To claim that a particular recreational vehicle was the 'first ever' or an RV manufacturer is 'the oldest in existence' is both easy and often done. To substantiate such a claim is harder, especially when some RV manufacturers made other things before making RVs. Any claim depends on your definition of an RV, where it was built and how it was powered. It might have been designed but not built, or built but no longer in existence. Even when you have narrowed all this down, along comes a photo or piece of historical evidence to throw doubt on your conclusions.
rvhistory.com has produced a range of 'RV firsts' below, based on available evidence to date. This list comes with the important proviso that this is based on what is known today. As more information comes to light, the list may change. More details on each RV along with illustrations can be found in Recreational Vehicles: A World History 1879-1939.
The definition of an RV used for this list is 'a road vehicle with sleeping facilities designed for leisure use'.
The First Purpose-Built RV - 'The Wanderer' (UK, 1885)
If there is one RV that is commonly accepted as the 'first' RV, it is Dr. Gordon Stables' 'Wanderer' (UK, 1885). It is the first horse-drawn vehicle that we know of that was purpose-built for leisure. It still exists today - see more here. Other leisure trips in horse-drawn caravans were undertaken in the UK earlier than this, such as the trip to Wales by the sons of the Duke of Essex in 1883, but the vehicle used in this case was probably a hired gypsy or circus caravan. A report of a planned UK hunting trip in purpose-built caravans dates as far back as 1872, but we have no evidence yet that those caravans were ever built or that the trip took place.
The First American RV - The McMaster Camping Car (USA, 1889)
Alonzo J. McMaster patented his horse-drawn Camping Car in 1889. McMaster's design was based on the Herdic Carriage omnibus designed by Peter Herdic. It was subsequently used in Yellowstone National Park by camp operators Wylie & Wilson throughout the park in 1892. As in the UK, there are earlier reports of horse-drawn vehicles being used for camping trips but these are unlikely to have been purpose-built for leisure. A number of these were converted ambulance wagons used by so-called 'health seekers' to escape the disease and high population density along America's eastern seaboard in the mid- to late-nineteenth century.
The First Powered RV - The steam-powered Grande Diligence of Prince Oldenburg (France, 1896)
The first RVs to be powered came from France and (with one possible exception, see Émile Levassor below) used steam power. The earliest we know of is the Grande Diligence ('grand carriage') built in Paris for Russian Prince Oldenburg in 1896. Only a single sketch remains of this vehicle, but there are newspaper reports of it being exhibited in Paris in 1896 and used for touring in southern France. The carriage forms the logo of rvhistory.com.
The oldest powered RV photo we have is of the large steam-driven caravan of Monsieur Rénodier built in Paris in 1897. This photo is included in my book.
The First Auto-Drawn Caravan - Émile Levassor's Car and Caravan (France, 1895)
There is a fascinating newspaper description of a French caravan designed by Émile Levassor of the Panhard Levassor car company for his private use in Paris in 1895. Levassor died prematurely in 1897 and much of the company archives have been lost, so there are no photos or designs of this caravan.
The description of Levassor's caravan is close to another caravan that we do have a photo of, which is a French postcard from the collection of French RV historian Pierre-François Dupond. It dates to around 1906. We know very little about this 'mystery caravan' but it is almost certainly the earliest photo of a petrol-drawn caravan, probably pre-dating the hitherto 'first' caravan - the Alcock caravan of 1914 - by several years. The Levassor and 'Dupond' caravans may or may not be connected.
The First Motorhome (Steam) - Quo Vadis (France, 1900)
If we take 'motorhome' to mean accommodation and engine contained in a single vehicle, the first motorhome is another steam-powered vehicle from France called Quo Vadis ('where are you going' in Latin) from 1900. Entered into a heavy goods vehicle competition in 1899, it was later converted into a motorhome by Monsieurs Turgan and Foy and travelled to North Africa. Its boiler needed constant topping up with water, so its route had to be carefully planned alongside rivers.
The First Motorhome (Petrol) - Passe Partout (France, 1902)
A number of countries contributed to the first petrol motorhome, the Passe Partout of 1902. Built in France by Panhard Levassor and Carrosserie Industrielle and owned by Dr. E.E. Lehwess who was a German-born UK resident, the Passe Partout left London in 1902 with the somewhat immodest goal of travelling around the world. It became stuck in a snow drift in Russia after six months.
The First RV Manufacturer - De Dietrich (France 1904)
A type of RV called the 'touring limousine' was first built by French automobile manufacturer De Dietrich in 1904. This was a luxury automobile with a long wheelbase, significant luggage-carrying capacity and seating that could be converted to a bed. It was designed to be chauffeur-driven. A number of other French and German manufacturers built touring limousines between 1905 and 1910. This design was also adopted in the USA by auto manufacturers such as Welch (1909) and Pierce-Arrow (1910) but built in very small numbers.
RVs that were built in much larger numbers included the tent trailers of the USA. According to research carried out by Joel Silvey, The Detroit Trailer Company began manufacturing tent trailers in 1913, with others such as the Los Angeles Trailer Company and Campbell Folding Trailer Company following soon after.
Caravans were not manufactured in the UK in any numbers until after World War One. A company called Navarac ('caravan' backwards) manufactured simple caravans for a short time in 1919 but it was Eccles, also beginning production in 1919, that became the first large scale caravan manufacturer in the world.
Australia's first caravan manufacturer was probably Paramount (1932) and Germany's first caravan manufacturer was Dethleffs (1931).
The First Petrol-Drawn Recreational Fifth Wheeler - Auto Salon de Luxe (Belgium, 1912)
Commissioned for Belgian racing driver Baron Pierre de Crawhez for hunting trips to Morocco and Algeria, the Auto Salon de Luxe was built on the fifth wheel principle by Auto-Mixte Pescatore and coachbuilder Vogt and De Meuse of Belgium. Fifth wheels had been long-used in horse-drawn vehicles to allow front wheels to pivot, but this is the earliest-known example of the technology being used in motorised RVs. Initially used to help longer motor vehicles navigate narrow city streets, fifth wheels were later used with great success by US RV designer Glenn Curtiss in his 1928 Aerocar.
The First Teardrop Trailer - Los Angeles (USA, c1936)
Little is known about the birth of the 'teardrop' trailer, but it probably originated in Los Angeles in about 1936. Self-built examples may have been built from the early 1930s, but documented examples appear in US magazines from early 1936. The Kaykraft Kampster is one of the earliest known teardrop manufacturers.
If readers have any additional information or new discoveries relating to this list of RV 'firsts', please get in touch.