The RV symbolizes travel and adventure no matter how you look at it. This vehicle evokes a unique feeling of freedom and discovery that differentiates it from other automobiles. The history of RVs is as captivating as the sight of one, giving an unprecedented look into America’s past and present. It is not clear when the RV first came into existence or at whose hands that happened. A common belief is that Roma Caravans of 1800s Europe inspired early RVs. Generally, Pierce-Arrow’s Touring Landau‘s 1910 debut at Madison Square Garden is seen as the moment RVs became mainstream although a few RVs were in existence before then. The Touring Landau showed what RVs could be, coming with a toilet and telephone. Half a decade later in 1915, New York’s Roland R. Conklin became a national sensation when he took his Gypsy Van on a tour to San Francisco. This was a significant moment as the Gypsy Van was designed to carry 11 people and came with a full kitchen, folding lavatory, and shower bath.
RVs remained in American consciousness since these early moments because of their practicality and the lifestyle they offer. RVs also remained at the back of American minds because even with the invention and increased availability of cars and automobiles, long-distance travel was still cumbersome and challenging. People on long journeys were often forced to sleep along roads when darkness fell upon them in places without hotels or motels. Sometimes hotel rooms were either too expensive or complicated to obtain. There were also only a handful of places people could get gas, snacks, or food on their journey. Additionally, it was very easy to get lost as there were no road signs and GPS devices. These reasons and others pushed people to make practical investments in RVs. The adoption of RVs meant that now close ones could visit each other across vast distances comfortably and business travel became cheaper and consumed less time. When the RV trend became popular and Americans began looking for different purposes they could use them for, practicality became only one of the numerous reasons.
The Great Depression saw many people move to live in their RVs on a more or less permanent basis because they could not afford to keep their cars and houses at the same time. An RV lifestyle enabled them to halve their expenses and gave them mobility that allowed them to move from one place to another in search of work. The Second World War checked the production of RVs as trailers and resources were needed to supply war manufacturing. After the war, however, RV production became mainstream once again as returning soldiers wanted cheap and simple ways to take their families on vacations. Perhaps the trend that shot RVs into a permanent spot in American lives was this increase in their use for recreational purposes. While camping has always been a favorite pastime for many people, the practicality of RVs made many starts using them on their trips because they offered more protection from the weather, wild animals, and thieves and did not require setting up and tearing down. In a short while, traveling groups started becoming popular, the most famous being the Four Vagabonds whose escapades garnered media coverage and drew many more people to RVs. The 1960s and 1970s found travel to music festivals, National Parks, and the outdoors more widespread and fun, making RVs ubiquitous in American life.
RVs have seen significant changes since they first entered the public eye in the 1910s. The evolution has seen the rise of iconic RVs that defined their times and future generations. These icons give a decent picture of how RVs have evolved to what they are today:
1928 Ford Model A House Car
This model was a solution offered during the Great Depression for the many who could not afford to keep their houses and cars at the same time. The RVs top was made of canvas so it could be rolled to create extra headspace as needed. The interior fitted a bed, dining area, stove, and kitchen, all tiny in line with the vehicle’s size. Only two of these cars were made, one in 1928 and another in 1936.
1929 Curtiss Aero Car
This fifth-wheel RV was the first of its kind to be commercially produced. The plane-like, lightweight design is because they were designed by an aircraft designer. This model was also designed to be towed.
1932 and 1934 Covered Wagons
Wagon-style RVs with top covers caught on in the 1930s and hold the mantle as the first mass-produced RVs. Only six are still in existence and even though small in size they had much utility when they came out back then.
1936 Masterbilt Scout
The largest of three offerings from Masterbilt, this model was also the most luxurious. The company is also known for the Masterbilt Pioneer and the Masterbilt Ranger.
1949 Spartan House Bus
This model is a legitimate summary of the 1950s and the 1960s, coming with features and a finish from those times.
1949 Airfloat Land Yacht
This is another icon inspired by the make of yachts and was one of the most popular models to ever exist.
Following the shape of a canned ham, this model was the most popular among those that followed that convention. The producing company first started by producing trailers for use by military personnel as housing during the Second World War. Shasta is still one of the largest RV manufacturers.
Only about 200 of this unique model were produced as it was both a boat and trailer. It is this RV’s roof doubled as a boat.
The shiny Airstream is one of the most iconic campers and few can match its glory. The model took 10 years to design and make, with the first one being commercially available in 1979. This model has remained in the market ever since.
