The first ever double-decker caravan was built in France in 1919.
It was big – very big.
All images except where noted are courtesy of Gallica, the online digital archive of the Bibiothèk Nationale de France.
Double-decker caravans are problematic. They are generally heavy and have a high centre of gravity, making them unsafe to tow in double-decker mode. If the upper floor is mechanically lowered for towing, additional problems arise in connection with the rigidity and reliability of the lifting mechanism and the challenge of keeping the space between the two levels dust-, water- and windproof. All this is known in 2023, but one hundred years ago it was not.
Charles Lafeuille of France was an engineer who served as the deputy director of technical services in France’s ‘Office of Industrial Reconstruction’ (“ORI”), formed in 1917 to help French industry recover after the First World War. His idea was to build a “maison liberée” or ‘liberated house’ to house ORI officials and their families as they worked in areas devastated by the war.
The caravan designed by Lafeuille was built by Parisian trailer manufacturer Monsieur Cadel and was of ‘chocolate box’ construction, meaning the top half dropped down over the bottom, with the two floors connected by an internal staircase. The top half was manually raised and lowered using wires, drums and pulleys and held in place by “collapsible vertical uprights”.
Lafeuille's British patent is available to download below:
You can read about more early RV patents in my new ebook.
The double-decker caravan caused a big stir when it was demonstrated on the streets of Paris one foggy morning in November 1920. We are fortunate that the moment was captured by press photographers from Agence Rol and that their photographs have been preserved by the Bibiothèk Nationale de France.
Little is know about the caravan manufacturer Monsieur Cadel, except that he produced various types of trailers for the French army during the First World War as well as tourism trailers:
Monsieur Cadel must have been confident in his engineering abilities since making single-axle, people-carrying trailers was a risky undertaking at the time.
One of these ‘liberated houses’ was later seen in use the UK as an RV in 1938, albeit held in place by guy ropes against the blustery British wind. It was owned by a Wing Commander Waller who had bought it in France. We don't know what other British caravan owners thought of the idea, but there is no further mention of the caravan in the UK.
Double-decker caravans re-appeared briefly in the UK after the Second World War but then faded from view. Their downsides far outweighed their upsides.
As for the 'Liberated House', it served an immediate post-war need in France but was never used, as far as we know, for leisure purposes. Taking large houses on wheels along with you on vacation was probably more stressful than just staying put in your immobile home.