One of the joys of researching the international history of the RV is the discovery of innovative RV builders who are little known outside their home country. Frenchman Charles Louvet (1894-1957) is one such person. Designer, inventor, craftsman and salesman, Louvet single-handedly built a small number of revolutionary, aircraft-inspired RVs in the 1920s and 30s including what is probably the world's first coachbuilt motorhome in about 1923. His RV designs were years ahead of their time.
Louvet is well known in French RV history circles thanks to self-promotion of his inventions on the streets of Nice and elsewhere in France. Louvet would charge an admission fee to view his RVs and sell postcards and photos to fund his future work. Whilst his RVs no longer exist, his postcards are still collected today by French vintage RV enthusiasts.
The most knowledgeable of these enthusiasts is probably Gilles Fillaud, who has conducted extensive research on the life and inventions of Louvet and has met with Louvet's living descendants. Sincere thanks are due to Gilles for the information in this article and for kind permission to use some of his photos. Louvet's RVs are also featured in a 1998 French publication called Caravanes de Chez Nous by Bruno Leroux and Maurice Girard. Only a small selection of Louvet images are shown here — many more are in my book, Recreational Vehicles: A World History 1872-1939.
The son of an aviation mechanic, Charles Louvet came from Saint Omer near Calais. At the age of 17 he built a model airplane and soon after began building lightweight kayaks. He would take these to Saint-Enogat beach in northern France and rent them to holiday-makers. Rather than return home from the beach each night, he would travel to the coast with the kayaks in a simple, self-built caravan and sleep in the caravan with his young family. Charles' brother Marcel was a caravan builder in his own right and Charles would have been inspired by the designs of his elder brother when making his first caravans.
After the First World War Louvet moved to the Côte d'Azur in the south of France for health reasons. He continued renting his kayaks at the beach of Juan-les-Pins near Cannes, constructing an elaborate water chute to launch the kayaks beyond the waves. Louvet continued to stay overnight in a self-built caravan close to the beach. When Louvet found that his caravans were attracting as much attention as the kayaks, he decided to explore the tourism potential of caravans further by building more attractive models and placing them on display on the streets of southern France, charging a small fee to view inside.
From the early 1920s until the mid-1930s Louvet built at least four RVs using the lightweight construction techniques of the aviation industry. Each one was called a Carling Home after the French term carlingue meaning an aircraft cabin.
Carling Home No. 1
Louvet's first caravan in the Carling Home series was Carling Home No. 1, built in 1921. Not dissimilar to one of Marcel Louvet's caravans, it was a four-wheeled caravan with rounded front and rear and small round windows high up. To tow Carling Home No. 1 Louvet adapted the bodywork of a De Dion automobile to match the caravan. The tow vehicle also carried a Louvet-built kayak on the roof. Recent research by Gilles Fillaud suggests that Carling Home No. 1 was later sold to French singer and accordion player Paula Chabran.
Carling Home No. 2
Louvet's second Carling Home was appropriately called No.2. It was a motorhome with tailor-made bodywork enclosing the engine, in other words a coachbuilt motorhome. Built between 1923 and 1925, it is probably the world's first such RV. Although it was 10m long (about 36ft), it weighed less than 2 tonnes and was powered by nothing more than a 10hp engine.
Built in part to accommodate Louvet's growing family, Carling Home No. 2 was also designed as a tourist attraction. It had a corridor running along its entire length to facilitate paying visitors. Louvet's descendants recall that the family often had to sit in a nearby cafe, sometimes until midnight, before they could reclaim their home from visitors.
Postcards sold to visitors show the painstaking but lightweight carpentry that went into the making of this RV. The multiple small round or triangular windows, similar to that on an aircraft fuselage, would become a Louvet hallmark.
Carling Home Sport Louvet No. 3
Carling Home Sport Louvet No. 3, built in 1929, was a motorhome modified from Carling Home No. 2, with triangular side windows and carrying a long canoe on the roof. It was designed to be shorter (7.5m) and therefore more manoeuvrable than Carling Home No. 2 (10m). Until this point Louvet had built his RVs alone but Carling Homes No. 3 and No. 4 were built with the help of Louvet's daughter Odette.
Carling Home Sport Louvet No. 3 was the first Louvet RV to be reported on overseas, making the cover of the July 1931 edition of Popular Science in the USA and also featuring in Modern Mechanix of September 1936.
When the Côte d'Azur had fewer tourists during winter, Louvet would take his family on tours through France, including to Paris. Tours of his RV would still be available to passers-by to fund the Louvet family until the next summer season. Louvet would also use the off-season to build his next RV or one of his many other projects (see below).
Carling Home No. 4
Carling Home No. 4 was perhaps Louvet's most radical RV. Completed in 1934 after a construction period of about 15 months, it was a towable caravan that could extend from 11m long when under tow to 18m long at rest. Due to its phenomenal length when extended, it did not gain favour in tourism circles but was sold in 1936 or 1937 to Air France for use as a commercial display and exhibition caravan. It was used for this purpose into the late 1940s.
