RV History: The early RV visionaries

By Al Hesselbart

The men who created the concept of the RV industry and the lifestyle that accompanied it were amazing visionaries. Many of the pioneers who originated RV-related companies in the early years of the “horseless carriage” before World War I were pioneers in other industries as well. While ingenious campers and hunters were making homemade contraptions of all sorts, both motorized and towable, these dreamers created an industry building and selling camping vehicles to the public.
 
In 1910, an unknown engineer at the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company dreamed up America’s first production motorhome. Pierce Arrow was, at this point, America’s premier prestige automaker. The 1910 Pierce Arrow Touring Landau was designed as a chauffeur-driven limousine where the driver sat outside, forward of the passenger compartment. The vehicle was remarkably equipped for camping in the manner of today’s type B van campers. The seat folded down into a bed for sleeping. A sink folded down from the back of the chauffeur’s seat. Under the passenger bench seat was a luncheon basket that contained cooking and eating supplies. In another under-seat compartment was a portable toilet. Replacing the running boards on both sides were full-length storage compartments that were an early version of today’s basement storage. The Landau sold for $8,000, plus options.
 
Other “Auto Camping,” as the infant industry was known, manufacturers popped up all around the country. By 1914, L.F. Schilling in Salem, Ohio, was advertising and selling a tent/bed combination that hung off either side of the early cars. His ads suggested that a bed on both sides doubled the sleeping space. At the same time, the Auto Kamp Equipment Company of Saginaw, Michigan, was building a combination of some autos, utility trailers, a folding tent camper and a variety of other auto travel supplies. Their campers were produced well into the 1930s.
 
In 1914, Archie and Lawrence Campbell of San Diego were making a remarkably roomy camping trailer where a small cabin-style tent folded out off the back of the trailer leaving a bed with a mattress on the trailer.
 
By 1915, Gustav Bretteville of San Francisco, California, was building and marketing his Automobile Telescoping Apartment. His camper was a large box designed to be mounted behind the seat on the runabout autos of the day. In its closed travel condition, the box was approximately a 4x4x4-foot cube that sat behind the runabout seat. For camping, a full-length slide telescoped out the rear of the box providing room for a full-length bed. Once the telescope feature was extended, rudimentary slide outs extended from either side of the back section. One slide contained a fully equipped camp kitchen, and the other opened into a chest of drawers for storage. The wooden privacy cover for the sleeping compartment could be supported like an awning and provided a place to hang a showerhead that received its water from a large bladder that sat on the roof.
 
Also in 1915, The Superior Custom Truck Builders of Toledo, Ohio, were advertising a very large “Road Yacht” housecar for sale for $2,850. This mammoth vehicle had accommodations for a party of six plus its “crew of 2.” It included such amenities as a generator to provide power for cooking, heating, lights, and a bathroom with a toilet (undoubtedly a chamber pot) and shower. A small stairway provided access to a “roof garden” equipped with a phonograph “for dancing while parked.” Other listed standard equipment was a suitcase that held two folding bicycles to be available as “lifeboats.” 
 
In 1916, William Shattuck of Minneapolis, Minnesota, applied for a patent for a combination camping and utility trailer where the tent portion was easily removed to allow the trailer bed to be used for other cargo. Shattuck is also identified as the inventor, in the late 1890s, of the military tank which he identified as a “mobile fort.” The design was sold to the British Army after having been rejected by the U.S. Army.
 
In 1916, A.P. Warner began building the Warner Prairie Schooner tent trailer in Beloit, Wisconsin. Warner had started the Warner Instrument Company making instruments and gauges in 1904, and in the 1920s he developed the Warner Electric Brakes popular on trailers through the ’30s and later.
 
Also in 1916, the Lambert family of St. Louis, Missouri, began building the Lamsteed Camp car, a small camping vehicle based on the Ford Model T. The Lamberts were much better known as the owners of Lambert Pharmaceutical Company, makers of Listerine mouthwash. When prohibition drove their friends and neighbors out of business in 1921, the Lamberts sold the Lamsteed company to the Busch family, owners of Anheuser Busch, brewers of Budweiser beers. They produced the camp cars through the 1920s.
 
In 1917, Glenn Curtiss, World Champion motorcycle racer, inventor of the Curtiss Jenny airplane, and competitor of the Wright Brothers in early aviation, along with his half-brother Carl Adams, patented the Motor Bungalow camping trailer utilizing a new and unique “fifth wheel” hitch. This hitch utilized a tire and wheel mounted horizontally and clamped into place into which a pin from the trailer fit the axle hole creating an air-cushioned means of attaching a trailer to the tow vehicle and using the fifth wheel of the car.
 
It is remarkable that these amazing dreamers and visionaries of the years before the war, dreamed up, invented, manufactured and sold every style of RV that we know today and nearly every feature including basement and rooftop storage, slide-outs, onboard generators, rooftop lounges and many others. Vehicle size and the variety of appliances have changed through the years, but their amazing concepts are still in use.
 

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2 Thoughts to “RV History: The early RV visionaries”

  1. Ed Wullschleger

    My wife and I just returned from a round-trip on Amtrak’s Zephyr to Reno, Nevada. While there we visited the “National Automobile Museum – The Harrah Collection”. That museum has a 1921 Ford Model T with body by Lamsteed. They called it a “Kampkar”. It looks just like the picture in this article, so anyone interested in seeing this should stop by that museum (it also has over a hundred other old cars, all perfectly restored!)

  2. Glenda

    What in interesting article!! Loved it.

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