Of all the celebrated RV companies of times past, Pierce-Arrow has probably the best and most grievous story. This company manufactured automobiles between 1901 and 1938 and was the idea of Percy Pierce with the help of Colonel Charles Clifton. Percy was the son of the owner of George N. Pierce Company. The company ventured into the automobile industry with the two-seat Motorette produced in 1902. This model was followed by the Stanhope and the Great Arrow, a beautiful cars that sold well and shifted the company’s focus to the luxury sector. With the new focus on luxury cars, the company released a series of high-performance, reliable cars built to pass the test of time. The company produced a total of 29 models including its last makes, the Pierce Silver Arrow and a V12 sedan.
Although the Pierce-Arrow is mostly famous for its luxury cars, it also manufactured bicycles, motorcycles, fire trucks, commercial trucks, and most importantly camp trailers or RVs as we know them today. The maker of luxury icons was in serious financial trouble during the 30s and in a move that looked like an attempt at saving a sinking giant decided to venture into the RV business with the Travelodge division. Trailer production commenced in the middle of the 1936 summer and lasted for about five months. The company produced three models: 13’ 7”, 16’ 6” and 19’ long. These models were aptly named Model C, B, and A respectively. The trailers came with the standard equipment of that day. Pierce-Arrow was the first company to equip its trailers with brakes and was the first to build an all-metal trailer. Pierce-Arrow was the only major manufacturer that did not make low-priced cars to generate income and with the lack of sales of development funds, the company shut down operations in 1938. During its heyday, the company’s main competitors were Peerless Motor Company and Packard. Together the three formed the “Three P’s of Luxury.” Each company had distinct makes and advantages and even though they existed together for a substantial period, each had an era where it was the most dominant manufacturer. All companies succumbed to the Great Depression, making for one of the most tragic failures in American Industry.
Today, modern RVs are divided into different classes, and trailers are classified by their features. One significant change has been in the technology they come with as modern RVs offer much more convenience than their earlier counterparts. It is not uncommon to find heated, fully-furnished RVs roaming around today. RVs can be one of Class A, B, or C while trailers can be a fifth wheel, travel trailers, toy haulers, or pop-ups. Class A RVs are the largest, and most luxurious, and come with the highest number of features. They are also the most expensive. Class B RVs, also called sleeper vans or camper vans are built into the frames of vehicles and come all essential albeit in a smaller space. Class C RVs are usually rigs built onto the frameworks of cut trucks, larger than Class B RVs and the cheapest of the three. Fifth wheelers are large RVs that can only be towed by large trucks. These trailers offer large spaces and are ideal for full-time living. Travel trailers are standard-sized and can be towed by average vehicles. These come in different designs, and sizes and are made for a variety of uses. Pop-ups are small RVs with tent-like sides that can be folded down when on the move and popped out for sleeping and storage when parked.
Indeed, the evolution in technology has precipitated an evolution in the amenities and furnishings RVs come with. Earlier RVs did not come with such features as plumbing although they had some conveniences like stoves and telephones. Today RVers have unlimited options with regards to features and connectivity, refrigerators, showers, air conditioning, televisions, and much more modern facilities are common. In addition, modern RVs come with novel features like rooftop decks, fireplaces, surround sound systems, multiple floors, and king-size beds among others. Given the comfort and utility modern RVs come with, it comes as no surprise that many people are turning to living in them full-time. RVs today are being used as homes, for camping, travel, and as tour buses. Over one million Americans live in RVs permanently today as they prefer the freedom they avail. This shift has inspired a number of trends like tiny houses on wheels and tiny living that are continuously attracting different generations to the RV lifestyle. This can be seen by the fact that around 15 million young people today own RVs. RV camping has also become quite popular today and estimates place campers at around 78 million. Thousands of travel groups have been created as camping keeps increasing in popularity. These camping clubs often organize trips to pre-determined destinations where members meet and enjoy all kinds of activities. Road trips are also as popular if not more and that is the same for the RV’s role in the same. People today desire long tours with convenience so RVs will remain in popularity for the foreseeable future.
RVs have come a long way ever since their conception in the early 1900s. These vehicles first captured the imagination of Americans with the immense possibilities they offered and claimed a spot in their culture when they proved their practicality. RVs have seen a tremendous evolution ever since the first model was introduced into the market by Pierce-Arrow in 1915. A look at history reveals the slow morphing of RVs into what they are today; vehicles that fulfill multiple purposes. The idea of being at home on the open road is alluring with many promises and many Americans are heeding to this call of adventure. RVs are thriving today and look like they are going nowhere as the number of uses keeps increasing. Besides, more people are adopting the RV lifestyle by choosing to live in theirs permanently and avoid the hassle of being tied down to an unmoving property. Therefore, the future looks bright for RVs and it will be interesting to see the various novels ends to which Americans will use them.