The Boom Years of the 1930s
The tentative experiments in RV design and usage of the 1920s gave way to an RV boom in the 1930s. Although the Great Depression was devastating for many working families, the new RV hobby offered a cheap way of taking holidays each year. For some the RV became a semi-permanent home as owners looked for work anywhere they could find it. For a lucky few, the RV was a status symbol. RVs of all shapes and sizes appeared on the roads of many westernized countries, although the simple camping trailer fell out of favour during the 1930s as fully enclosed vans offered greater comfort to the whole family. Most significantly, cheaper and more powerful automobiles permitted RV owners to to take everything with them including the kitchen sink.
The dramatic growth in the popularity of the American house or travel trailer grew ironically out of the Great Depression of 1929-39. Jobs evaporated and houses were lost. The tent trailers of the 1920s had satisfied the need for short-term comfortable camping, but they were not suited to extended family trips or long term accommodation. As the Depression unfolded, needs changed. People of limited means wanted somewhere to live whilst they were looking for work or downsizing to save money. The solid-walled trailer offered year-round protection.
The cheapest RV was the self-built variety, often adapted from simple utility trailers and later built from plans that started to appear in general hobby and trailer magazines in the early 1930s. As manufacturers jumped into one of the few growth industries of the 1930s, mass-produced travel trailers from Covered Wagon, Schult and others were available for a few hundred dollars up to 1937 and even less thereafter.
By 1938 it was reported that there were as many as 400 trailer manufacturers, 250,000 trailers on America’s roads occupied by a million people. The production-line manufacturing techniques pioneered by Henry Ford had filtered through to RV manufacturing, making RVs cheaper than ever before. Materials were chosen on cost grounds rather than looks or durability. Some makers chose a leatherette material to cover their trailers which was attractive when new but not very durable.
The ‘toaster’ shape was the predominant look of 1930s American travel trailers. It was cheap to build, offered lots of internal space and provided good headroom. ‘Toasters’ were also easily adaptable to other uses such as offices or mobile product displays for traveling salesmen. The oval-shaped caravans of England were adopted in small quantities by some makers but were called ‘canned ham’ trailers because their shape resembled a tin of ham, and were regarded as small and quaint.
The powerful tow vehicles produced in America combined with Depression-era state highway building programs allowed American trailers to become large and often heavy. Families wanted their home comforts on the road and most manufacturers built travel trailers based on size rather than quality. The boxy 'toaster-shaped' travel trailer was universal because it could carry the most. Employees of one trailer builder would sometimes leave to form a competing company - whilst offering competition, this would often mean limited variation in shape or size between manufacturers.
There were exceptions to the 'toaster pandemic' of course, and many of these have become design classics. The Curtiss Aerocar (1928), the Bowlus Road Chief (1934) and the Airstream Clipper (1936) were three examples of streamlined RVs of the 1930s that borrowed designs and materials from the aircraft industry. All were expensive and produced in small numbers. Only Airstream survived beyond the Second World War.
Manufacturers soon learned that traveling salesmen were ideal clients when the more traditional tourist business was slow. Travel trailers were used to sell everything from refrigerators to caskets, especially in remote areas. Manufacturers would also compete to have their trailers featured in movies or photographed with Hollywood stars. A trailer featured in a Mickey Mouse movie in 1938 and provided a number of storylines for trailer movies. Trailers would not only feature in movies, their role as actors’ dressing rooms would become a common feature of Hollywood movie sets in the pre- and post-war era.
Trailer parks sprung up everywhere to cater to the needs of both short- and long-term RV owners. Meetings of The Tin Can Tourists in Florida would attract hundreds of RVs as well as RV dealers showing off their latest wares.
The US RV boom years began in about 1930 and continued until about 1937. The demise of the North American RV industry in the late 1930s will be covered in the fifth and final part of Early RV History.
In Britain the caravan offered a cheap holiday. Caravans could be hired for a few days at much lower nightly cost than a hotel. Many of them were new, lightweight models that could be towed by smaller automobiles. The UK's climate had never particularly suited canvas-covered camping trailers, so fully enclosed caravans dominated the British market during the 1930s. In each case the British caravan had to look 'homely' to attract conservative buyers, so the British caravans of the 1930s would incorporate polished wooden furniture, lampshades, curtains, rugs, carpets and quaint exterior designs resembling Tudor or Jacobean houses.
Eccles was the dominant UK caravan manufacturer of the 1930s. It was the quickest to adopt semi-production line techniques at its Birmingham factory to keep costs down and cleverly used its dealership network and fleets of hire caravans to give newcomers to the hobby a taste of caravanning whilst outsourcing the sale and hire of its caravans.
Other major UK caravan manufacturers of the 1930s included Winchester, Car Cruiser and Cheltenham caravans. Some UK manufacturers had a complicated relationship with caravan streamlining as the following examples show:
Top left: Thomson Caravan (Scotland, 1932), top right: Bampton Caravan (UK, 1937)
Bottom left: Car Cruiser (UK, early 1930s), bottom right: Atlas Aerovan, (UK early 1930s)
Unlike the US however, UK RV manufacturing remained on the whole a cottage industry because caravanning was largely confined to the summer months and weekends, keeping the market small. Some businesses experimented with selling their products using caravans and motorhomes, but the idea failed to take off on a large scale. A maximum towing speed limit of 30mph combined with narrow winding lanes was not conducive to relaxing towing on British roads.
