RV History: Fifth wheels and the Aerocar

By Al Hesselbart

When world champion motorcycle racer and aviation pioneer competitor of the Wright brothers, Glenn Curtiss, conceived an early camping trailer in 1917, he called it his “motor bungalow.” Along with his new trailer he devised an entirely new hitch based on the spare tire or “fifth wheel” of the car. Realizing that motorists already involved with airplanes needed their spare tires, he used an airplane tire mounted horizontally on the back bumper of a car as the base for his fifth wheel hitch. The motor bungalow was produced in partnership with his half-brother, Carl Adams, from 1917 until 1922 or ’23, when Curtiss had become very involved in his aviation ventures.

In 1928, demand encouraged Curtiss to resurrect his trailer and hitch system as the Curtiss Aerocar, a highly advanced luxury trailer, in partnership with Carl Fisher, developer of the sealed beam headlight and partner in the Indianapolis Speedway. Desiring to keep fifth wheel camping exclusively available to the very wealthy, Curtiss priced his Aerocars at nearly ten times the price of conventional travel trailers. Travel trailers at the time were priced from $300 to $800, while the Aerocars were priced from $3,500 up.

The Aerocars were primarily pulled by rumble seat coupes, and the tire-based hitch was mounted under the rumble seat. In the mid-1930s, pickup-style trucks were beginning to become popular, and special custom trucks started to appear as the tow vehicles for the Aerocars. Most of these new pickup tow vehicles included a sleeper compartment as housing for a chauffeur, as most users did not drive their own vehicles. During this period, some very exotic vehicles were created to tow the fancy trailers in line with the exclusive pricing.

Aerocar production lasted until the beginning of World War II. During the War, military design changed the tire-based hitch to a heavy steel plate (as known on semi tractors today) to pull trailers carrying hefty loads like tanks, etc. There was barely any fifth wheel production from the start of WWII until the mid-1960s. In 1964, a Sturgis, Michigan, camper and job shop operator named Bailey designed the down-sized heavy steel plate fifth wheel that we know today. The modern fifth wheel hitch was born and today’s style fifth wheel trailers began to appear.

We have to remember that the fifth wheel is the hitch on the vehicle, not the trailer attached to it.

 

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