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The RV Turns 100

- Sunday, April 18, 2010
It's funny how time flies when you are having fun. Lots of people with RV's say that, and it's true. Hard to believe the RV has been around for 100 years. This month in 2010 celebrates the 100th anniversary of the RV. How did all this get started? From what I have researched, people were enthralled by the fact that they could control their destination without depending on trains. The automobile gave Americans the freedom to explore the wilderness and this quickly gained in popularity but also brought about the need to transport the necessities of life from home. Thus the motorhome was invented by the motorists in 1910, not large companies as it is today. The family RV was light years away.

The very wealthy had custom-made house cars with plush amenities much like the wealthy and celebrities do today. The working class motorist was eager to explore the wilderness while taking some of home with them. If you were traveling by car there were few choices on where to stay. Hotels were in or near the city and beyond what the average Joe could afford. There were no motels. People took what they needed from home to camp out.The early RV's were little more than a pickup with a cover over the bed and pantry that looked like it came off a chuck-wagon. Even so, this was way ahead of sleeping on the ground with no protection from the elements. Cooking was still on a campfire, but that was not bad, because you had groceries with you. During the 1920's motorists made their own house-cars and really enjoyed what was known as "autocamping".
photo of Pierce Arrow Touring Landau
The Pierce Arrow Touring Landau, an ancestor of a type B van camper, went into production in 1910.

photo of 1913 Earl
The 1913 Earl was an ancestor of the contemporary travel trailer.

Airstream Was Born

As the Great Depression came along, the RV took a hit as roadside camping was done by the homeless and itinerant, in Hoovervilles all over the US and thus camping was looked down upon by society in general. In 1929, Wally Byam purchased a Model T Ford chassis, built a platform on it, towed it with his car to a campsite, and painstakingly erected a tent on it. The effort was tiresome and unpleasant, especially when it rained. Wally built a tear-drop-shaped permanent shelter on the platform that enclosed a small ice chest and kerosene stove. He then published an article that ran under the headline, "How to Build a Trailer for One Hundred Dollars." Readers wrote Wally for more detailed instruction plans, which he sold at a cost of one dollar each. The response was extraordinary, earning him more than $15,000. After building several trailers for friends in his backyard, "the neighbors started complaining that I was making too much noise," Wally observed, "so I went out and rented a building." Airstream Trailer Company went into full production in 1932, when fewer than 48 trailer manufacturers were registered for business. Five years later, nearly 400 companies squared off against each other. Today, of those 400, only Airstream remains.
early Airstream travel trailer
Early Airstream trailer

During WW II, the RV took another hit as the war effort took precedence over everything else.

Fast forward a few years to the period after WWII, when returning GI's had bought the house, had a job, and looked forward to those two weeks vacation for leisure time with family. National Parks were coming of age, and there were new sights to be seen, and new experiences to enjoy. Enter the movie "The Long, Long, Trailer" starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. We all had a million laughs at this couple and the crazy situations they got into pulling a Spartan trailer with a 1953 Mercury Convertible. This might have started America thinking about RV vacations again, who knows?

In the early 1950's an enterprising fellow in Brown City, Michigan decided to make a House Car on a Dodge truck chassis. Ray Frank was credited with calling his house car invention a "Motorhome". The birthplace of the production motorhome was at Brown City, Michigan in Ray Frank's barn. Several years later, a company in Forest City, Iowa helped to make the name motorhome and Winnebago almost synonymous, as it is today. Today if you say "we are going in our Winnebago", this means we are going in our motorhome. Winnebago has done a good job of advertising to accomplish this. The media and movie industry complemented this too.

Today's motorhome is miles ahead of what originally was produced in the 50's by what was considered state of the art at that time. Plasma TV's and entertainment centers, satellite dishes, convection-microwaves, oversize refrigerators, king-sized beds, just start the list today. The biggest single item that has made a difference is the slide-out. The slide-out "extends" out from the RV side to increase the width of the unit by 18 to 36 inches. Most units today have a minimum of two, and many have four slide-outs, increasing the square footage available as well as creature comforts. Air conditioning and heating units are quiet and efficient, and many motorhomes have underbody storage like we are used to seeing in a bus. With 160 cubic feet of storage in the underbody, you can take it with you.

You can choose from a truck camper, pull trailer, fifth wheel trailer, B Van camper, C Motor-home, and A motor-home. Perhaps I should offer an explanation of the motorhome types. The B van camper is a converted van that has been made into a small motorhome. The C motorhome is built on a chopped van chassis and has the conventional van front end with a bed over the cab. The A motorhome is usually built on a gasoline or diesel truck chassis and usually looks like a big box.

Yes, in 100 years they have an RV for nearly everyone. Price ranges from just a few thousand dollars to over a million dollars for custom units. Used equipment is all prices ranges.

The proponents of each of these types is usually set in concrete on why they have the type of RV owned. Whatever your particular use and needs might be, there are lots of choices to fit your needs. I have enjoyed the RV lifestyle since 1969, but I also realize this may not be everyone's cup of tea. One thing about it though, if you like sleeping in your own bed when you travel, it's for sure your RV will give you that privilege.

Check out the video below on additional information around the history of RV's.

Send us your earliest photos of your RV's and your RV story. We want to celebrate RV'ing with you. Go make some history of your own in your RV.

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