Rare images of an American 'living car' towed by a steam traction engine at the start of the twentieth century.
The international approach to studying the history of recreational vehicles that I use in my research often pays handsome dividends. An RV-related story of one country is often related in the newspapers of another. This is a case in point – a story about an American traveling workshop and 'living car' reported in France, dating back to 1901. Not an RV, but an important ancestor.
An organisation in France called the Le Conservatoire numérique des Arts et Métiers, or CNUM for short, has a marvelous collection of old French images, newspapers and images available online (unfortunately in French only). Together with the French National Library's Gallica (available in English), CNUM is one of the two key sources of information about early French RVs.
When researching the blog on Baudry de Saunier's caravan, I came across an article at CNUM that de Saunier wrote in 1901 about an American 'mobile machine shop'. Searching then for the shop's creator's name (Glen Wickes) in American sources, HathiTrust kindly supplied further information and photos in an article that first appeared in The American Machinist of 2 May 1901. Who would have though to look there for an early form of mobile, steam-drawn accommodation from America? Baudry de Saunier certainly did.
As readers of the first chapter of Recreational Vehicles: A World History 1872-1939 or the first part of Early RV History will know, living vans were ancestors of the modern RV. They were wagons drawn typically by the steam traction engines of road builders or agricultural workers and used as living accommodation close to their places of work. They were rudimentary caravans and often so poorly ventilated that asphyxiation was a risk to occupants whenever the stove was lit.
'Living cars' were the American equivalent of living vans. They were used mainly on railroads in the 1880s and 1890s by those who built or repaired American railroads or even those dealing with not infrequent railroad accidents. The term 'living car' seems to have been carried over to America's road-going versions, as well as the more common 'house on wheels'. As in Europe, traction engines and 'living cars' were used by American agricultural workers and road-builders.
But in 1901 resourceful 25-year-old Glen Wickes used a living car for a more unusual purpose – to live in with his mother whilst he traveled the country with his mobile machine shop.
Below is the story in full, as told by George D. Campbell in The American Machinist of 2 May 1901 (courtesy HathiTrust) along with illustrations.
"A Machine Shop on Wheels
"A novel, interesting and prosperous machine shop is located just now in Walden, Orange county, N.Y. It consists of a 10 horse-power Westinghouse traction engine and two cars, each 10 feet high, 10 feet wide and 25 feet long, called respectively machine car and living car.
"The machine is fitted up as a shop and each machine can be operated by either foot-power, horse-power or steam power. The machines comprise a 9x36 inch Star, ball bearing, taper attachment, automatic cross-feed, screw-cutting lathe; a 12x12x26 inch planer, a polishing lathe, buffer, drill press, grindstone, blacksmith forge, a jeweler's lathe and outfit, a set of cabinetmakers' tools, melting furnace for iron, brass and copper, flasks for molding, wheelwright's outfit, horseshoer's tools and drills, taps, wrenches, files, chisels and small tools of every description.
"A tread horse-power machine furnishes horse-power. This car with its full equipment weighs over four tons, and also has a roof hinged on one side of the car, with canvas side and ends forming a stable for the horse when encamped, and which can be folded up against the side of the car when en route.
"The tools are all modern, many of them having been made by Mr. Glen Wickes, the proprietor, and they are conveniently arranged. On my first visit to the shop, the forge attracted my attention. It being a very cold day, all the doors and windows were closed. Glen Wickes had just made a fresh fire, in which he had a good-sized bar of iron heating and, although there are no ventilators in the roof or sides, there was little smoke or dust inside the car. This was accomplished by placing a hood over the fire with downward projecting sides. This hood hinged at the lower end above an opening about 2x6 inches in the pipe from the upper blast, completely drawing off all smoke and dust and expelling it through the smoke pipe.
" Glen Wickes' history is a most interesting one. Born in Pike County, Pa., with only three winter terms, of three months each, at a country school, and starting to work when twelve years of age at harness making. Here he worked two years; leaving that, for two years more at boot and shoe making; after that, one year at blacksmithing, wheelwright, horse-shoeing and sign-painting; then two years and a half in a machine shop at general repair work; next, six months with a gunsmith, and finally starting a little shop in Walden, four years ago – until he had built his first car, two years ago. He has been able to do, up to the present time, any job which has presented itself, without any outside help. This establishment has been produced without any capital except what he has earned, and he has built these cars, furnished and equipped them, while earning it.
" The second, or living car, as Glen calls it, is divided into two parts – a sleeping and sitting-room and a kitchen. The sitting-room has folding beds, a desk, bookcase, table, with several chairs, several pictures on the walls, oil paintings – one of his boyhood home in Pennsylvania, and the other his first shop in the mountains in Pike County, painted by himself. This room is 10x15 feet. In the kitchen they have a range, china closet, ice-chest and every convenience for cooking. The whole makes a very comfortable home for his mother and himself.
"Knowing that very few small places have a well-equipped machine shop, Glen hit upon this plan of building one, so that they might travel and locate themselves where business would be good, or could move on where there might be more demand for his various occupations. His plan is to travel Southwest as far as Mexico. He has been very successful in Walden, made quite a reputation for himself, and has all the work he can do; but he says the camp will move just as soon as the roads are in good shape. The engine will pull both cars up any hill around Walden, and it is quite a sight to see his train moving along.
"Although he is only twenty-five years of age, it shows what a young man with grit and honest methods can accomplish, even without capital and little or no education. He has just paid $1,000 for his engine, and intends adding more machinery to his outfit."
George D. Campbell, The American Machinist, 2 May 1901 (courtesy Hathi Trust)
If Glen Wickes machine shop alone weighed four tons, it's likely that the machinery-free living car would have added another two tons, making a six-ton, twin-trailer load for the 10hp Westinghouse to tow. No wonder the roads had to be in good condition before the entire train could move.
This is a remarkable feat for the Westinghouse 'boiler on wheels'. As my towing dynamics mentor Collyn Rivers told me once, the steam traction engine has only one trick up its sleeve: it can produce its maximum torque at zero revolutions. In other words, it can pull a massive load from a standing start, but very slowly. Below is some information about early Westinghouse traction engines, including some interesting advice not to use the steering wheel for turning on public highways but to use a horse instead...
Extracts from an 1886 Westinghouse machinery catalogue (from 'Album of Historical Steam Traction Engines' by Floyd Clymer, courtesy HathiTrust)
The portable accommodation used by a range of industries were important influences on the first RVs. The Wickes living car is one of the earliest examples of American mobile accommodation to be powered by horsepower rather than horses. No other images of American steam-drawn accommodation have yet come to light. Its twin-trailer configuration was to be followed by others using gasoline automobiles such as Dr. L.C. Harvey in 1913. No early mobile workshop has yet been discovered in Europe, so all credit to Glen Wickes for his revolutionary idea.
Thanks in this case to a French connection, we are now beginning to put together a better picture of how the American RV came about. As you might expect from a country of resourceful individuals, the American RV seems to have evolved from a wide range of personal initiatives unhindered by the gypsy traditions and transport fashions of Europe. From Alonzo McMaster to Dr. Charles Morsman, from Glen Wickes to Alfred C. Stewart we see hard-working, creative Americans each having their own reasons for wanting to travel and each coming up with their own transport solutions. Trends were apparent, such as in travel trailer design, but the success of the American RV seems to have come in the main from those who chose not to follow the road of others.