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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RV Museum Opens in Texas

The Jack Sisemore Traveland RV Museum recently opened to the public in Amarillo, Texas. According to a news report in the Amarillo Globe News, the museum has already attracted more than 400 visitors.

1962 Airstream (Source: rvmuseum.net)

Traveland RV Museum encompasses up to 7,000 square feet and is home to dozens of iconic RVs, including a 1936 Alma, 1937 Elkhart Traveler, 1953 Fleetwood, 1962 Airstream, and 1972 Winnebago.

“We’ve been building a museum for about 25 years and we have RVs from every decade up through the ’70s to show the progression of the RV industry,” Sisemore said. “I wanted to have something that was free, that people could come to from anywhere in the United States.”

The Sisemore’s began restoring and collecting unusual vintage recreational vehicles over 25 years ago. They have built a museum that houses many of the RVs in their collection. These include the Flxible Bus from the Movie RV, the first Itasca motor home ever built, the oldest Fleetwood in existence, and many other RVs from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.

You can step back in time, reminisce, and enjoy the progression of the RV industry from its inception till now.

1936 Alma

This trailer was a barn find 20 miles from the Alma factory. It is all-original, never restored, and looks like new. Imagine stepping back into the pre-war years inside this Alma. It literally was in a barn from 1955 until today.

1937 Elkhart Traveler

The first brand of trailer produced in Elkhart, Indiana, the RV manufacturing capital of the world. This little jewel has not been restored; it has been left in its original shape the way it was found.

1946 Tear Drop Kit

1946 Tear Drop Kit (Source: rvmuseum.net)

Restored by the restoration team 24 years ago, this trailer still looks new. Dan Polkapaila, founder of Kit Manufacturing, gave the museum his last set of fenders to restore this little beauty. Dan built these kits out of aluminum that was surplus after the war. Many of the wheels had to have the bullet holes repaired to be used.

1953 Fleetwood

Jack and Trent Sisemore found this trailer in total disrepair at a filling station 15 years ago and bought it from an 84 year-old lady that was traveling across the country. She said it was time for her to quit camping. It took the restoration team over two years to bring it back to life. This was the first year Fleetwood built travel trailers, serial number 1123.

1962 Airstream

Jack traded for this trailer back in 1988 and just restored it last year but it required little restoration. This little Bambi was always ready to go on a trip from the day it was new.

1970 Avion

This 1970 Avion pick up camper is one of the last if not the last pick up camper made by Avion. It is a one owner purchased in 1971 and is completely original.

1972 Winnegabo

This motorhome was another barn find in Amarillo. It had been in the same family since it was new. Carpet and cushions are original. It has very few miles and drives like a dream.

1974 Winnegago

Jack started renting a motorhome just like this when he had a Chevron Standard filling station. A year later that he had six rentals and started Jack Sisemore Traveland. It took two 1974 Winnebagos to build it—one from Phoenix and the other from Maine.

On a side note, Jack Sisemore Traveland is the oldest Winnebago dealer in the state of Texas. Jack started selling Winnebago products in 1978.

1975 Itasca

This is the first Itasca motorhome ever built, serial number 1, and served as a prototype for Itasca. It was in Winnebagos Welcome Center for over 20 years. It has 6000 original miles and is in brand new condition.

Details

Jack Sisemore Traveland RV Museum

1977 Kit Road Ranger (Source: rvmuseum.net)

Admission: Free

Hours: Monday–Friday, 3:30 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturday, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.

Address: 4341 Canyon Drive, Amarillo, TX

Phone: (806) 358-4891

Website: rvmuseum.net

Worth Pondering…
Life is all memory, except for the present moment that goes by you so quick you hardly catch it going.

—Tennessee Williams

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