Motorcycle trailers used for leisure purposes date back to the early twentieth century. But over time they lost out to the more practical and safer motorcycle sidecar.
Warning: Towing anything with a motorcycle carries significant risks. Towing anything heavier than the weight of the motorcycle and its rider is potentially lethal. 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 plans and designs shown here were carried out 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 motorcycle trailer - doing so may result in serious injury or death.
The article accompanying the 'prairie schooner' photo above states:
"In preparing to make an overland trip from Stamford, Conn., to San Francisco, a motorcycle enthusiast has developed a truly modern prairie schooner which is no less an innovation than it is a curiosity. It consists of a light, covered wagon mounted on cycle wheels and drawn by a single-cylinder motorcycle hitched, horse-fashion, before it. The interior is comfortably appointed with folding beds and specially designed cabinets for provisions, cooking utensils, and other paraphernalia. The builder of the vehicle will be accompanied on the journey across country by his wife and two children."
So is this the first-ever motorcycle-drawn RV? Read on.
Early Motorcycle Trailers
The motorcycle trailer is almost as old as the motorcycle, which was first commercialised in the mid 1880s. In the early 1900s, as soon as motorcycle engines were powerful enough, there was much debate about how to carry a motorcycle passenger. Should they go in front of, behind or beside the driver? In November 1902 Motor Age of America reported:
"The motor cycle trailer has received so much attention in England and Europe that it has been adopted by prominent members of the New York Motor Cycle Club. In several of the club's runs on Long Island and other roads President E. J. Willis has appeared at the rendezvous of the meet with his 2-horsepower machine equipped with a trailer carrying one passenger. Owing to the mishaps to the machine of some of the other members he has had an opportunity to demonstrate the practical utility of the trailer."
Since the passenger was often female, the initially-favoured front position was later decided to be too risky for the ladies as speeds increased. Carrying a lady as a pillion passenger was simply not an option in those conservative days. The trailer option found favour for a period, but conversation between driver and passenger was difficult and exhaust fumes made the passenger's ride miserable. As the century progressed, motorcycle trailers would continued to be used, but mainly for carrying goods.
By 1908 Motorcycle Illustrated of America had made up its mind:
"We need not consider the trailer, as it will probably never come into use in this country, and only has a very limited use abroad...When we come to look at the matter seriously, however, and actually compare the advantages and disadvantages of the two systems of carrying an extra passenger on a motorcycle (the fore-car and the sidecar), we find that the sidecar has a great many advantages."
Motorcycle Illustrated, 15 Nov 1908
The Motorcycle Ambulance
The First World War made a contribution to the debate about how to carry passengers on a motorcycle. Both sidecar and trailer solutions were seen in different countries during wartime.
Avid readers of rvhistory.com or of my book will know the design significance of the ambulance wagon and ambulance trailer to the history of the RV. These ancestors of the modern RV are explored in separate blogs here and here. Both bicycles and motorcycles played a role in transporting wounded soldiers during wartime. The bicycle's contribution is covered separately here.
The sidecar solution was favoured in the UK, whilst in Italy the trailer was used:
The Italian version could carry up to four people (driver, pillion rider and two on the stretcher trailer) but needed a powerful engine.
Motorcycle Trailers for Work and Pleasure
After the First World War thoughts turned to peacetime uses of the motorcycle. No longer used to carry passengers, the motorcycle trailer was seen as a useful and cost-effective tool for the motorcycle owner to run a mobile business. Painters, carpenters, paperhangers and masons were seen as suitable trades that could benefit from such a vehicle. Plans to build motorcycle trailers were produced in the American Popular Mechanics magazine in 1922.
Earlier in 1918 Popular Mechanics had suggested camping as a suitable pastime that could benefit from a motorcycle trailer, and gave detailed instructions to its readers over six pages on how to build one (not fully reproduced here for safety reasons):
The advantages of the trailer over the sidecar for this particular purpose were emphasized by the magazine, including less wind resistance and easy removal of the trailer when the motorcycle was needed for side trips.
