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The Halsco Coronation Trailer (USA/UK 1937)

As the coronation of King Charles III nears on 6 May 2023, did you know that an RV played an interesting role in another king's coronation?

My thanks to John Duresky for providing information and photos for this blog.

Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr. (left) receiving British licence plates for his Halsco trailer in 1937 from Kaye Don, noted British sportsman and racing driver (courtesy John Duresky)

In 1937 an American trailer was shipped to England by Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr. for the coronation of King George VI on 12 May. Unbeknown to the British establishment, it would be used to broadcast the event live but illegally to an American radio audience.

Shortly before the coronation of King George VI at Westminster Abbey in London on 12 May 1937, a strange RV arrived in England. It was a Halsco Land Yacht, built in Los Angeles and belonging to Cornelius (known as 'Neile' or 'Neily') Vanderbilt, Jr., son of Cornelius III and Grace Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt made the trip to attend the coronation ceremony and later crossed to France to attend the World Fair and the wedding of the Duke of Windsor and Mrs. Simpson.

Shortly before the coronation, Vanderbilt parked his trailer close to Westminster Abbey and joined the throng inside. The event is recounted by Robert Graves in his inter-war history, The Long Weekend:

"The American touch (to the ceremony) was provided by Neile Vanderbilt, the millionaire's son. He had secured a ticket for the Abbey, and during the ceremony was seen to be praying constantly into his waistcoat: where he was broadcasting a commentary through a pocket radio transmitter. This was picked up by his trailer, parked a few hundred yards away, and from there transmitted direct to the United States – a magnificent scoop, for no broadcasting but the B.B.C.'s had been allowed from the Abbey."

from The Long Weekend by Robert Graves (1940)

An artist's impression of the coronation by Henry Charles Brewer (source Wikipedia)

Vanderbilt was a journalist and writer as well as a keen RV user. He owned several RVs during his life, using them to travel across the USA and collect stories or research for later publication.

Vanderbilt's 'Halsco Coronation Express Trailer' shortly before sailing from New York (from the San Francisco Examiner 9 May 1937)

The Halsco trailer was described with some amazement in the British press as "silver, and apparently metal covered, but has, in reality, an outer skin of masonite. For crossing the American continent deserts between California and New York the windows have venetian blinds and wire gauze. The interior is of a smart three-ply and is decorated with red leather. Heating apparatus, cocktail cabinet, ice box, electric light and telephone (which can be plugged into the United States) are among the fittings."

The Halsco trailer on arrival in Plymouth, England (from The Morning Bulletin, Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia, 20 May 1937)

Before his UK trip Vanderbilt wrote about his US travel trailer experiences in Liberty magazine of 5 Dec 1936. The article is reproduced in full below:

Vanderbilt would also use his trailer to host dignitaries and had a signature book that he would ask them to sign. After World War Two, Vanderbilt is known to have acquired an Aero-Flite trailer which he used to travel extensively across the USA.

Vanderbilt on his trailer with Labor leader John L. Lewis shortly before his departure to England (17 Apr 1937 courtesy John Duresky)

Halsco was a Los Angeles-based travel trailer manufacturer headquartered at 3587 Beverly Boulevard from about 1934. It was owned by Harry A. Smith, whose nickname would probably have given the company its name. In 1937 it expanded production to a new factory at 243 N Madison St. that could produce up to 300 'canned ham' shaped trailers a week. Its marketing slogan was "Don't say trailer...say Halsco!" It was one of the first RV manufacturers to sell the diminutive teardrop trailer from about 1936 and was also known for the double-walled insulation in its products.

Along with a number of other trailer manufacturers Halsco would use celebrities to promote the company's products. Being based in Los Angeles, Hollywood stars were natural promoters:

Actress Ida Lupino and her Halsco Land Yacht (1936)

Halsco was the first travel trailer company to use outdoor billboards in their marketing campaigns:

An outdoor billboard for Halsco Land Yachts in Los Angeles

But the strong marketing efforts of the company were not enough to prevent Halsco falling victim to the American trailer crash of 1937. Halsco was reported to have been acquired by Columbia Trailer in November 1937.

As well as providing us with an interesting glimpse into the coverage of a British coronation, Vanderbilt's exploits will have helped to internationalise interest in RVs in the late 1930s and no doubt given British caravan manufacturers something to think about. Vanderbilt's interest in RVs confirms once again that, then as now, there are no social or economic barriers to RV ownership – they have and will always be used by people from all walks of life.

It would be interesting to know whether the Vanderbilt trailer radio broadcast of the coronation of 1937 still exists.

Andrew Woodmansey

March 2023


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