From 1936 the UK caravan industry started to feel the impact of a new form of holiday – the holiday camp. Butlins was the first to open in Skegness in 1936 and by 1939 there were between three to four hundred camps across the UK offering four meals a day, clean accommodation, concerts, dancing and multiple sports. It would not be until after the Second World War that British caravan parks responded with improved facilities for caravanners.
Australia was badly hit by the Great Depression, with unemployment reaching about thirty per cent in 1932. With Australia’s main wool export markets similarly affected, it was
left to the local manufacturing industry to restore jobs and wealth. Having most likely begun in South Australia in 1932, Australian caravan manufacturing shifted to New South Wales and Victoria, where caravan manufacturing played its part. In the mid-1930s, Melbourne in particular was becoming a hub for caravan builders.
From the early 1930s onwards, Australian caravans began to assume their own unique features. These included streamlined bodies to reduce fuel costs over long distances,
good ventilation, small windows to keep out the heat, high ground clearance for crossing rivers and sand dunes and cream-coloured exteriors to reduce heat absorption without the glare of white paint. The ‘pop-top’ caravan was an important design offshoot in Australia. It had a raisable roof which reduced wind resistance when on tow whilst providing extra headroom and ventilation at camp. The local version of the pop-top was probably pioneered by John Jennison in 1933. So-called ‘caravanettes’ – small caravans with a bed and an exterior kitchen – were also built in limited numbers.
As roads improved and tow vehicles became more powerful in the late 1930s, the flexibility and value for money offered by large, fully-featured and sometimes heavy caravans became irresistible to many Australians. The first dedicated caravan parks started appearing in the mid-1930s and significantly enhanced the popularity of the hobby. State-based and manufacturer-sponsored caravan clubs and associations were formed to promote caravanning and advertise suitable destinations to take a caravan.
After 1930, the caravan finally became more visible on French roads. As in the UK, the flexibility and affordability of the caravan gave it an advantage over the motorhome. It was not seen in the same numbers as the USA and the UK, but it held a niche position in the leisure market as a comfortable way to enjoy the outdoors. A small number of caravan makers became active in France during the 1930s. Designs varied according to the background and experience of each manufacturer, but the most common design was a mid-sized, oval-shaped caravan with low ground clearance suitable for long-distance touring on France’s good roads. A company called Stella produced caravans similar to British designs, but most other manufacturers came up with their own designs.
Notin is perhaps France’s best-known manufacturer of the period, followed by Hénon and Rex. Smaller makers such as Georges Lemarié built caravans in low numbers including an
unusual caravan called L’Escargot, or The Snail. French caravans of this period are still carefully collected and restored by a passionate group of RV enthusiasts to this day.
Germany’s caravan-building efforts of the 1930s were fragmented and highly localized. It was a cottage industry led by pioneers with expertise in other fields such as tent or glider making. But in a country where even a motorcycle was a luxury, these pioneers understood the importance of making caravans light enough to be towed by affordable automobiles. Three manufacturers in particular – Arist Dethleffs, Hans Berger and Wolf Hirth – were important pioneers in the construction of small caravans in the 1930s but are largely unknown outside Germany.
As in a number of other countries, the 1930s in New Zealand was the decade of the caravan. By 1939 it was estimated that there were more than 9,000 caravan registrations in New Zealand, with Christchurch and Auckland having the largest number.
Probably the first New Zealand caravan to be manufactured commercially in limited numbers was the Davey Trailer Caravan, made by Charles Davey of Auckland in 1931.Launched at the Auckland Winter Exhibition of July 1931, the Davey Trailer Caravan adopted the short, tall form of New Zealand’s early horse-drawn caravans. The caravans could be built to order from £85 or hired from £4 per week. For reasons unknown the company had only a short life until the end of 1931 when the business was put up for sale.
A number of motor body works companies made small quantities of caravans for sale or hire, particularly in the latter half of the 1930s. The self-built caravan was also
popular. During the 1930s a few UK caravans including Eccles, Winchesters and Car Cruisers were personally imported into New Zealand by migrants or long-term tourists. Rice camper trailers were also imported by at least one commercial dealer.
Most motorhomes or 'house cars' of the 1930s were custom-built. There is no evidence of motorhomes being mass-manufactured in any country prior to Germany's VW Kombi of 1950. They were niche products built mainly for the wealthy and were generally so heavy that only the good quality and extensive road networks that appeared after the Second World War could support their extensive manufacture and use.
The motorhomes of the 1930s nevertheless offer fascinating glimpses into how countries interpreted the needs of their motorhoming clients in different ways. Below are a few examples:
The final part of our five-part series on Early RV History covers the pre-WW2 period of 1938-9.
View the other parts of this blog below: