Since the invention of the wheel, humans have had the urge to see the other side of the hill and beyond. When folks in covered wagons headed west looking for something better, they made their traveling houses as homey as possible, though recreation was far from their minds.
Then as the horseless carriage became a popular mode of transportation, folks sought to get away from urban pressures and increasingly began enjoying the great outdoors. With the ubiquitous Ford Model T putting the country on wheels, it was only a matter of time before handy travel enthusiasts were outfitting their Tin Lizzies with items to make their sojourns a bit more civilized.
RV historians consider 1910 to be the birth of the industry. That’s when motorized vehicles built for camping began to be sold on a large scale. Called “auto campers”, they made ingenious use of space, providing folding beds, pantry/kitchens with fold-out tables and other conveniences not available to those who slept on terra firma. One thing not provided however, was a bathroom, with the exception was the 1910 Pierce-Arrow Landau, which boasted a potted toilet.
Soon after the “auto campers” came trailers such as the “Camping Trailers”, made in Los Angeles and “Auto-Kamp” trailers. Tent trailers began to sprout hard sides and eventually morphed into the fully enclosed rolling homes we see today. The “Wonder House on Wheels” was built by Anheuser-Busch in the 1920s and sold well in spite of its high-at-the-time $535 price tag.
Campers began calling themselves “Tin Can Tourists” in reference to the canned food they ate as well as their mode of transportation. A club by that name was formed around 1919. Members soldered a tin can to the radiator cap to identify one another.
The year 1927 saw the advent of a new towing system. The Aero Coupler, built by Glenn Curtiss whose name was associated with aircraft construction, utilized a long gooseneck hitch that attached through the middle of the spare tire. And so the fifth wheel trailer came to be. As the years rolled along, so did trailers made in different sizes, shapes and forms by a myriad of manufacturers. With larger, more powerful engines becoming available, trailers became larger and featured more amenities.
No trailer treatise would be complete without the mention of the “Airstream”. In 1936 Wally Byam introduced the "Airstream Clipper", which has become an icon worldwide for its streamlined, unpainted aluminum, aircraft-like look. In 1955 the Wally Byam Caravan Club was formed by enthusiasts of the brand, and members still get together at rallies.
When the U.S. went to war, workers and material were diverted to the war effort. After peace returned, the troops came marching home, where they started families, bought houses and made outdoor recreation popular once again. Many bought pickup trucks, added slide-in campers and took their families to the great outdoors.
Entry level slide-ins were spartan by today’s standards. There was a tank for water, which was pumped to the sink by hand, an ice box containing a block of ice and possibly a little stove of some sort. The master bedroom was the cab overhang at the front. Forgetting where you were could result in a headache if you sat up suddenly in the middle of the night. The kids might sleep on a dinette table that converted to a bed.
As with most things American, campers got bigger and better, extending the length of the truck and adding luxuries like a water pump, propane for heating and cooking, a room for the portable potty and maybe a small TV. During the week the camper could be raised on jacks attached to each corner and the truck could be driven out from under it, and used for daily transportation and chores.
Then came the chassis mount camper. Manufacturers bought bare truck chassis, usually in the one-ton range, and built a permanent camper on the truck frame. That allowed more room and amenities. It was the forerunner of the class C motorhome which uses a van chassis for compactness. Modern class C’s can go to 30 or more feet and can be had with slide outs, narrowing the gap between class C and A amenities.
Meanwhile “house cars”, as they had been called, became class A motorhomes. They came in a variety of sizes and comfort levels, ranging from wood frames clad in aluminum siding to upscale abodes made by the likes of Vogue and Bluebird’s Wander Lodge. Dodge began making a chassis designed for use by the RV makers, which became quite popular.
As time marched on rigs became bigger and better, allowing RVers to bring along more of the comforts of home. Absorption refrigerators, forced air heating and cooling, flush toilets -- the list went on, depending on how deep your pockets were. Corrugated metal siding gave way to smooth laminated panels; generators let families use the new microwave ovens, TV and other electrical accessories without being tethered to an AC outlet. The introduction of the slide-out turned cozy cabins into spacious wheeled chateaus.
As motorized RVs grew larger and heavier, manufacturers began to build on diesel truck chassis in order to handle the extra weight and deliver better fuel mileage. To deal with the noise and heat the diesel engines produced, the engine compartment was moved to the rear and the diesel pusher was born.
In the early 50’s, Volkswagen brought out a version of their popular mini bus rigged for camping. It had the necessary amenities such as a bed, sink and table ingeniously built-in. It could be used during the week as family transportation and transformed into a camping vehicle on weekends, all while sipping smaller amounts of fuel in the bargain. Soon companies were modifying domestic vans, building in creature comforts, raising the roof for more headroom and delivering a more maneuverable RV that could be a go-to-work car when not doing duty as a camper. These van conversions were dubbed Class B motorhomes.
Where is the industry headed? With higher fuel prices becoming the norm, RV manufacturers are looking for ways to make RVs lighter and more fuel efficient. New models that are more compact, similar to those found in Europe, are debuting in the U.S. Diesel engines are becoming more popular because of their greater efficiency, plus new fuel standards designed to make diesels cleaner. Newer diesel vehicles are much more civilized compared to their noisy, smoke-belching predecessors. Don’t be surprised to see hybrid units with diesel engines running generators to power electric motors, a system used for years by railroads. As an added bonus, the generator can charge the batteries when boondocking.
Much of the heavy wood and steel found in early RVs is already being replaced with lighter, stronger composite materials like carbon fiber that also won’t rot or rust. Trailers are becoming leaner for towing behind popular lighter duty pickups and SUVs with smaller, more fuel-efficient engines. Look for solar arrays to become more economical and versatile as a means of generating clean, abundant, renewable power.