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The Mystery of the Kosmos

Was the French 'Kosmos' RV of 1901 ever built?

The Kosmos Motorhome (France, 1901, courtesy Library of Congress)

An article about a very early French motorhome appeared in a newspaper in Hawaii, of all places, in 1901. Called the 'Kosmos', it was apparently the brainchild of Marseilles merchant Henri Louis de Parmentier.

from The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, Honolulu, 18 Feb 1901 (Source: Library of Congress)

The text accompanying two sketches of the motorhome is very hard to read and so is reproduced in full below:

"Newest of novelties is the house automobile which Monsieur Henri Louis de Parmentier, a millionaire merchant of Marseilles, France, is having built for use. Already half the chauffeurs of France are discussing the wonderful machine. Long before its completion it will be featured conspicuously in the leading publications of the world. Unquestionably it is one of the most bizarre yet essentially logical of all twentieth century inventions.

"Practically this Kosmos, as Monsieur de Parmentier calls the child of his versatile brain, is a self-propelled houseboat on wheels, save that it is intended to run on land instead of in the water. It is a completely and elegantly equipped traveling home, a peripatetic palace in which Mons. de Parmentier, his wife and daughter will journey.

"Nothing has been overlooked in providing for the comfort of the progressive merchant prince and his family. Every luxury of life, excepting, perhaps, a piano and billiard table, is contained in the apparently cramped but really spacious quarters. The fortunate inmates can eat, drink and sleep, read and play whist - without leaving the Kosmos. Mons. de Parmentier can even stroll up and down his own veranda while enjoying his post-prandial cigar. This piazetta is at the front of the house auto, which is a little shorter than the average trolley car. Back of the veranda, on the upper floor, is the reading room, provided with compasses, charts, chronometers, levers, push buttons. Undivided from this is a vestibule in which are rifles, spades, fire axes and buckets and steel chairs leading from the steering room or conning tower etc. Next comes the four berths on the upper floor, constituting two sleeping apartments, under which is the baggage room, with space for several trunks.

"Behind these is the dining saloon, a dainty room with costly curtain, rare china and cut glass, gold spoons and forks and knives of Damascus steel with silver handles. This also serves as a sitting room, boudoir and parlour. Through the French plate windows the de Parmentiers while dining can admire the scenery and enjoy the sights freighted with human interest which they pass swiftly.

"At the rear of the saloon is the engine room, where a black uniformed electrician manipulates the motors that send the monster mobile speeding on its way and furnish it with light and fuel. Farther back are store room, in which extra wheels and machinery parts are kept, and at the extreme rear is a combination water tank and ice chest.

"The huge cushion tires of the Kosmos are corrugated transversely, so that they may be sure of a grip on the muddiest road. Four wheels suffice to carry the enormous auto. Strong but delicate springs of tempered steel absorb nearly all the vibration."

Curiously, no other records of the Kosmos have come to light. The records of Gallica, the outstanding online repository of all early French newspapers and photographs, have no mention of either Henri de Parmentier or his motorhome. Given:

- the article contains only sketches

- the details of the vehicle's power source are ambiguous

- the complex and heavy nature of the two-storied motorhome

it is highly likely that the Kosmos was never built.

This was not uncommon in France at the time. The imagination of wealthy potential owners, inspired perhaps by the fantastical creations of Jules Verne, often stretched beyond the engineering limits of the day. But even as unfulfilled ideas, it is useful in RV history to see where and when inspiration for these vehicles came from and how such ideas may have led to other RVs that were actually built.

The Comet

What could be a complete coincidence is the fact that a few years later in 1906, the bohemian Baron de Sennevoye of Paris acquired a 'Home Car' drawn by horses called the 'Comet' (La Comète) which was extensively photographed in Paris. Excluding the Kosmos' second floor there are some similarities in the design, size and the cosmic names of each. Is it possible that the Kosmos gave birth to the Comet?

The Comet Home Car (France, 1908, courtesy Gallica) would be pleased to hear from anyone who can shed any further light on the fate of the Kosmos. If it was indeed built around 1901, it would have competed with Quo Vadis (France, 1900) and Passe-Partout (France, 1902) for the title of the first ever motorhome.

It would certainly have been the first and probably only RV to ever have a conning tower...

Andrew Woodmansey

September 2021


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