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A 1911 British Steam Motorhome

Dr. Nichol's Motor Caravan in Scotland (UK, source The Autocar 7 Oct 1911)

At first glance the 1911 'caravan' of Dr. Nichols looks like an unremarkable railway carriage that has gone off its rails. Which is the front? How does it move? What's inside?

The description accompanying the photo provides some answers, and in doing so reveals quite an important early RV. Of greatest significance is that fact that, prior to being refitted with a Wolseley 10 hp engine, the 'caravan' previously ran on steam. Although the article is not explicit, we have to assume that the steam engine was, like the Wolseley, located at the mid point of the carriage. Which would make this the first-known steam-powered motorhome in the UK, and to date the only-known steam-powered RV outside France.

Other novelties include a rear-mounted bicycle rack (also possibly a first) and a centrally-mounted driver's seat taken from a bicycle. We know nothing about Dr. Nichol or his family, but it certainly seems they were keen cyclists. In true Autocar style, the article is somewhat technical, but does demonstrate the care which Dr. Nichols put into this early, self-built motorhome.

The article is reproduced in full below.

A Motor Caravan of 10 h.p.

An Equipment for Leisurely Touring

(sub-titles inserted for readability)

"During the return journey from John-o'-Groat's after the Sheffield-Simplex top gear run from End-to-end, an interesting vehicle was encountered near Dalwhinnie Pass, i.e. a caravan belonging to Dr. Nichols, who designed and constructed the whole vehicle for touring at a slow rate of speed in the Highlands.

Originally Steam Powered

"The photograph shows the caravan pulled up on the side of the road as it would be when a night's stop was made. Originally a steam engine of approximately 10 h.p. was the prime mover, but this gave so much trouble that it was eventually taken out and an old 10 h.p. two-cylinder horizontal Wolseley engine was installed in its place. The installation has been done in a curious and extremely effective manner. As can be seen by the photograph, the whole construction is practically of timber, and the under part consists of a long wooden chassis from which the engine hangs directly below the centre. In this position it is just high enough to enable adjustments to be carried out from the side of the vehicle, and not sufficiently far from the rear wheels to need a particularly long drive chain. The engine has the old suction operated inlet valves and rocking lever exhaust as originally employed, the cylinders themselves being cast-iron liners pressed into aluminium jackets and provided with detachable cylinder heads. The high tension ignition with accumulators and coil remains as before, as does the Renold silent chain drive from the engine crankshaft to the three speed gear box bolted to the back of the crank chamber.

Top Speed of Six Miles per Hour

"From the gear box to the rear axle ordinary roller chains are used on quite small sprockets, giving the machine a top speed of about six miles per hour. At the forward end of the lengthy wood frame is the steering axle, operated through link gear similar to the ordinary touring car, and in front of that again, suspended from the body of the vehicle, is a long flat gilled tube radiator connected to the engine by long pipes. The control has been placed in quite a remarkable position.

A Bicycle Saddle for a Driving Seat

"The steering column is in the centre of the vehicle, and the wheel itself just appears through the top of a large box behind which is a bicycle saddle held on a cantilever arrangement of bicycle tubes. Either side of the wheel are the brake and change speed levers, these being the original Wolseley levers, but working on different brackets, and so located that only their heads appear through what might be termed the control box. Neatly placed on this box are the ratchets and small levers which operate ignition and throttle, while the clutch and counter-shaft brakes are operated by pedals a little forward of the bicycle saddle. For negotiating steep hills or stopping on a gradient, a large wooden block brake, similar to those employed on horse-drawn vehicles, is used. A rack behind accommodates one or more bicycles, which may be used for the purpose of making excursions into the surrounding district from the caravan as a centre wherever it may be located for the time being.

Bunks and Kitchen at the Rear

"When driving, the owner is completely enclosed, but can observe the road and traffic through the front and side windows seen in the photograph. The centre and back windows belong respectively to the sleeping compartment, in which are a number of bunks, and the kitchen, the chimney from which can be seen. Each window has a wooden shutter as well as curtains, and the whole caravan is most compact, and should be extremely comfortable.

"The provision of rubber tyres would be an improvement, as the iron ones provided on the vehicle have a slight tendency to damage the wooden road wheels, although the average speed of the vehicle is really extremely low. To give some idea of the completeness with which this machine is equipped, it may be mentioned that the doctor, his wife, family and governess spend quite a considerable part of the year with the caravan as their home."


We shall keep our eyes peeled for any further mentions of Dr. Nichols' remarkable motorhome in the motoring journals of the early twentieth century.

Andrew Woodmansey

August 2022


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