It appears that the use of motorcycle trailer for camping trips gathered a number of followers, particularly in the USA. In 1921 US magazine Outdoor Recreation reported in its October 1921 issue on a motorcycle trip to the Berkshires:
"The trip was made possible by the success of F. M. Waters, leader of the party, in designing the trailer. In this tiny vehicle were packed the tents, rubber clothing and cooking utensils for the entire party, which eliminated the necessity of crowding the side cars with packs; yet with all this duffle he was able to get over the roads at high speed, and was not even conscious that he was towing a trailer...
"The invention of a motor cycle trailer opens up wide and delightful fields to the automotive camper...With the motor cycle trailer it is possible to go almost anywhere...No attempt is being made as yet to manufacture a trailer according to Mr. Waters' design, but he will be glad to send details of the vehicle to any motor cycle owner who wishes to have one built."
Up to this point the trailers used for camping were in effect cargo trailers that carried camping equipment. None had been specifically designed for camping.
The Arthur Eccles Motorcycle Caravan (UK, 1921)
In 1921 in the UK we see the first-known, purpose-built, motorcycle camping trailer. Readers of the blog on Eccles Caravans will know that this trailer was invented by Arthur Eccles shortly before parting ways with the company to build and operate a cinema.
According to a review of this trailer in the Dundee Evening Telegraph of 9 May 1921, "The motor cycle trailer is a light, collapsible caravan, weighing two hundredweight. It is constructed of weatherproof Cape cart hood material, and can comfortably accommodate two persons. The inventor is Mr. Arthur J. Eccles, London."
In typical Eccles style, the Eccles 'collapsible caravan' was available for hire as well as purchase, helping to promote the outdoor lifestyle as well as the vehicle. At a time when Eccles was focusing on building the solid-walled caravan to be towed by automobiles, little attention seems to have been devoted to promoting this niche product. It does not appear in any newspaper or magazine after 1921.
The Rudge-Whitworth Motorcycle Caravan (UK, 1926)
(Thanks go to www.thevintagent.com for the use of photos and information in this section of the blog)
It was left to a British motorcycle manufacturer to come up with the definitive motorcycle RV of the 1920s. Exhibited at Olympia in London in October 1926, the Rudge-Whitworth Motorcycle Caravan was the first solid-walled motorcycle caravan.
According to motorcycle historian Paul D'Orléans at www.thevintagent.com:
"The Rudge Caravan was introduced for the 1927 model range, further exploring this uncharted territory for touring motorcycles. A complete outfit was offered, with Rudge 500cc ohv motorcycle and ‘Semi-Sports’ sidecar, plus the trailer, for £136.50. The Caravan itself was 7’3″ (2.23m) long 4’10” (1.5m) wide, and 4’7″ (1.4m) high. Inside were two small beds, a table, storage lockers, etc. Weight of the caravan was 285lbs, about the same as the solo motorcycle. It was recommended that cooking and washing occur outside of the trailer – cooking especially due to fire danger. A commercial version of the trailer was available, and were in use as late as 1944 delivering milk by the Coventry Co-op. When parked, the owner’s manual recommended the outfit’s tow-bar to be ‘lashed to the nearest hedge, and the rear corners fitted with ropes and pegged down’, with attention paid to the prevailing winds and likely course of the sun."
The company was wise to offer this caravan as a package with motorcycle and sidecar, since this combination would have provided greater stability when towing the caravan, especially for inexperienced motorcyclists.
Like the Eccles collapsible caravan, the Rudge-Whitworth caravan was made available for hire by The Holiday Caravan Company. According to an article in The Graphic of 16 July 1927, "The latest device for an inexpensive tour is the motor-cycle-trailer-caravan. It is even more independent of the beaten paths than the motor-trailer, and is becoming increasingly popular among men who love the open air but have no inclination for the displays and crowds at the more frequented holiday resorts."
The Eccles Motorcycle Caravan (UK, 1927)
Not to be outdone by a motorcycle manufacturer, British caravan maker Eccles added its weight behind a solid-walled motorcycle caravan in 1927. Whether the Eccles version was derived from Arthur Eccles' collapsible caravan of 1921 or the Rudge caravan is not known – it was probably inspired by both.
