Bicycle-drawn trailers were used historically for promotional purposes or to tow children and dogs, but they did have a more serious purpose during wartime and in the Great Depression.
Warning: Towing anything with a bicycle carries significant risks. Towing anything heavier than the weight of the bicycle and its rider is potentially lethal because braking and steering are severely compromised. It is strictly regulated in most countries. Check with the manufacturer and understand the towing rules in your country before towing with any two-wheeled vehicle. The stunts, plans or designs shown here were carried out under controlled conditions or before such risks were fully understood. They are provided for general historical information only. Do not imitate or use them to design or construct any form of bicycle trailer - doing so may result in serious injury or death.
What better way to demonstrate the lightness of your travel trailer than to have it towed by a cyclist? Airstream's Wally Byam invited French cyclist Alfred Latourneur to do just this in 1947. Other RV makers did the same, although it's not known if the doctored photo below was taken before or after Byam's initiative.
Such publicity stunts would be frowned upon today, since towing such a large trailer with a bicycle would have been conducted under controlled circumstances and would be potentially fatal in the real world.
Byam may or may not have know it, but the concept of bicycles towing trailers has a history almost as old as the bicycle itself.
The Bicycle Ambulance
Just as the ambulance wagon was an American forerunner of the travel trailer, bicycle-powered ambulances demonstrated the ability of bicycles to be rigged to carry people in comfort.
Bicycle ambulances were conceived in the late 1870s, refined in the 1890s and used sporadically during the Boer and First World Wars. Engineering companies such as Alldays and Onions, Royal Enfield and Remington came up with a range of designs to expedite the removal of wounded soldiers from the battlefield without the need for horses. Suspending a canvas stretcher between two bicycles was the most common method used, but some, such as the German model above, used a solid enclosure mounted on a fifth-wheel-type trailer towed by a tricycle.
According to the authors of the 1893 book, 'The Art and Pastime of Cycling', "the first gathering of cyclists under canvas" probably took place in Harrogate, Yorkshire in 1876. It was a fixed camp, but the honour of instituting camping-out cycle tours, say the authors, belonged to Ireland. An 1888 tour of Ireland by ten cyclists needed a "heavily-laden baggage wagon" to take the cyclists' camping equipment that was hard to drive. The cyclists learned they would need to travel much lighter when going on cycle camping holidays.
Thanks to the efforts of converts such as Thomas Hiram Holding who founded the Cyclists' Touring Club in 1878 (the forerunner of the UK Camping and Caravanning Club), cycle camping became popular among both men and ladies (who often used tricycles). Holding used his tailoring skills to develop lightweight camping tents and materials. After the First World War cycle camping became a cost-effective way of taking a holiday. With the help of friendly farmers who supplied most of their food, cycle campers had got the knack of weight management down to a fine art:
As cycle campers saw the emergence of the automobile-drawn caravan and trailer during the early 1920s, perhaps with some envy, they began to seek ways of making their own tours more comfortable. They needed cycle trailers. Or so they thought.
The British interest in lightweight trailers towed by bicycles seems to be limited to military or ambulance use. Instead the British focused on lightweight motorcycle campers and caravans, which are explored in a separate blog. France, America and Australia used cycle trailers during the 1920s and 30s with mixed results.
During the 1920s, cycling-crazy France inevitably experimented with cycle trailers. Charles Mochet was the inventor of the Velocar, a pedal-powered, semi-enclosed three- or four-wheeler. The advert above shows a French pair seeking funding for a round the world trip in a Velocar and lightweight caravan designed and built by Mochet. It is not know if the trip ever took place. Another small caravan developed by Charles Mochet in 1925, probably as a children's toy, features in Recreational Vehicles: A World History 1872-1939.
In the USA bicycle trailers were used during the Great Depression by tradesmen to carry the tools of their trade from place to place seeking orders. In the mid 1930s the bicycle trailer became a low cost form of overnight accommodation. Popular Mechanics published plans for a 'telescoping bicycle trailer' in August 1935, which in extended form looked more like a casket than a camper:
How weatherproof a handmade telescopic camper would be is anyone's guess.
A slightly more streamlined version came along in 1937:
And another homemade bicycle camper appeared in the same year:
The article reads:
"Not to be outdone by motor car trailer owners, Billy Roach, of Tampa, Fla., designed and built a bicycle trailer for use on week-end camping trips. Constructed of wood and wallboard, the trailer is 7 1/2 feet long, 26 inches wide, and 33 inches deep.
"Weighing 75 pounds, the trailer body is mounted on an axle equipped with 15-inch tricycle wheels. An air mattress and pillow provide all the comforts of home and a 6-volt dry battery furnishes current for an interior dome light and a tail light."
An alternative to a bed on wheels was to keep the bicycle trailer small and use it to carry camping equipment:
Under the title of 'Bike for Touring has Radio and Trailer' the description of the above photo reads:
"How to fit a bicycle for cross-country travel was recently demonstrated by Hubert J. Phillips of Cheyenne, Wyo., who added a homemade trailer and radio to his machine for a tour to the Pacific Coast. Weighing thirty-five pounds empty, the trailer holds a one-man camping outfit."
By 1940 in the USA the bed-on-wheels seems to have been the most widely used design:
The short article accompanying the photo above comments:
"Towing his sleeping quarters behind him in a compact trailer, an eighteen-year-old cyclist of Menominee, Mich., recently traveled nearly 1,200 miles to Boston, Mass., economically and comfortably. Post cards that he sold to curious spectators paid for his supplies during the fourteen-day journey. Streamline in shape, the sturdy trailer is a homemade product of his own design. He is shown above demonstrating his sleeping quarters to an admiring hotel doorman."
Of course there was no shortage of bicycle trailers for the kids:
Australia experimented with teardrop cycle trailers in the late 1930s and was perhaps the most successful at coming up with a design that worked – a teardrop camper towed by two bicycles. The following example was seen in Tasmania in 1938:
The accompanying article comments:
"Working at night, E.Flint and M. Price, two Hobart youths, have built an ingenious caravan trailer, which is towed by two bicycles. The novel vehicle attracted considerable attention when it was taken through the city yesterday.
"Streamlined and constructed of plywood, the trailer is 8ft. long, 4 ft. wide, and a little more than 5 ft. high, and provides sleeping accommodation for two persons. It is painted cream and green, and the interior is fitted with electric light. It was designed by Mr. Flint and built by him with his companion's assistance in six weeks.
"The caravan proved its value when its builders went to Snug for the Easter holidays. Heavy rain flooded out a number of campers, but in the security of the caravan they were comfortable – and dry. The two bicycles which draw the trailer are fastened together, and the gears are co-ordinated."
Messrs Flint and Price and their caravan featured in a short Pathé newsreel from 1939 which can be seen here.
A similar teardrop-shaped trailer with twin bicycles configuration was seen in Burleigh, Queensland in April 1939.
The last word on early cycle trailers goes to US travel trailer manufacturer Schult. A small Schult trailer was towed by two men called 'Don and Jim, The Trailer Twins' using a tandem bicycle. The trailer features here. Dates and further information on 'The Trailer Twins' are unknown.
The low weight and self-propulsion advantages of a bicycle were severely tested when used with a trailer. Stability, steering and braking were also compromised when a bicycle towed anything. The fact that no single design dominated this field suggests that none of them worked well enough to be widely accepted. If a two-wheeled tow vehicle was your only option, then a motorcycle was a far better choice. The motorcycle trailer is explored in a separate blog.
Today the bicycle trailer is largely confined to the carrying of light cargo and small children. Although the advent of the electric bike may in future see slightly larger load-carrying capacities, we have yet to see any happy marriages between the bicycle and the trailer.
Perhaps they were never meant to be together.