The RVs of Glenn H. Curtiss

with thanks to the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum.


An Adams commercial trailer (USA, date unknown, courtesy Glenn H. Curtiss Museum)

More on the cow in a trailer later.


Pioneer aviator and inventor Glenn H. Curtiss (1878-1930) was a creative genius. Most summaries of his life and achievements focus rightly on his motorcycles and aeroplanes. For more information on Curtiss' accomplishments in these areas visit the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum site or Coachbuilt.com.


In later life Curtiss was also an innovative designer and manufacturer of aircraft-inspired RVs. The best-known of these was the Curtiss Aerocar, but from 1918 to 1930 he also designed early 'Pullman style' camp car prototypes, the Adams Motorbungalo and a clever fifth wheel hitch called the Aero Coupler. This blog is about Curtiss' RV achievements.


The Curtiss 'Pullman' Camp Car


The RVs developed by Glenn Curtiss fall into three phases:

  • prototype 'Pullman' fifth-wheel camp cars (1918-1920)

  • the Adams Motorbungalo (1920-1924)

  • The Curtiss Aerocar (1928-1940)

The Pullman camp car trailers and the Curtiss Aerocar were fifth wheelers. The Adams Motorbungalo featured a range of models from collapsible camping trailers to solid-walled travel trailers with standard ball hitches.


During the First World War, thanks to his aircraft building prowess, Curtiss had been commissioned by the US Army’s aviation section to build a range of training aircraft (the ‘Jenny’) as well as seaplanes. The pressure of delivering these aircraft as well as managing two factories and over 20,000 workers was intense. Curtiss needed a diversion.

Curtiss would often visit the remote areas of New York State and Florida on hunting and fishing trips together with his half-brother George C. Adams. In about 1918 they decided to seek a way to bring their wives and families along on these trips in greater comfort.


In 1917 Adams had formed a company in Long Island making utility trailers called the Adams Trailer Corporation. A simple example of an Adams trailer is shown at the top of this blog and was probably the starting point for the early Curtiss/Adams trailer designs.


A 'Pullman' style camp car prototype developed by Glenn Curtiss (USA, c1920, Courtesy Glenn Curtiss Museum)

According to an Adams Commercial and Camp Trailer brochure of about 1920:


"The two husbands (Curtiss and Adams), long associated in the building of airplanes, began to spend evenings together in an effort to evolve a practical bungalow on wheels - something small enough to go anywhere a motor car could go, and yet which possessed all the fundamental and basic comforts of home.


"Eventually they built a two-wheeled trailer with the front end designed to fit on the rear of an automobile. On the chassis they erected a house of the lightest material available- airplane 3/16 inch waterproof veneer - thus obtaining sturdiness with minimum weight. The interior they modeled and equipped to accommodate six sleepers, and to provide comforts and conveniences which would seem luxuries en tour."


The full brochure is reproduced below:


An Adams Commercial and Camp Trailer brochure (USA, c1920, courtesy Glenn Curtiss Museum)

But the early prototypes were not without their flaws. A later Adams Motorbungalo brochure of 1922 continues the story:


"At first Mr. Curtiss' camp cars followed in general plan the private Pullman cars familiar to our railroads. They were elegant, luxurious, if you like, but when it came to camping or fishing trips in the sandy or muddy hinterlands of Florida or Georgia they were impractical because of their size and weight. Attempts to lighten the Pullman type of camp car resulted in a loss of structural integrity.


Then the inventor started all over again and, so to speak, turned the Pullman car inside out, combined tent and Pullman car practices and produced the Motorbungalo now marketed."


It is not known how many Pullman camp cap prototypes Curtiss and Adams produced, but they did not go into production. They clearly taught Curtiss much about RV design however, and as such can be viewed as early prototypes of the Curtiss Aerocar rather than of the Adams Motorbungalo.


The Adams Motorbungalo


Having shelved the idea of creating a large camper trailer which could sleep six people, in about 1920 Curtiss instead focused on a shorter, lighter trailer that could be towed by just about any vehicle on the market at the time.


The V-shaped front of the Motorbungalo shown below is reminiscent of the basic commercial trailer produced by Adams. For the Motorbungalo the fifth wheel concept was temporarily abandoned in favour of a standard tow hitch. This was done in all likelihood so that the Motorbungalo would appeal to a wide range of motorists who would not have to modify their existing automobiles to tow this smaller trailer.


An Adams Motorbungalo designed by Glenn Curtiss (USA, c.1922 courtesy Glenn Curtiss Museum)

The Adams Motorbungalo was produced in a number of variants. Motorbungalo brochures list four variants based on two main designs – the Model M Closed Motorbungalo De Lux and the Model R Closed Folding Motorbungalo. A Model S was the same as the Model R with modifications, whilst a Model T was the same as the Model S but with a kitchenette and wardrobe. An extensive range of camping equipment was made available for sale to accompany the trailer.


