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The Road Yacht (UK, 1927)

The first British coach-built motorhome

The interior of the Road Yacht (The Autocar, 1928, courtesy of The Richard Roberts Archive)

The motorhome featured on the front cover of Recreational Vehicles: A World History 1872-1939 is Noel Pemberton Billing's Road Yacht of 1927. It deserves its own blog.

"A Brobdingnagian Garden Slug"

Similar to its inventor, The Road Yacht is something of a maverick. A Tatler journalist of the period wrote that it resembled a "Brobdingnagian garden slug", which was a little harsh, but the description gives a hint of how all motorhomes were regarded in late 1920s Britain. They perplexed, amazed and horrified at the same time. In hindsight we can now add that The Road Yacht was an inspirational design, leading to the creation of the first ever British coach-built motorhome and incorporating a streamlined design that would not resurface until a decade later in the USA with the RVs of Brooks Stevens.

Noel Pemberton Billing (source Flight 1916)

Noel Pemberton Billing was an interesting character whose story is told in the book Twentieth Century Maverick by Barbara Stoney. Inventor, politician, playwright and homophobe, Pemberton Billing came to prominence in 1918 when he was unsuccessful sued for libel by actress Maud Allen for suggesting that she was a lesbian associate of German conspirators. Wikipedia tells the fuller story of this and other parts of his life.

Called variously a Road Yacht and a Land Yacht, and given the name Dawn, Pemberton Billing's RV was designed in 1927. Barbara Stoney takes up the story:

"During the summer of 1927, PB (Pemberton Billing) had been working on another project at the gramophone factory at Feltham, but it had no connection with records. He always loved the freedom a boat afforded, of being able to set sail and get away from the restrictions that living in houses imposed. Cars provided another means of escape from everyday living so, he figured, what could be better than some form of "land yacht" that would incorporate both? With this in mind he designed and built a streamlined motorised caravan, the patent for which was accepted on 1st October 1928."

from Twentieth Century Maverick by Barbara Stoney (Bank House Books, 2004)

The patent is available to download below:

GB297881A_Pemberton Billing 1928 Road Yacht
Download PDF • 1.24MB

A Yacht on Land

From the patent as well as a description in The Autocar, we discover that The Road Yacht was extensively equipped:

"Since it has a saloon, two state rooms, an electric galley, and a toilet room, the vehicle is more a yacht than it is a motor car. The chassis used is an Erskine Six, and the length of the vehicle is eighteen feet, but no yacht of eighteen feet has the amount of accommodation provided in this light cruiser Dawn. It would be difficult to provide the smallest cabin on a boat eighteen feet in length. Dawn’s cabin plan approximates to that of a thirty foot motor cruiser, cost from six to seven hundred pounds, at which figure, incidentally, it would be furnished in the plainest style, whereas Dawn is fitted up in a manner only found in boats which cost considerably more than a thousand pounds.

"On boarding Dawn just forward of amidships one steps into the saloon, a cabin seven feet long and over six feet wide. Compared with the living room in a villa, this, of course, is decidedly small, but regarded as a yacht’s cabin, it is exceptionally roomy; in fact, it appears more roomy than a cabin in a thirty-foot motor yacht on account of the full head room.

"Once aboard the vehicle one no longer makes comparisons with cars or caravans. Those with experience of yachts immediately take yacht accommodation as a standard, for the furnishings are ship-like in character.

"Even the steering wheel and gear lever in the centre of the apartment do not destroy the illusion. The saloon is very like the combined pilot house-deck saloons of the most modern motor yachts of forty five feet or more.

"In this apartment five persons may be comfortably accommodated on transoms on each side of the engine casing, and the armchair in which the “helmsman” sits when driving, may be moved into any desired position when it is not required for this purpose. The dining table is located over the engine casing, on the inner end of which is a very complete instrument board. When the yacht is “at anchor” a short extension of the table folds over the instrument board, when it is scarcely noticeable.

"One expects that by removing the table top the engine will be exposed; but this is not so. A large zinc sink is to be found under the table top, and has an electric heater for warming the water, and a conventional plug and drain, the waste being led overboard by way of a pipe which passes through the engine compartment.

"The engine seems inaccessible, but the very few adjustments which are usually necessary on modern engines are rendered possible by removable side panels in the casing.

