Many Americans love the idea of escaping their everyday lives and traveling the country in an RV. But this isn’t a new notion — people have been enjoying the benefits of RV travel for more than 100 years.
Recently we visited to the Recreational Vehicle / Motor Home Hall of Fame Museum in Elkhart, Indiana, and enjoyed a trip to the past as we wandered through the surprisingly varied collection of RVs and travel trailers that date back to 1913. If you are ever passing through Elkhart be sure and stop for a look around; in the meantime, take a quick break from the everyday to appreciate highlights of an American pastime that is still going strong today.
1913 Earl Travel Trailer with Model T Ford
This is reputed to be the oldest travel trailer in the world, custom made for a Cal Tech professor by a Los Angeles carriage maker. The trailer was restored in 1980.
1913 Earl Travel Trailer with Model T Ford
The trailer features a dining table that seats four and can convert to a double bed.
1916 Cozy Camp Trailer Tent
At the time most trailers like this were homemade — this one was built by Habig Manufacturing in Indianapolis, Indiana, making it one of the first examples of a manufactured trailer.
1916 Telescoping Apartment
Built on a 1915 Ford Model T, the “Telescoping Apartment” was built as an aftermarket camping accessory for early trucks. Both side cabinets and the rear section would slide back into the vehicle for travel. There is even a shower with warm water provided by the truck’s radiator. This particular example was built in San Francisco and sold for $100.
1922 Zagelmeyer Camp Trailer
Zagelmeyer was better known for its Kamper Kar in the 1920s, but in 1922 the Bay City, Michign, company applied for a patent for this unique camp trailer.
1928 Pierce Arrow Fleet Housecar
This is one of only three housecars built by Pierce Arrow before the stock market crash of 1929 ended production of luxury housecars.
1929 Covered Wagon Travel Trailer
One of the first trailers made by Arthur Sherman before he created the Covered Wagon Company, it was this design that gave the company its name.
The first production travel trailer in the United States, Covered Wagon went on to become the largest trailer manufacturing company during the Great Depression before going out of business after WWII.
1929 Wiedman Housecar
The body of a Wiedman Housecar was built in upstate New York, and then shipped to a purchaser for installation, or to the factory to be installed on the buyer’s chassis of choice.
A driver’s seat was a $35 option, but apparently any comfortable chair would do.
1931 Mae West Housecar
In 1931 Paramount Studios presented this custom-built House Car to Mae West to entice her to leave Vaudeville and join Paramount to make movies. Mae West used this housecar for several years as transportation between her home or hotel and shooting locations.
This Housecar was designed as a chauffeur-driven lounge instead of a camper — it features a small hot plate, icebox and a small table to enjoy a meal.
Mae West had a rocking chair on this back porch to enjoy fresh air when she had the opportunity.
This custom housecar was discovered in a barn in Athens, Alabama, in 1999 and was fully restored by 2003. The Ford AA chassis was used for a variety of vehicles, from ambulances to school busses to vehicles like this “camp truck.” The 40-horsepower engine gave this early RV a cruising speed of 25–30 mph. The owners say that the engine ran fine the day it was found, even after being in storage for more than 40 years.
1931 Model AA Ford Housecar
The floors are made from yellow pine, while the cabinetry uses oak and yellow poplar.
1932 Gilkie Kamp King Tent Trailer
Founded in the mid 1920s, Gilkie was one of the first successful manufacturers of tent trailers.
A unique feature of this trailer is an icebox and pantry that can be accessed from inside or outside, making it possible to load up the trailer for an outing without opening it up, as well as opening the pantry for a roadside meal without popping up the entire tent.
1933 Ford Kamp Kar
The Kamp Kar was built by Walter Runkle, a home builder who created these custom vehicles for local customers from 1915–1940. This particular example was used from 1933–47 for yearly winter trips from Illinois to Florida.
Henry Ford introduced the V8 in 1932, so this is one of the first housecars to be powered by a V8 engine.