The 1922 range can be viewed in the Adams Motorbungalo brochure available at Joel Silvey's Popup Camper History site here:


Adams Motorbungalo 1922 Brochure


Despite increasing the number of models and receiving a patent for his design, Curtiss found sales were challenging during the post-war recession. As hybrid camping trailers, Motorbungalos were perhaps too luxurious and costly for Model T owners but not grand enough for the wealthy. Coachbuilt.com estimates that about 100 Motorbungalos were built and according to the Glen H. Curtiss Museum, Adams Trailer Corporation was dissolved in 1924.


The Motorbungalo nevertheless proved to be an early forerunner of the American travel trailer of the 1930s and the development springboard for Curtiss’ next project – the Curtiss Aerocar.


The Curtiss Aerocar


The frame and suspension of a Curtiss Aerocar (USA, c1928, courtesy Glenn H. Curtiss Museum)

Curtiss’ Aerocar was conceived over several years between the demise of the Adams Trailer Corporation in 1924 and the launch of the Aerocar in 1928. Building on his wealth of knowledge gained in the aircraft construction industry and lessons learned from the Motorbungalo, Curtiss developed the Aerocar using lightweight plane construction methods. The image above shows Curtiss' use of aircraft construction methods and materials to produce a lightweight and stable trailer.


To these he added a unique ‘fifth wheel’ towing hitch, the Aero Coupler, which improved stability and thus safety at higher speeds. As well as designing beautiful vehicles, Curtiss’ legacy in the RV world includes helping to make trailers safer.


An early timber-framed version of the Aero Coupler (USA, date unknown, courtesy Glenn H. Curtiss Museum)


In 1928 an entrepreneur and friend of Curtiss, Carl G. Fisher, wrote of the Aerocar:


‘Glenn Curtiss has produced the greatest trailer that was ever made in America’.


Unlike the Motorbungalo, Aerocars did away with any camping pretences. They were unashamedly luxurious houses on wheels driven mainly by chauffeurs for their wealthy owners. Generally built to order for private clients, top end models such as Model 161-BPC cost $8,500. This model offered optional air conditioning and a raised viewing cockpit for occupants, who were permitted to ride in the trailer in transit. Exact production number are unknown but estimates suggest up to 1,000 Aerocars were built between 1928 and 1940.

Despite Curtiss’ untimely death in 1930, his Aerocars continued to be produced under licence at two factories in Michigan and Florida until 1940. With the Great Depression in full swing in 1930, the Aerocar found new uses. To travelling sales representatives, it offered a cost-effective means of making a sale to distant or reluctant customers. It was soon adopted by a wide range of businesses as a mobile showroom or office. The Aerocar was also used as a school bus, ambulance, passenger transport vehicle and even a horse box. It was used extensively to transport passengers between airports, stations and luxury hotels.


Below are two images of the Graham Blue Streak Aerocar at the Louwman Museum in the Netherlands:



Cockpit of the Graham Blue Streak Aerocar (courtesy Louwman Museum)

According to Curtiss Museum curator Rick Leisenring:


"The aircraft instruments in the photograph appear to be (from left to right) a thermometer, altimeter, compass and clock. The plugs are for an intercom system to talk to the driver and radio headphones. Many of these features were extras listed in some catalogs that could be installed for the passengers. The altimeter and the compass are replacements, they’re WWII style not the 1920-30s style, as is the thermometer and clock. The upper deck is unique and gives the Aerocar the feel of an aeroplane."

Aerocars inspired other designers of the day, including industrial designer Brooks Stevens who in 1936 designed his Zephyr Land Cruiser based on a Curtiss Aerocar for photographer William Woods Plankinton Jr. An equally luxurious model was made in 1938 for Dr Hubert Eaton named The Vagabond, now in the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.


The machines, achievements and legacies of Glenn Curtiss can be explored more fully at the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, New York.


Conclusion


Back to that photo of a cow in a trailer at the top of this blog. This is the raw material that Curtiss had to work with when he first began designing and building RVs. If you compare it to the Graham Blue Streak Aerocar immediately above, you will get some idea of how far Glenn Curtiss advanced RV construction in just 12 years. The patents below show how Curtiss developed his thinking on RV design over this time. Each contains important technical advances in lightweight, aircraft-inspired RV design and construction, some of which are still in use today. As such Glenn H. Curtiss should be regarded as an RV pioneer ahead of his time.


Further images and details of Curtiss' RVs can be found in Recreational Vehicles: A World History 1872-1939.


Curtiss RV Patents


There are four main patents associated with Curtiss' RVs:


The Glenn H. Curtiss 'Camp Car', filed on 28 April 1921 and granted on 28 November 1922:

US1437172 copy
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Download PDF • 734KB

The Glenn H. Curtiss 'Road Vehicle Body Structure' (the Aerocar), filed on 8 June 1928 and granted on 4 October 1932:


US1880844 copy
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Download PDF • 521KB

The Glenn H. Curtiss 'Flexible Coupling for Vehicular Structures' (the Aero Coupler), filed on 8 June 1928 and granted on 4 July 1933:

US1916967 copy
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Download PDF • 597KB

The Glenn H. Curtiss 'Tow Car and Trailer Combination', filed on 8 January 1931 and granted on 22 December 1931:

USD85815 copy
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Download PDF • 89KB

Andrew Woodmansey

January 2022