The first-known recreational fifth wheeler was built in Belgium in 1913.
A fifth wheeler’s hitch sits above rather than behind the rear axle of the tow vehicle, reducing turning circle diameter and, more importantly, improving towing stability. Early fifth wheelers were used in the haulage industry to carry heavy loads safely and reduce unloading and loading times. The early history of the fifth wheeler is covered in more detail here.
Recreational fifth wheelers were first thought to have originated in the USA in about 1918 with the Pullman-style Camp Car of Glenn Curtiss featured here. But in fact the first recreational fifth wheeler was built five years earlier in Belgium for a sporting baron.
Baron Pierre de Crawhez was a pioneering Belgian racing driver, establishing one of the earliest closed circuit races in Belgium in the Ardennes in 1902. Between 1912 and 1913, based on a concept of his elder brother Jean, he commissioned an 'Auto Salon de Luxe' recreational vehicle for a hunting trip to Morocco and Algeria. This was a significant upgrade to his earlier, somewhat ramshackle hunting vehicle of 1909:
The tow vehicle or tracteur of the baron's fifth-wheeler successor was a 30hp Auto-Mixte Pescatore. Auto-Mixte was a Belgian company that built vehicles using the hybrid gasoline-electric technology of inventor Henri Pieper. Auto-Mixte built a range of vehicles including a novel goods trailer that incorporated the 'Pescatore System' shown below:
The trailer of the Pescatore System had a front pivot that slid onto a steel track at the rear of the tow vehicle as it reversed into position. The pivot locked into position at the top of the track. The trailer also used a pivoting small front wheel that supported the trailer when unhitched and folded up and to the rear as the trailer was hitched.
The Pescatore System was incorporated into Baron Crawhez's new recreational fifth wheeler. The rear coach of this radical new RV was built by Belgian coachbuilder Vogt and De Meuse from Liège. The fifth wheel allowed for an expansive design to be incorporated into the trailer, with early sketches of the RV showing a combined lounge and dining room at the front, a central bedroom and a rear bathroom.
The combined tow vehicle and coach was massive, weighing 5 tonnes and measuring 10.5m end to end. The tow vehicle's rear axle needed four wheels to carry the weight. The interior was clearly a custom design for the baron that deviated from initial sketches. It was elegant without being ostentatious. It included four convertible beds, a separate bed for the chauffeur, lantern roof, electric stove, electric lighting, wine cellar and toilet.
Beautiful photos of the exterior and interior are included in Recreational Vehicles: A World History 1872-1939 by Andrew Woodmansey.
Although Auto Mixte Pescatore produced advertising material for the 'Auto Salon Deluxe', it is not known if any more of these vehicles were built or sold. It is more than likely that the events leading up to the First World War overtook any thoughts of leisure, making Baron Crawhez's vehicle the only one built.
The war had other consequences for this unusual RV. According to historian Patrick Robertson, the sale of this vehicle to the Baron fell through for reasons unknown. Consequently the builders, Auto-Mixte, hired out the vehicle after the First World War to people wishing to tour the battlefields of Flanders. In the process, Auto-Mixte’s fifth wheeler became by chance one of the earliest motorized RVs available for hire.
We do not know if the existence of the Auto Salon Deluxe was known about in other countries. In all likelihood, given the fog of war in Europe it was not. That would suggest that Glenn Curtiss came up with a similar but independently conceived idea in the USA five years later. Along with the Auto Salon Deluxe, Curtiss' first fifth wheeler of 1918 was ahead of its time. The fifth wheel concept as applied to RVs would not see the light of day again until Curtiss' Aerocar of 1928.
What we do know however is that the first recreational fifth wheeler of 1913 was a hybrid product of the goods haulage and coach building industries of Belgium. Another example of the genetic diversity that has made the RV sector strong and healthy today.