The image above of Charles Louvet and his family inside Carling Home No. 4 reveals a number of things. It shows the size of the RV when extended, its layout suitable for mobile exhibitions and the quality of the craftsmanship achieved by Louvet in his fitout and furniture. But Louvet was also a model maker. He would make models of each of his RVs and has them on display here. But the model at the front is unusual because a full-size version was never built. See further details below.
Louvet's Other Inventions
Louvet was responsible for over fifty inventions during his lifetime. In 1904 his father had submitted a patented for a device that produced forward movement from changes in human centre of gravity, but the idea never saw the light of day due in part to the costs of protecting the patent. Louvet had learned that patents were financially cumbersome and so never protected his own ideas. He chose instead to make money from his ideas by renting them to the public or charging per view.
Three images of the articulated model called 'Project 1930'
The model displayed at the front of the interior photo of Carling Home No. 4 is of an articulated motorhome with axles at front and rear and a vertically rotating centre section, reminiscent of the so-called 'bendy-buses' that we see today. As far as we know this concept was never realised by Louvet. He was probably seeking to create a sizeable RV that could turn corners easily. But the central articulating section is likely to have been complex and heavy to build, almost certainly requiring a second axle on the front section to support its weight (as articulated buses have today). Even though it was probably never built, it shows the direction of Louvet's thinking and his never-ending pool of creative RV ideas.
Folding Bikes and Kayaks
Louvet was interested from an early age in how to make things smaller and lighter. Kayaks were an obvious starting point, whilst folding bicycles became popular in France during the 1920s and 30s. Little is known about these inventions, but the images above courtesy of Gilles Fillaud clearly show how Louvet's folding bikes and kayaks worked.
Common to many of the interior photos of Carling Homes is some unusual furniture full of holes. When I first saw these photos, I thought it likely that the perforated tables and chairs would have been made by Louvet. His preference for circular fenestrations and lightweight construction in his RVs would suggest Louvet as the maker of this lightweight furniture. But there was no proof that Louvet was the maker.
When Gilles Fillaud sent me some photos of Louvet's early caravans and kayaks from the early 1920s, it was no surprise to see similar perforated seats in Louvet's kayaks.
This further evidence of perforated kayak seats still does not confirm Louvet as their maker, but it does make it more likely. Louvet would have know where and how to reduce the weight of his RV furniture without affecting strength. Would that more RV makers today had the same knowledge.
Whilst in Nice Louvet built structures and vehicles other than RVs. As well as constructing a water chute for launching his kayaks, Louvet also built what is said to be the first baby stroller and a pedal car. The pedal car or velomobile accommodated three people and weighed only 71kg. It is not known whether Louvet built the velomobile for his own family or for a client.
Other Machines by Louvet
Top Row: nail dispenser, variable angle transmitter, ticket dispenser (courtesy Gilles Fillaud)
Bottom Row: coin dispenser, projector, engraving machine (courtesy Gilles Fillaud)
Thanks to Louvet's descendants and Gilles Fillaud, we can see that the inventive mind of Louvet stretched well beyond transport and furniture. He developed a number of tools and machines to assist in the construction of his projects or to help with issuing tickets to and collecting fees from visitors. Some of these are shown above. It is not known how innovative these machines were, but at the very least Louvet would have saved time and money by using these self-built machines across his multiple projects.
Louvet was a salesman for the RV lifestyle. We are fairly certain that Louvet built only one example of each of his Carling Homes One to Four for personal use, each designed to suit the needs of his family at the time. He was not then an RV manufacturer, but he was certainly an RV patron.
In the UK in the early twentieth century there was ambivalence towards gypsies and their lifestyle. Suspicion of their way of life was mixed with admiration and emulation by the gentlemen gypsies. In France there was only suspicion. By publicly exhibiting his RVs for a small fee, Louvet was of course making a living, but more importantly introducing literally thousands of people each year to the idea of a holiday in a caravan or a motorhome. Like French writer Baudry de Saunier, Louvet sowed a seed that would bloom after the Second World War into thousand of French families taking caravan or motorhome holidays.
Louvet's other legacy was to disconnect size from weight in RV design. Using construction techniques from the aviation industry, Louvet showed that RVs could be spacious without being heavy. By building the world's first coachbuilt motorhome in 1923, Louvet moved away from early truck-based motorhome design and in the process created something that was beautiful as well as practical.
For their innovation, light weight, good design and sheer beauty, the RVs of Charles Louvet deserve a prominent place in world RV history. It is a pleasure to introduce the RVs of Charles Louvet to a wider international audience.
With thanks to Gilles Fillaud and Pierre François Dupond for supplying material and information for this article.
Andrew Woodmansey, January 2021
Post Script: In late 2021 I made a small coffee table in the style of the furniture seen inside the RVs of Charles Louvet. It will be known in our house as the Louvet Table.