1930s: The Founder Finds His Calling
By June of 1935, a pre-teen Robert A. Smalley, Sr., was ready to go to work in the car rental business. He and Couture’s other grandson, Earl, joined Couture’s Car Rental to earn their stripes in the industry. They serviced, cleaned, and fueled the fleet after school and during the summer months.
The 1940s: A War, an Expansion, & a Buyout
World War II interrupted Smalley’s time in the car rental business. He and Earl left in June of 1942 to join the armed forces and fight in the war. After four years of service, both grandsons returned to work with their grandfather in Miami Beach.
Not long after, Couture’s Car Rental opened a second location — this one also in Miami, but not at a railroad terminus. This one was expertly situated at the Pan American Field, an airfield that would eventually be known as the Miami International Airport.
Seeing massive potential in the business and harboring ambitions of their own, Earl and Robert Smalley negotiated a buyout of their grandfather’s business. In 1948, they took control of Couture’s Car Rental with an eye on expanding the business outside of the Miami Area.
The 1950s: Hertz Acquires Couture’s
By 1956, the business was known as Couture Rent A Car, and it was the third largest car rental company in the world. With offices throughout Florida, Cuba, Puerto Rico, New York, and Colorado, the business had expanded its fleet to 3,500 cars — a breathtaking fleet size in that day and age.
In 1957, car rental giant Hertz negotiated with the Smalley brothers to acquire Couture Rent A Car. Shortly after, Robert A. Smalley, Sr., and his family moved to Chicago, Illinois. There, he began a lengthy and highly successful management career with Hertz.
The 1960s: The Big Idea Begins
By 1960, Robert A. Smalley Sr. was the Vice President and General Manager of Hertz International, which had just relocated its headquarters to New York City.
A fateful moment in Cruise America history occurred in 1968 when Hertz dabbled with motorhome rentals for a single summer. The pilot program was successful, but the company decided not to proceed with it in favor of focusing on car rental operations expansion. Mr. Smalley, however, was hooked on the motorhome rental idea.
He filed the idea away for the future and focused on his career with Hertz. In July of 1969, he was named President, CEO, and Director of the worldwide Hertz Corporation.
The 1970s: Cruise America Is Born
Having reached the top at Hertz, Robert A. Smalley Sr. began looking for new challenges. In 1971, he resigned from Hertz and moved back to Miami. This was when he founded American Land Cruisers — the RV rental company that would later be called Cruise America.
Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Mr. Smalley made his new business a family business. He hired both of his sons, Robert Smalley, Jr., and Randy Smalley, who had just graduated from college. The three men set out to launch the new enterprise.
American Land Cruisers (ALC) was officially incorporated and began operations in the Miami area on July 4, 1972. IN 1979, after outgrowing the one-acre South Miami location, the company moved to a five-acre layout, including a showroom, repair facility, parts depot, and storage area for rental RVs.
The 1980s: The Saga Continues
In 1980, ALC became Winnebago’s fourth-largest dealership in the nation. With sales on the rise, Eric Bensen joined the company and began his 35-year career as CFO of ALC. On May 4th, 1984, American Land Cruiser made the huge step of going public on the stock exchange.
The fleet continued to grow to approximately 370 motorhomes and vans. The company had eyes to double its fleet in the coming years. In the spring of 1985, ALC established Cruise America as its rental division of the company and began a dealer agency program. Cruise America saw high demand for one-way rentals and expanded, opening seven new locations across the country.
In 1987, Cruise America expands its reach to Canada with the new moniker, Cruise Canada.
The 1990s: A New Era
The 1990s brought big changes to the company. The first change was moving headquarters from Miami, Florida to Mesa, Arizona after 21 years. In 1993, Cruise America introduced Harley-Davidson motorcycles to its rental fleet. The program was a success in the 90s, and at its peak, the company operated over 1,200 motorcycles.
In 1997, two things of significance occurred. First, Arizona Governor, Fife Symington, proclaimed the annual Arizona Bike Week, and Cruise America signed on as its inaugural sponsor. Second, in the fall, Budget Rent-a-Car acquired a 100% ownership interest in Cruise America. Randall Smalley was named president of Ryder Truck Rental and relocated to Denver, Colorado.
In 2000, Budget Rent-a-Car hit turbulence and declared bankruptcy. The Smalley brothers repurchased the company and led Cruise America to the very top of the RV rental industry. In 2003, the motorcycle rental program was discontinued to focus on expanding RV rentals.
In June 2010, RV Business Magazine recognized the Smalley family in the Top 100 most influential individuals in the RV industry issue.
By 2014, Cruise America has purchased over 25,000 motorhomes from Thor Industries. In May 2014, Randy and Bob decided to sell the company to the employees as a reward for their help in building Cruise America as the premier RV rental and sales company in the world. On May 28, 2014, Cruise America became 100% owned by an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (“ESOP”).
In 2022, Cruise America is proudly celebrating 50 years in business. From the beginning of Cruise America’s story to today, our focus has always been on providing the best for our customers. We recognize the importance of exploring the great outdoors and spending time with loved ones and will continue furthering our mission for years to come!
The Adventure Continues
It’s been a wild ride, and it’s nowhere close to over. The Cruise America family is proud of our history, but as proud of the past as we are, we’re even more excited about the future. You’ve been with us all the way, and as long as our loyal customers are with us, the future looks bright.
We can’t say exactly what the next decades in the Cruise America timeline will bring, but we can say with absolute certainty that they will involve world-class RVs, incredible road trips, unforgettable destinations, and a whole lot of fun. Stick with us to be a part of it.
Ready to rent an RV and cruise across America in style? Reach out to Cruise America today, or rent an RV online.