1935 Covered Wagon Travel Trailer
Covered Wagon was the largest trailer manufacturer in 1935, building one of every six “house trailers” in America. At one point the company was turning out as many as 50 trailers per day.
1935 Kozy Kamp Tent Trailer
One of the earliest tent trailers, the Kozy Kamp was built in Portland, OR.
1935 Kumfort Travel Trailer
This early travel trailer is one of the many examples of a home-built trailer.
The dining table is designed to drop down, which converts the entire trailer into one very large bed.
1936 Roadhome Coach
This camper was built in Los Angeles with masonite sides placed over a diagonal truss frame made from spruce — similar to the style of early aircraft framing.
1937 Hayes Motor Home
Built by the Hayes Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan, this trailer features a full steel body including the roof and underbody, which kept animals out.
This example was reportedly only used a few times before being put into storage around 1940. It was discovered in the 1990s; other than being repainted, the camper is all original.
1937 Hunt Housecar
Created by Hollywood movie cinematographer J. Roy Hunt, this was one of about 50 RVs built by Hunt. Note how this vehicle predates and hails the coming of the aero and atomic design influences in America during the middle of the 20th century.
The Hunt Housecar is thought to be the first RV with a functioning shower.
1939 Lindbergh Travel Trailer
This trailer was custom built by an engineer from the Sir Francis Drake Hotel for world-famous aviator Charles Lindbergh. The trailer made use of two axles — one at each end — which made it more stable and easily parked without need of support jacks.
1939 Schult House Trailer
Schult is now a home manufacturer. The company started in 1933, making it one of the oldest in the business.
This 20-foot house trailer features a small built-in refrigerator rather then the more common icebox, as well as a white gas cookstove and heater.
1946 Kit Teardrop
An early example of the KIT trailer produced by Dan Pocapalia, founder of the KIT Manufacturing company in 1945. The company went on to be quite successful, but ultimately closed its doors a few years ago.
1950 Fleetwood Sporter
This Fleetwood Sporter was the first camper every built by Fleetwood Enterprises founder John Crean. Fleetwood went on to become one of the largest motorhome manufacturers in the country.
1954 Holiday Rambler Travel Trailer
Klingler Products Company built this early travel trailer before the company changed its name to Holiday Rambler, reflecting the company’s most popular model.
Uniquely trimmed in maple, the Holiday Rambler features a double-wide bed of canvas stretched between two steel pipes located above the standard bed.
1955 Spartan Imperial Mansion Mobile Home
A little more than a typical RV, the Spartan Imperial Mansion was built by J. Paul Getty’s Spartan Aircraft Company at the end of WWII, taking advantage of surplus production capacity. The wraparound front window was considered to be a Spartan trademark.
Considered to be one of the finest mobile homes of its time, the Spartan featured an all-aluminum exterior with aluminum wall studs and an all-birch interior.
1954 Yellowstone Travel Trailer
A premium offering in the world of travel trailers, the Yellowstone features a kitchen range and refrigerator that were more like those found in residential apartments.
The Yellowstone’s interior has a bright look thanks to the high-gloss birch trim.
The rear door is intended for emergency use in the case of a fire.
1955 Ranger Crank-up Tent Trailer
Less than 200 of these pop-up campers were built, and this one has customized upper bunks that fold down when the roof is lowered. This design was the first use of fiberglass in a trailer body.
Ranger was the first brand to us the term “slide-out” to describe the extendable section which provided space for the rear bed.
1956 E-Z Kamper Prototype Tent Trailer
Clyde Grambsch was the founder of E-Z Kamper, but he built and used this wooden prototype before starting the company. After a few camping trips, Grambsch began to receive mail requesting similar campers so he founded the company to build them with steel bodies.
1957 Serro Scotty 10-Foot Teardrop Trailer
Founder of Serro Scotty John Serro designed and built this small teardrop trailer after hearing complaints of how difficult it was to tow larger, heavier units.
Serro Scotty trailers stood out for their unique low silhouette with a rear entry door and drop-down floor. This design allowed owners to store the trailer in a typical residential garage.
