It is commonly thought that the first mechanically-driven RVs came from America in the 1910s and were powered by the internal combustion engine. New research suggests otherwise.
As commercial and private vehicles gradually replaced horses with horsepower at the start of the twentieth century, recreational vehicles followed suit. One country had a novel approach to powering its early RVs. The country was France and the power source was steam.
Steam-driven traction engines deliver their maximum torque (or pulling power) from a standing start. As such they were ideal for pulling heavy loads such as timber and coal. This was just about their only advantage. Their numerous disadvantages included weight, reliability, reliance on water and coal, discomfort and their tendency to explode.
In the early 1900s these disadvantages quickly ruled out steam as a practical fuel source for everyday transport. But for a short period between 1896 and 1900 a small number of steam-powered RVs appeared in and around Paris in France.
Late nineteenth-century France had one of the best road systems in the world. Thanks to Emperor Napoleon, who lived in constant fear of invasion of his country by land, an extensive and high-quality road network was developed that could get troops to the country's land borders quickly. Thanks to its foresighted town planners, Paris was especially well endowed with wide, sturdy boulevards. The roads built for troops and military equipment happened to be ideal for heavy traction engines too. France also had an extensive river and canal network that could replenish traction engine boilers with water 'en route'.
At the end of the nineteenth century France was a world leader in transport technology. Government-supported road races for 'horseless carriages', a strong coachbuilding tradition and some creative engineers combined to create a whirlwind of vehicle and propulsion types. These technologies included internal combustion and diesel engines, electric vehicles and steam power. They competed for prizes and public attention throughout the country.
Steam power was the ugly duckling of the group, with steam traction engines used mainly for road building, agriculture and heavy goods transport. But this didn't stop a few French manufacturers from applying steam to the newly emerging area of leisure transport that had begun in the 1840s with another French invention, the horse-drawn char à banc or charabanc.
France's steam-powered RVs were one-off vehicles built for wealthy Parisians. There are four that we know about so far, one of which was never built.
The 'Grande Diligence' of the Duke of Oldenburg (1896)
The first steam-powered RV that we know about was built by Carrosserie Industrielle for Paris-based Russian aristocrat the Duke of Oldenburg in 1896. No photos of this steam tractor and carriage combination have yet come to light - we have only a sketch by Louis Poyet (which forms the rvhistory.com logo) and newspaper accounts, such as this one from 1897 by two very excited reporters from the Automobile Club of France:
"Yesterday morning, having heard that the caravan ordered from Carrosserie Industrielle by His Excellency the Duke of Oldenburg was finished and would be delivered tomorrow, with the permission of the owner, Monsieur Lucenski and myself left for Reuilly in the early morning. As agreed by telephone the night before, Monsieur Samuel, director of this important establishment, met us there. "You know then that we make motor vehicles?" said the amiable Monsieur Samuel with a smile. "People in Paris don't know that ... but as long as that's all you know" he added with a lengthy grin.
He led us to the caravan, but to get there we had to pass through vast halls, some filled with huge wheels of all sizes, others with postal and telegraph vehicles, buses, delivery vehicles from our large stores, cabs, luxury coaches, ambulances of tomorrow equipped with pneumatic tyres, even hearses alas! etc. etc. Then there are the forges and sledgehammers, around which an army of workers swarm in a hive of activity. You can see axles being lengthened, springs being formed and wheels being rimmed using both new and old methods.
I wish we could stay here a week watching parts emerging from the furnaces piece by piece that will make up the elegant vehicles that will tomorrow devour our roads, some powered by oat eaters and others by engines. Twelve cent per hour workers make these vehicles ceaselessly. People have no idea of this either in the provinces or in Paris.
But we are here to see the prototype of the caravan of which I have not yet said a word.
Oh de Lafreté!* You would have not found suitable words of joy if you had seen the realisation of your dream of hardly a year ago. What a superb installation, what pretty interior and exterior decor, what comfort comes together in these three compartments of Prince Oldenburg's caravan.
We climb inside as the final sconces, freshly gilded by the manufacturer, are being installed. We begin our visit in the front room, from where through three windows you can see - I was going to say the countryside - the workshop.
Two softly padded benches with folding backs are screwed onto a rotating platform which allows them to be placed back to back, face to face or facing the windows pointing to the four points of the compass. Between the two benches, with a simple press of a button a table comes out of the rear wall as if by magic, creating a dining room with its small cupboards for storing crockery and glassware. Pressing another button retracts the varnished partition separating the dining room from the next room, extending the former by two metres. The two benches convert into beds in less time than it takes to write this. Everything works admirably without losing a square centimetre.
The rear room is reserved for the housekeepers and also acts as a bathroom with nickel water closet, which would make even artists at ease, as well as clothes and bedding cupboards. Everything is well organised beyond praise. Finally the third and last compartment is an elegant platform where one can take in the air whilst smoking a cigar.
The vehicle weights two tonnes and can be towed by a 5hp vehicle or a De Dion steam tractor. It can be attached within five minutes.
What misfortune, we say to Monsieur Samuel, that the entire Automobile Club of France was not able to see this marvel. Even more ideas may emerge from one of the rich sybarites in the club's midst. Why not send out invitations?
