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Early RV History (Part 2)

From Horse Power to Horsepower (1895 to 1914)

French Steam-Driven RVs

For the first powered RVs we must look to France. France was a leading developer of early automobiles in the late nineteenth century, so it is no surprise that France applied its automotive design and engineering skills in creative ways. An excellent road network developed in Napoleonic times, government-backed automotive races and an extensive network of high-quality coachbuilders provided fertile ground for the French automotive industry to become world leaders at the end of the nineteenth century.

With one possible exception (see Émile Levassor below), the first powered RVs were steam-driven. France is the only country that we know of to use steam power to drive RVs — it was one of the few countries whose early roads were good enough to accommodate such heavy vehicles. It was also fortunate to have an extensive river and canal network from which steam boilers could be replenished. Steam-powered RVs had the unfortunate handicap of always having to travel close to water.

The steam-driven Grande Diligence of Prince Oldenburg (France, 1896, courtesy Cnum)

The first steam-driven RV that we know of was the Grande Diligence built for a Paris-based Russian prince, Prince Oldenburg, in 1896. Only a sketch of this RV remains, which forms the logo of A second steam-driven RV was designed for another Russian Prince, Prince Orloff, a year later. This was never completed, probably due to an over-complex articulated design. A third steam RV was build for a Parisian tourist, Monsieur Rénodier, in 1898. This is the first steam RV to be photographed - the photo is include in my book Recreational Vehicles: A World History 1872-1939.

Émile Levassor

The one exception to the French use of steam in the first powered RVs in the late 1890s is the RV conceived by Émile Levassor in 1895. Levassor was co-founder of the Paris-based Panhard Levassor automobile company. He died prematurely in 1897 from injuries sustained in an automobile race. Prior to his death in about 1895 there are written records of him designing and building a leisure caravan for his personal use to be towed by a petrol-driven automobile. There are no sketches or photos of this RV, although there is one photo in existence (featured in my book) of a mystery caravan not dissimilar to Levassor's concept. There is also an intriguing reference in 'The Horseless Age' (USA) of October 1896 to a makeshift exhibition of vehicles held at the end of the Paris-Marseilles-Paris race in 1896:

"Panhard & Levassor had in addition to their three winners an omnibus and a tourists' wagon, already sold."

We may never know if this reference was to Émile Levassor's caravan (early company records were destroyed by a fire) but what we can say today is that Levassor was probably the first to come up with the idea of a motorised RV.

The First Motorhomes

Around 1900 the internal combustion engine was not powerful enough to tow a trailer of any kind over rough roads, so the period from 1900 to the First World War saw motorised goods trucks adapted to include accommodation - the first motorhomes.

The first known motorhome was unsurprisingly steam-driven, the French Quo Vadis made by Turgan & Foy in 1900. It was rudimentary, being adapted from a heavy goods vehicle and was transported by ship to Africa for a trip across Algeria.

This was soon followed in 1902 by the Passe Partout, the first known motorhome driven by a petrol engine. Built in France for an ambitious trip by Dr. E.E. Lehwess around the world, it began its journey in London but only made it as far as Russia. Another French petrol-driven motorhome resembling a railway carriage was built in 1903 and was called La Bourlinguette.

British and American motorhomes began to appear from about 1904. The first recorded British motorhome was one built for Mr. Mallalieu of Manchester in 1905 by the Belsize Motor Company. In the USA three 'camp cars' were built for Boston-based hunters Roy Faye and Freeman Young between 1904 and 1906 built on Rambler, Thomas Flyer and Matheson chassis.

An article on one of Roy Fay's Camp Cars (Source: Popular Mechanics, January 1908)

These early motorhomes were slow, heavy, noisy and unreliable. Relying (as many motorhomes still do today) on truck chassis, only the dedicated hunter or camper would consider their use, and even then owners were forced to remain on main roads that could accommodate their bulk. They were shunned by traditional horse-drawn caravan owners in Britain, who wanted to escape the industrial revolution, not take it with them.

Long Distance Touring Limousines

In 1904 De Dietrich of France took advantage of new developments in long wheelbase chassis to build a luxury touring limousine. It was not a motorhome in today's sense, but included a large rear internal area for occasional sleeping when wealthy owners could not find suitable accommodation on their travels. The touring limousine concept was later replicated by a number of other French manufacturers as well as Benz of Germany (1906) and Walsh (1909) and Pierce-Arrow (1910) of the USA.

The Benz 'Reisewagen' of 1906 (Source: Allgemeine Automobil-Zeitung)

Although touring limousines looked good in the motor show halls of the decade, their cost was prohibitive and there were few buyers. Touring limousines became something of a dead end in the RV family tree as much cheaper alternatives quickly became available.

Early Motorhome Pioneers

We have photos of a number of early UK motorhomes from the first decade of the twentieth century including those belonging to Albert Fletcher (1906), Harvey du Cros (1909) and W.M. Appleton (1910), all of which feature in the UK chapter of my book. From 1910 to 1914 a number of British truck manufacturers experimented with motorhomes including Albion (a spacious motorhome for a disabled client in 1914), Halley (1914) and Wolseley (1914). All appear to be one-off custom designs that never went into mass production.

France likewise dipped its toe in the waters of the new motorhome fashion with models built by Bruno (1910), Delahaye (1911), Gregoire (1912) and Mass (1913). None seemed to grab public attention - why would anyone want to live in a noisy, smelly and unreliable truck?

Even in the USA, where new roads were being built at a furious pace to deal with the explosion in popularity of the automobile, motorhomes remained an oddity. Two well-known early US motorhomes, Thomas Coleman Dupont's Camping Auto (1911) and Roland Conklin's 'Gypsy Bus' (1915) were purpose-built for their clients and never replicated. It was to be another, more modest form of RV, the tent trailer, that would start the American RV movement in earnest.

In Europe, World War One brought the modest production of leisure vehicles to an end. Some motorhomes were converted to military or hospital use. The RV industry would emerge after the war looking very different, with a new kid on the block taking the world by storm - the caravan.

Part 3 of this series covers the birth of the travel trailer or caravan.

Andrew Woodmansey

February 2022

Links to the other blogs on early RV history are below:


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