1958 Airstream Flying Cloud
This Airstream trailer was built in California and is fully equipped with a gas heater, refrigerator, cooking stove, pressurized water system and 110-volt electrical system.
1958 Airstream Little Prince
Airstream’s founder Wally Byam built this 10-foot prototype with the idea of selling this very small trailer in Europe. Byam personally named it “der Kleiner Prinz” (Little Prince), but ultimately decided not to put it into production.
1964 Clark Cortez Motorhome
The Clark Cortez was the first American production motorhome with front-wheel drive.
This is the first production trailer from Coachmen.
The Cadet features a unique bed stowed up against the ceiling and is manually lowered into position above the dinette when ready for use.
1966 Mustang Travel Trailer
The Mustang was one of the first travel trailers to feature a “bunkhouse” design that incorporates a second-story bed layout.
1967 FAN Luxury Liner
This was the personal travel trailer of Virgil Miller, former president of Newmar RVs. Miller was a past chairman of the board for the RV Hall of Fame.
1967 Winnebago Motor Home
Winnebago had been a travel trailer manufacturer until the mid 1960s; this is an example of the company’s first motorized RV. Priced around $5,000, the Winnebago started the trend towards affordable motorhome production.
This Winnebago is designed to sleep up to six people on three double beds.
1968 Carriage Travel Trailer
This is one of the first examples of a travel trailer from Carriage, a company founded in 1968 that continued successfully until it closed about 10 years ago.
1968 Jayco Jayhawk Camper
Lloyd Bontrager founded Jayco in the 1960s, and this camper was the 40th trailer he built. The crank-up roof system was unique at the time.
This Jayhawk is designed to sleep up to eight on four double beds.
1969 Holiday Rambler Truck Camper
The Holiday Rambler is an example of large, fully-equipped campers that slide into a pickup truck and be ready to go. This model is an 11-foot camper, designed to sit in a truck’s 8-foot bed.
1969 Pace Arrow
Although Fleetwood is widely known today as the maker of high-end RVs, this Pace Arrow was Fleetwood’s first motorhome.
1974 GMC Motor Home
An example of the motorhomes built by General Motors from 1973–78, this RV features a front-wheel-drive system from a Cadillac Eldorado as well as an airbag suspension system for better ride and handling — an advanced feature for its day.
It may look great now, but this GMC motorhome was discovered parked next to a dumpster with flat tires, a rotten awning and animals living in the wheelwells. Bob and Janet Prince have socked more than $500,000 into restoring this RV beyond its original form to be a fully modern recreational vehicle.
1978 Coachman Leprechaun Ford Chateau Camper Special
This 1978 Coachman was purchased for $14,000 in June 1979, and was used for the next 27 years traveling to all 48 contiguous states before being donated to the museum in 2013.
1978 Travco 320
Travco motorhomes were aerodynamic Class A RVs built from 1965 to the late 1980s, fitted to Dodge motorhome chassis.
1985 Fleetwood Bounder Prototype
Fleetwood changed the industry when it introduced the Bounder Motor Home that featured basement storage in Type A motor homes — this was the final working prototype of the Bounder RV.
Fans of the hit TV series “Breaking Bad” have a special affection for the 1986 Fleetwood Bounder.
1988 Star Streak II
This unique RV is one of two custom all-aluminum motorhomes built by Paul Jones of Cape Coral, Florida. Star Streak II is built on a 1976 Cadillac Eldorado chassis with power coming from a 455 cubic-inch engine from a 1976 Oldsmobile Toronado.
2019 Winnebago Vista
With a nod to how far the RV has evolved over the last century, this is one of the latest models to come from Winnebago. It includes features that weren’t even thought of when the first RVs were coming to market, including LED lighting, Primera-covered furnishings and a powered patio awning with LED light strip.
Located in Elkhart, Indiana, the RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum opened in 1972. If you have any interest in the history of the recreational vehicles, this wonderfully entertaining museum is definitely worth a stop. More information about the museum is available at https://www.rvmhhalloffame.org.