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Early RV History (Part 3)

The rise of the automobile-drawn caravan (1918-1930)

An early Eccles caravan (UK 1919, courtesy of The Historic Caravan Club)

After World War One the fledgling RV industry around the world was in disarray.

The romantic idea of roaming the British countryside in a horse-drawn wooden caravan, pioneering by the Gentlemen Gypsies in the 1890s, became a forlorn pipe dream. Millions of horses were killed during the war and those that survived were needed for essential delivery services. The first motorhomes had been found to be far from pleasurable by their pioneering owners. They were slow, heavy, noisy, dirty and unreliable.

But war-weary citizens of Europe and America were desperate for a break. Resort hotels increased their prices in response to demand, but this was rarely matched by improved accommodation and service. So where could travelers go for a short vacation?

The future hope of the RV rested with the automobile. More precisely, the ability of the automobile to tow small, lightweight trailers adapted for camping. This idea was first discussed (and possibly executed) by French automobile pioneer Émile Levassor in 1895. After the war the UK and America both discovered the leisure potential of the automobile but exploited it in different ways.

A Piggott Bros. caravan and Horstman automobile (UK 1922, courtesy the Caravan and Motorhome Club)

In the UK the solid-walled caravan soon emerged as the favourite form of towed RV in about 1919. The variable British weather meant anything made of canvas or resembling a tent would have limited appeal. Something more resembling a 'house on wheels' was deemed the best way forwards. One of the first British caravan manufacturers, Eccles, was inspired by the ambulance trailers used to convey injured troops from railway stations to hospitals in Birmingham. Surplus aircraft parts were re-purposed by another caravan maker, Navarac ('caravan' backwards) to make basic four-wheeled caravans, whilst Piggott Bros. of London used their marquee-making experience to build canvas-walled caravans. Of these, Eccles was by far the most successful and longest-lived British caravan manufacturer.

A Campbell tent trailer (1915 USA, courtesy Joel Silvey)

In the USA, better weather meant that the tent trailer was the RV of choice into the 1920s. The Ford Model T, introduced in 1908, could not tow anything heavy, but it opened up motoring to a new mass market and was quickly adapted to tow tent trailers. 'Auto camping', or camping with an automobile, took off in the second decade of the 1900s as campers explored the fast-growing national park network, but as camping equipment grew it became necessary to put everything in a trailer. The Detroit area was the main centre for the manufacture of the tent trailer due to its proximity to both auto manufacturers and vacation destinations such as The Great Lakes. Over time the tent was attached to the trailer and lifted up and over, leading to the development of popup tent trailers.

During the 1920s British caravans grew in size and facilities but always looked 'homely'. Manufacturers including Eccles, Hutchings, Car Cruiser and Cheltenham experimented with a wide range of caravan size and shapes. Collapsible and folding caravans became popular for a while in the mid 1920s, but their folding or lifting mechanisms rarely withstood the rigours of towing. As automobile power increased, caravans become larger and heavier.

A collapsible Shadow caravan (UK, 1927, courtesy Mary Evan Picture Library)

In North America experimentation went beyond the tent trailer. Between 1918 and 1920 aviation pioneer Glenn H. Curtiss developed a fifth wheel travel trailer with folding sides, but it was too heavy. A smaller version with fixed walls and standard towball was more successful. It was known as the Adams Motorbungalo - the forerunner of the renowned Curtiss Aerocar of 1928. As in the UK the growing power of automobile engines allowed ever bigger trailers to be towed. When families less accustomed to the rigours of tent camping tried out a tent trailer, they often became frustrated with the inconveniences associated with canvas, leading to the introduction of the solid-walled travel trailer in the late 1920s by Arthur Sherman's Covered Wagon company.

The first Covered Wagon (USA, 1929, courtesy Al Hesselbart)

In the 1920s other countries began to experiment on a limited scale with rudimentary RVs of various shapes and sizes, including France, Germany, Australia and New Zealand. Most were self-built, with manufacturing not starting at scale in these countries until the 1930s. Charles Louvet of France was a prodigious and creative self-builder, importing many design and construction ideas from aviation.

1929 was a pivotal year for the RV industry worldwide. It was the start of The Great Depression. In the USA, mass unemployment led to many families losing their homes and having to travel to find work. For many the travel trailer was the solution to both problems. To be used as semi-permanent housing for families on the move, travel trailers had to be both large and affordable. Manufacturers quickly latched onto this opportunity and used the mass-manufacturing techniques of Ford to build thousands of travel trailers at reasonable cost but of variable quality. The Great Depression also meant that more luxurious RVs such as 'house cars' (motorhomes) and the expensive Aerocar fell out of favour.

Affordable travel trailers for sale (USA, 1930s, courtesy Library of Congress)

The British caravan industry also felt the impact of The Great Depression. Those able to afford cars were generally of the low horsepower variety, which meant that caravans too had to be small. Anything over 12ft long was unlikely to sell in 1929. Better still if the caravan was streamlined to save on fuel bills.

Motorhomes continued to struggle during the 1920s. Although the first coachbuilt motorhomes appeared, such as Noel Pemberton Billing's Road Yacht of 1928, they were less flexible than the caravan or trailer because they could not be used as daily transport.

So the 1920s was the decade of experimentation in RV design. The fruits of these experiments would come in the 1930s, when demand for the travel trailer and caravan took off in a way that surprised the world.

Part Four of this series explores the 1930s - the golden era of the RV.

Andrew Woodmansey

May 2022

View the other parts of this blog below:


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