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History of Recreational Vehicles: Past and Present RVs

Before deciding to buy or rent an RV for an upcoming vacation, many find it useful to discuss the history of RVs. The idea of recreational vehicles began in the early 1900s. Families created makeshift tents by extending linens from automobiles. The rumble, or rear seats of cars, served as beds. Vehicle running boards provided a platform for carrying boxes that might hold a fold-up cot or utensils used for improvising a rudimentary kitchen.

In an effort to bring more comforts from home, individuals constructed small wooden trailers attached to vehicles, which carried any number of items that included bedding, pots and pans, utensils and washbasins. The first wheeled motor homes consisted of a smaller version of a home built upon a car chassis. In 1910, Ucal-Henri Dandurand purchased a three-ton truck and hired a contractor who converted the vehicle into a motorhome based on Dandurand’s specifications. The finished vehicle measured 28 feet in length, 6.5 feet in width, 9.5 feet in height and slept up to 11 people.

Long before the concept of the RV manufacturers, individuals created their own versions of travel trailers. Camping enthusiasts used various means of converting vehicles into primitive RVs. Campers commonly set up waterproof tents in such as way as to include one side of the vehicle. By 1913, the Earl Trailer emerged. Made of wood, the larger pull-along served as a home away from home.

Samuel B. Lambert invented the Lamsteed Kampkar, which enabled campers to fold down the side of the vehicle and convert the seat and cushions into a bed. August Fruehauf developed the first fifth wheel in 1915. Many an innovative individual converted a bus into a recreational vehicle that contained a kitchen, bathroom and sleeping quarters along with storage space.

Companies began manufacturing recreational vehicle bodies during the 1920s. Consumers purchased the wooden shelters and mounted them onto Model T or other makes of automotive chassis. In 1928, aircraft designer Glenn Curtis created the Aerocar Land Yacht. Crafted similar to aircraft of the day, the vehicle consisted of a lightweight metal frame attached to an automobile. The RV featured four sleeping compartments, a kitchen with running water, multiple bathrooms and an observatory cockpit.

E.P, Gilkison & Sons manufactured the first pop-up camper in 1928, calling the creation the Gilkie tent trailer. Each unit contained two 54-inch mattresses, wire screen windows and rust proof metal drawers within a waterproof army canvas tent.

More and more recreational vehicle manufacturers emerged during the 1930s and the house trailer became increasingly popular. Hawley Bowlus created the first aluminum trailer in 1935. The following year, the Airstream Trailer Co. offered the “Clipper,” the prototype of the aluminum trailers commonly seen today. The Aerocar Company in Detroit adopted Glenn Curtiss’ designs and began mass-producing fifth wheel trailers.

In 1940, Howard Hughes developed the first mobile dressing rooms for the stars by converting buses into fully equipped travel trailers. Created for RKO studios, the vehicles served as homes to celebrities when filming in desert or mountainous locations. With the onset of WWII, recreational vehicles became temporary housing on military bases for soldiers, their families and government employees supporting the war effort. The government purchased recreational vehicle trailers from various companies across the United States.

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After the war, companies resumed building trailers intended for recreational use. Before the end of the decade, companies were competing for consumer approval by introducing larger and longer models. The Spartan Aircraft Company topped the list by offering an aluminum trailer measuring 50 feet in length and 10 feet in width. Before the end of the decade, “Popular Mechanics” magazine offered plans for building the now-famous little tear drop trailers, which first appeared during the 1930s.

RVs of the 1950s featured larger living spaces boasting luxurious interiors and modern conveniences that included electricity provided by generators and plumbing that supplied running water. Terraced trailers emerged in 1952 and offered bedrooms on a second story level. Rollohome Trailer Coach presented the first trailer with pullout rooms during the same year. Ray Frank constructed the first motor coach home in 1953 calling the creation a “motorhome.” Sometime during this year, Don Hall constructed the first pick-up truck camper for himself, but the project drew so much attention, Hall built a company that expanded into seven companies over seven years. It was the onset of the modern RV industry.