History of RVing: How RVs Evolved

Today’s recreational vehicles are truly luxury homes on wheels, with options for pretty much every amenity a person could want. But they haven’t always been that way.

The RV/MH Hall of Fame is a  museum in Elkhart, Indiana that features a variety of historical recreational vehicles from Airstream, Winnebago and other American makers. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The RV/MH Hall of Fame is a museum in Elkhart, Indiana that features a variety of historical recreational vehicles from Airstream, Winnebago and other American makers. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For almost as long as there have been automobiles, recreational vehicles have been traversing America’s roads. In 1910, there were few gas stations, few paved roads, and no highway system. But there were RVs. 1910 is the year that America’s leading RV historians cite as the beginning of what has become the modern RV industry.

Drivers began making camping alterations to cars almost as soon as they were introduced. The first RV was Pierce-Arrow’s Touring Landau, which debuted at Madison Square Garden in 1910. Camping trailers made by Los Angeles Trailer Works and Auto-Kamp Trailers also rolled off the assembly line beginning in 1910.

The Tin Can Tourists, named because they camped by the side of the road and heated tin cans of food on gasoline stoves by the roadside, formed the first RV camping club in the United States, holding their inaugural rally in Florida in 1919 and growing to 150,000 members by the mid-1930s. They had an initiation; an official song, “The More We Get Together;” and a secret handshake.

The crash of 1929 and the Depression dampened the popularity of RVs, although some people used travel trailers, which could be purchased for $500 to $1,000, as inexpensive homes.

The 1928 Pierce Arrow Fleet Housecar at  the RV/MH Hall of Fame museum in Elkhart, Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 1928 Pierce Arrow Fleet Housecar at the RV/MH Hall of Fame museum in Elkhart, Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Streamline design that used aircraft-style construction first captured the American imagination in the 1930s, when smooth, continuous, shiny aluminum skins were found to increase efficient movement.

At that time a series of smooth, sleek, and shiny aluminum aerodynamic travel trailers designed by American entrepreneurs make their way to the marketplace: Bowlus Road Chief, Airstream, Streamline, Silver Streak, Avion, Spartan Manor, and Plymouth House Car. The only manufacturer to survive the economic conditions of the time was Airstream.

The Bowlus Road Chief was created in the 1930s by aviation designer, Hawley Bowlus (he also built the Spirit of St. Louis). But only 80 were produced before World War II shut down production.

Rationing during World War II stopped production of RVs for consumer use, although some companies converted to wartime manufacturing, making units that served as mobile hospitals, prisoner transports, and morgues.

After the war, the RV industry flourished as more Americans sought mobility. The burgeoning interstate highway system offered a way to go far fast and that combination spurred a second RV boom that lasted through the 1960s.

The 1929 Wiedman Housecar at the  RV/MH Hall of Fame  museum in Elkhart, Indiana. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 1929 Wiedman Housecar at the RV/MH Hall of Fame museum in Elkhart, Indiana. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Built between 1941 and 2004, Shasta travel trailers were originally constructed as housing for the United States Armed Forces. One of their identifying features is the “wings,” which are located on the rear sides of the trailer.

Motorized RVs started to become popular in the late 1950s, but they were expensive luxury items that were far less popular than trailers. That changed in 1967 when Winnebago began mass-producing what it advertised as “America’s first family of motor homes,” five models from 16 to 27 feet long, which sold for as little as $5,000.

The names echo through the decades, brands that once epitomized the post-war travel spirit.

They catch your attention when you see them on the road. Known by brand names that have vanished in the past―or stayed around because of their legendary design―these campers and travel trailers of the 1940s, 50s and 60s mark a different era.

Is it any wonder that retro RVs are making a strong comeback?

RVers old and new are investing in either fixing up retro RVs or buying them used. Some older models, like the Airstream, last for decades. Some Airstream owners have been using their trailer for over four decades.

The 1974 GMC Motor Home at the  RV/MH Hall of Fame  museum in Elkhart, Indiana. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 1974 GMC Motor Home at the RV/MH Hall of Fame museum in Elkhart, Indiana. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Before there were interstates, when everyone drove the old two-lane roads, Burma Shave signs would be posted all over the countryside in farmers’ fields. They were small red signs with white letters. Five signs, about 100 feet apart, each containing one line of a four-line couplet—and the obligatory fifth sign advertising Burma Shave, a popular shaving cream.

Here is one of the actual signs:

Speed was high

Weather was hot

Tires were thin

X marks the spot

BURMA SHAVE

Did this bring back any old memories?

If not, you’re merely a child.

If they do—then you’re old as dirt—LIKE ME!

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