"It is impossible to describe the mahogany finished saloon in every detail; it suffices to say that its equipment includes several bookshelves, an electric fire, a powerful wireless set, a gramophone, a writing desk, several useful lockers, wind-up windows, four electric lights, a buffet and china pantry. Aft of the main saloon on the starboard side there is an ingeniously fitted toilet room from which opens a single state-room containing a seven foot berth, a clothes locker, and a miniature dressing table. A similar cabin is on the port side, but in place of the toilet room there is a galley containing an ice box, an electric stove, and a tier of small drawers.

"The two state rooms are necessarily small, but the reason for the dividing bulkhead is not apparent, for it is scarcely necessary if a married couple or two friends are cruising together. If this bulkhead were removed the after cabin would be quite spacious. A little alteration in the saloon would also make it possible to extend to two transoms, and so provide two more berths.

"At every point the hand of the experienced yachtsman is revealed. As on a well designed small yacht, no space is wasted, and fitted lockers are to be found in the lease expected places. In a neat locker forward of the port-side transom in the saloon, one finds the tea set; a cupboard under the writing bureau is a gramophone record cabinet, and in the toilet room, by dropping a hinged panel, a metal tray appears complete with a plug registering with a hole in the floor. This is for the shower bath, a luxury not expected even on a yacht under 50 ft in length.

"On the forward bulkheads of the state rooms are miniature dressing tables complete with all requisites for a lady in the one room and for a gentleman in the other.

"The electrical equipment is most complete, and in addition to head, side and tail lamps, there is a spot-light in the centre of the roof, four roof lights, and a table lamp in the saloon, lamps in each of the other cabins, an electric cooker, fire, cigar lighter, two windscreen wipers, and a water heater for the sink."

The Autocar, 27 January 1928

An article featuring The Road Yacht in The Studebaker Wheel magazine (USA, courtesy Richard Quinn)

The Autocar goes on to note that Pemberton Billing was planning additional models including a second 18ft model with four 'state rooms' and a 24ft model to be mounted on a six-wheel or caterpillar chassis. But as far as we know these were never built, and only one Road Yacht was ever made.

The Road Yacht also featured in the US magazine The Studebaker Wheel of 1928 as well as several newspapers in Australia and New Zealand.

Novel Design but No Sales

Pemberton Billing's intention was to sell The Road Yacht in the UK and the USA. The motorhome was placed on display at distributors Arthur Bray in Baker Street, London for a time with an advertised sales price of "495 guineas without chassis". Presumably Pemberton Billing intended future owners to place the coach on a chassis of their choice.

Plans were made for a sales trip to the US. Advertising material was produced including a poster suggesting potential buyers could "see and buy at the 1928 auto shows" offering the Road Yacht for sale at $985. But according to Barbara Stoney, the US trip was cancelled by Pemberton Billing at the last minute because his stage play High Treason had just been accepted to go into production in London's West End.

Stoney tells us that Pemberton Billing did eventually make it to North America in 1930 to pursue new business ventures including a casino in Mexico. The Road Yacht was shipped to the US as Pemberton Billing's personal RV, but by 1933 the Great Depression combined with limited success of his business ventures meant that Pemberton Billing was forced to sell The Road Yacht "for a ridiculously low sum" in New York to help pay for his passage back to the UK. Its fate is unknown.

The Legacy of The Road Yacht

Keen observers of the Recreational Vehicles: A World History 1872-1939 cover will see what appears to be a model of a Russian church inside the vehicle to the left of The Road Yacht door. What is its significance, I wonder? Given Pemberton Billing's disposition to conspiracy theories, perhaps it signifies communist infiltration of the British establishment? Although many of Pemberton Billing's views will today be seen as distasteful, there is no doubt that he thought outside the square. He was an example of the small number of mavericks exploring alternative forms of leisure transport in the 1920s. The RV would never have come about using conventional thinking.

Although not the first coachbuilt motorhome (that honour goes to Charles Louvet of France in 1923), The Road Yacht was radical in its design. In building a motorhome over instead of behind the engine, the vehicle took on a unified appearance of yes, a snail on the move. The interior contained many clever, space-saving devices such as a combined tabletop and sink (complete with water heating element) and a folding shower tray. These ideas would resurface in much later RVs.

RVs do not necessarily have to sell to be influential. As far as we know only one Road Yacht existed, but its influence on passers by, showroom visitors and newspaper readers of the time would have been immense. It changed the way people thought about leisure transport and pioneered 'outside the box' design that would capture the RV world's attention a decade later. The RV was no longer a vehicle 'cobbled together' from other forms of transport but a unified and viable concept in its own right.

You can watch a rare, short and silent British Pathé newsreel item of the Road Yacht in action here.

Andrew Woodmansey

May 2022


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