You've given me an idea, replies Monsieur Samuel. I'll let people visit on Monday, and on Monday evening I'll wrap it up and send it on its way. It's late already and should be in Brussels.**
A notice then to interested chauffeurs and coachbuilders wanting to learn some lessons. They have an opportunity to go and see a masterpiece of a caravan, the tourism vehicle of tomorrow."
from Journal des Sports, 30 May 1897 (with translation by the author)
* the background to this reference is unknown
** the Brussels Exhibition 1897, where the caravan won a 'Diplome d'Honneur'
Later descriptions of the caravan make it clear that the Duke of Oldenburg chose a steam tractor rather than an automobile to tow his luxurious caravan. The internal combustion engines of 1897 were simply not powerful enough to tow a two-tonne caravan.
The Duke of Oldenburg's caravan was built for holidays to the Caucasus, but it's not known if it ever undertook such trips. Nevertheless this is a remarkable 'first' in terms of powered leisure vehicles from the country of Jules Verne and his world of science fantasy. The dream of building a mechanical 'home on wheels' had become a reality.
Prince Orloff (1898)
The Duke of Oldenburg's caravan did not go unnoticed amongst wealthy Parisians. The Russian ambassador in Paris at the time, Prince Vladimir Orloff, was a patron of the automobile industry and decided that he wanted something similar. So in 1898 he asked French manufacturer Train Scotte to build him a recreational vehicle fit for a prince. Train Scott came up with the design shown at the top of this blog based on their steam omnibus shown immediately above. A plan of the interior is shown below:
The caravan was longer and heavier than the Duke of Oldenburg's. It had a lounge, dining room, three sofa beds, a library and a bathroom. There was also an articulated central section intended as a 'summer dining room'. The weight of the front vehicle including the steam engine, coke and water was estimated at 5.5 tonnes. With the rear estimated at 2.5 tonnes, the total combined weight of this monster was 8 tonnes. The average expected speed was 14-16km/h.
The Prince Orloff steam caravan was never built. Similar to the manufacturer who built the Duke of Oldenburg's caravan (Carrosserie Industrielle), Train Scotte was predominantly a heavy goods vehicle manufacturer. It is likely that they found the complexity of the design overwhelming, too difficult to realise in the real world.
But as with a few ideas connected with early RVs that never came to fruition, the broad reporting and discussion of such concepts helped to generate interest in mechanically-propelled leisure vehicles and offered clues to future designers as to what would and wouldn't work.
Monsieur Rénodier (1897)
There was a time when to be called a 'tourist' was a status symbol. Only wealthy people not needing to work could travel the world. Monsieur Rénodier of Paris was one such person - he was also the 1,000th member of the Automobile Club of France. Inspired by the comfortable accommodation found on the barges of the Thames river in London, he decided to buy a steam caravan in 1897. The caravan was built by Parisian coachbuilder Monsieur Jeantaud, who appears to have built the caravan without a prior commission from a client. It was a simpler affair than the Oldenburg and Orloff caravans but still had a combined weight of about 7.5 tonnes.
It contained a kitchen, dining room, a bedroom and a lounge. An upper viewing deck with bench seats could be reached by a small staircase. In 1898, La Vie au Grand Air ('Life in the Open Air') wrote: "It is hard to describe the stupefaction of people who come across this vehicle, which has all the advantages of a normal house but can be moved more easily."
Monsieur Rénodier's steam caravan is the earliest one (so far as we know) to be photographed. The photo is included in Recreational Vehicles: A World History 1872-1939.
Quo Vadis (1900)
The final steam RV of this period that is known to us was very different from its predecessors. Called the Quo Vadis, it was the first RV to combine steam boiler and accommodation in a single chassis. It can accordingly be called the first ever 'motorhome' (a petrol-driven equivalent would not appear until 1902 in the form of the Passe Partout, featured on page 76 of my book).
Quo Vadis was the brainchild of French automobile and heavy good vehicle manufacturer Turgan-Foy. It was adapted from their steam omnibus design that took part in the heavy vehicle trials in Paris in October 1900. Quo Vadis was usually driven with Monsieur Turgan at the wheel and was powered by two 20hp steam engines. The front section was reserved for the mechanic and a stoker. In the rear there was a 'yacht chamber', toilet, library, large bed and table.
There was also a "special machine activating a dynamo" which provided electricity for heating, cooking and lighting. The vehicle reportedly weighed 6.4 tonnes, including 1 tonne of coal. It had to stop regularly for water, so routes were devised as close to rivers as possible.
Monsieur Turgan's steam motorhome was featured on the cover of Le Sport Universel Illustré in 1900 as it was loaded on a ship bound for Tunisia. On its return it was exhibited in London in May 1901 followed by the Paris Auto Salon of December 1901. Its fate is not known.
As far as we know, France was the only country to have a steam phase in its development of leisure vehicles. Around 1900 the UK was still enamoured with the horse-drawn caravan whilst in the USA poor road conditions and long distances were beyond steam's capabilities. In engineering terms steam-drawn RVs were a cul-de-sac: impossibly heavy, noisy, polluting and dangerous.
But to those in France who built, owned or witnessed them, steam-drawn RVs were a marvel. They demonstrated that the outdoor life could be explored in some comfort without the need for horses. They sparked the imagination of thousands of would-be tourists and laid the foundations for petrol- and diesel-powered RVs that would later come to dominate the industry.
The author would be pleased to hear about any other steam-driven RVs, wherever in the world they might have been used.
Update: August 2022
To date only one other steam-powered RV has been found outside France, the British motorhome of Dr. Nichols. The details of this RV are here.