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'Le Pigeon Vole' Caravan (France, c1920)

An important French caravan built by journalist Louis Baudry de Saunier in about 1920.

The self-built 'Pigeon Vole' caravan of Baudry de Saunier (France, built c1920, photo taken later. Image from 'La Science et La Vie', Aug 1925, courtesy Cnum - Conservatoire numérique des Arts et Métiers - )

Louis Baudry de Saunier was a well-known early twentieth century cycling and automobile writer and journalist from France. He created two important pre-WW1 publications, La Vie Automobile and Omnia. After the First World War he became editor-in-chief of the Revue Mensuelle du Touring Club de France, where he promoted the benefits of tourism and in particular the advantages of travelling by caravan. He wrote several books including La Joie du Camping ('The Joy of Camping') in 1925 and Le Camping Pratique Pour Tous ('Practical Camping for All') in 1937.

De Saunier is little known in France today, even less elsewhere. But he does have a French Wikipedia entry which can be found here.

De Saunier did not just write about caravans, he also built and used them. Having ordered a 'small, strong two-wheeled caravan' from coachbuilders Rothschild in his early caravanning days (of which no records remain), de Saunier went on to build his own caravan in about 1920 called Le Pigeon Vole (The Flying Pigeon, also the name of a children's game in France). It was box-shaped with a gabled roof and fold-out walls and accommodated up to four people.

The fully assembled self-built 'Pigeon Vole' caravan of Baudry de Saunier (France, built c1920, photo taken later. Image from 'La Science et La Vie', Aug 1925, courtesy Cnum - Conservatoire numérique des Arts et Métiers - )

De Saunier's knowledge of automobiles led him to design a caravan that did not place undue stress on the tow vehicle when towing. He claimed that when under tow it only increased fuel consumption by ten per cent. It was a study in light weight and compact design, weighing about 900kg fully laden, so this claim is credible. Yet it still managed to contain beds, tables, cupboards, stove and fold-out walls for good ventilation. There was even space outside for window boxes full of tulips.

Le Pigeon Vole at the Château de Fougères in 1923 (source Gallica)

The caravan covered long distances during its time. De Saunier wrote extensively about his travels and in doing so helped to promote caravanning in France. He later wondered why caravanning was not more popular. His own theory was that the French were too reluctant to leave their comfortable homes. it was not until the mid to late 1930s that leisure caravans gained broad acceptance in France.

Pigeon Vole in the Dordogne in June 1924 (source Gallica)
Pigeon Vole in the Charente in July 1924 (Source Gallica)

In later life de Saunier struggled with serious illness, but it's not know whether, like many other early caravan pioneers including Gordon Stables and Betram Smith, this was the catalyst for taking up caravanning.

De Saunier's legacy is equal to that of Charles Louvet in terms of his contribution to the growth of the RV hobby in France. Whilst Louvet built some very large aircraft-inspired RVs that were used extensively as exhibition vehicles, de Saunier built something small and practical for everyday use. It sits in a hybrid space between camping trailer and solid walled caravan, and contained many advantages of both.

Perhaps of greater significance than Le Pigeon Vole are de Saunier's books and articles about the joys of camping and caravanning. They will have led to many of his compatriots to take up the hobby in the 1920s and beyond. Sometimes the power of the pen is greater than the power of the machine.

Andrew Woodmansey

December 2022


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