Once again the Eccles caravan is shown only in Eccles advertising in combination with a motorcycle and sidecar. By the early 1930s the Eccles version was no longer advertised, so may have met with limited demand as it competed with new lightweight caravans able to be towed by small automobiles.
The Rice Folding Caravan (UK, c1930)
J. Cecil Rice of Yorkshire built a number of 'folding caravan' models from 1928 onwards. The lightest model was towable not just by an Austin 7 automobile but also by a motorcycle. The design was a hybrid of the early and later Eccles motorcycle trailers and represented perhaps the best compromise between soft-walled canvas trailers and solid-walled caravans.
US Motorcycle Trailer Innovation
Most motorcycle trailer innovation in the USA in the late 1920s and 1930s focused on helping people to find work during the Great Depression. All kinds of trailers were suggested to carry equipment and goods to distant worksites or new cities. When leisure was considered, camping equipment was incorporated in a makeshift fashion, such as the hamper trailer below:
Later in the 1930s a few self-made travel trailers appeared, such as the one below:
According to the magazine,
"This motorcycle trailer, which is 43 inches wide, 44 inches high and seven feet long, is heated by a kerosene stove and contains a full-sized cot, five-tube radio, electric lights and ventilators in the roof. It has seven screened windows. Its owner, Otto Gerling of Ellensdale, N.D., recently used it on a 6,000 mile please jaunt."
By the mid-1930s the automobile-drawn travel trailer was being made in such quantities and at such low prices that there was no need for motorcycle travel trailers. Whilst road conditions had improved significantly by the 1930s, rural roads were still variable in quality and would have made the use of a motorcycle trailer challenging. In the USA the sidecar remained the dominant method of carrying passengers or goods prior to the Second World War.
German Motorcycle Trailer Innovation (1930s)
Although 1930s Germany may initially seem to be an unlikely place for motorcycle trailer innovation, the country was ideal for this type of RV. Germany in the 1930s was in deep recession and motorcycles were all that many families could afford as a means of transport. Roads were generally good, and the country had a strong history of designing and building lightweight caravans, kayaks and model aeroplanes, a topic explored in this blog.
The June 1936 edition of Popular Science featured a German-designed motorcycle and caravan. The caravan is significant since it was one of the first teardrop caravans to be built with an internal double bed and rear external kitchen – the same configuration that most true teardrops still follow today. It is not known if this caravan was ever built.
And thanks to the members of the Oldie Caravan Club Deutschland (www.oldiecaravan.de), we have some brief details of a small German motorcycle caravan manufacturer. The 'Vagabund' caravan shown below was made by Hans O. Schulz of Minden. Designed for towing by motorcycles and small automobiles, the caravan weighed only 58kg. The chassis could be separated from the caravan body, allowing the trailer to be used for carrying goods.
As we found in our blog on bicycle trailers, the early days of the marriage between motorcycles and camping trailers were full of ups and downs. Many of the advantages of the motorcycle were lost when using a trailer, whilst passenger-carrying duties of the motorcycle rested then as it does today firmly with the sidecar. Some of the space-saving innovations found in early motorcycle caravans, such as the teardrop trailer, have made their way into automobile-towed caravans, but the increased power of automobile engines combined with our ever-growing need to carry more stuff has made further innovation in motorcycle RV-ing a niche market.
Back to the question we posed at the top of this blog. Was the 1915 'prairie schooner' the first-ever motorcycle RV? The short answer is no. rvhistory.com believes that to qualify as an RV a vehicle must be purpose-built for recreation. This particular 'prairies schooner', like its horse-drawn predecessors, seems generic and would have been used primarily to carry household goods. It does not seem to have been permanently modified in any way for long-term use as an RV.
So for the time being, Arthur Eccles of the UK can be given the prize for the first motorcycle RV with his collapsible motorcycle caravan of 1921. The first solid-walled motorcycle caravan is the Rudge-Whitworth of 1926, closely followed by Eccles in 1927.
But who knows what other vehicles may be turned up in 2023 in the exciting world of RV history?