The recreational vehicle and motorhome are roadway staples that have come a long way from humble beginnings. Historians often point to 1910 as the beginning of the industry in the United States, with the Smithsonian Institution and the RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Indiana (home of RV builders including Thor Industries and Forest River) declaring that the year the “auto camper” or “camping trailer” was born. We took a look back through the past century or so and found some of the key portions of the RV evolutionary chart to see where RV culture has been and where it's headed.
THE CONESTOGA WAGON
These pioneering 1700s wagons and RV ancestors were certainly vehicles, but families weren't exactly taking Conestoga wagons out to tour the Grand Canyon for recreation. They were using them to haul produce to market in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, and Virginia.
1910 PIERCE ARROW TOURING LANDAU
The Pierce-Arrow Touring Landau — debuted at Madison Square Garden in 1910 — was the nation's first RV, Smithsonian says. Some portions of it were innovative: The rear seats folded into a bed and the cabin was linked to the driver via telephone. Some portions were a little gross: Along with a fold-down sink, it came with a chamber-pot toilet.
1913 EARL TRAILER AND MODEL T FORD
1915 LAMPSTEED KAMPKAR
Just about anybody could get into the RV racket in its infancy. At the beginning of Prohibition in 1920, Anheuser-Busch's vehicle department looked into transitioning away from beer transport and created the Model T-friendly Lampsteed Kampkar, whose bench seats along each side of the rear compartment folded down to become beds nearly 4 feet wide. Kampkar body kits were $535, shipped cross-country by rail and distributed through Ford dealers. A brochure described the ability to “go anywhere you wish — on your own schedule, over your own railroad system in your own private car, stopping at your own hotel, eating your own cooking at your own table — all in great comfort and at a price you can easily afford.”
1916 COZY CAMPER TENT TRAILER
1931 CHEVROLET HOUSE CAR
1938 INTERNATIONAL HARVESTER
The RV/MH Hall of Fame lovingly uses the term "canned ham" for these '50s mainstay hard-sided trailers that didn't tack on the added cost of a vehicle and its maintenance. If you'd just come home from World War II and wanted to see the country on the cheap, the Shasta and fellow travelers like the Holiday Rambler were the way to go.
1955 RANGER FIBERGLASS POP-UP
1955 SPARTAN IMPERIAL MANSION
1958 AIRSTREAM FLYING CLOUD
1960S AND '70S TRAVCO MOTOR HOMES
1964 CLARK CORTEZ MOTORHOME
1964 COACHMEN CADET
1968 JAYCO TENT TRAILER
1969 STITES FORD BASED CHASSIS MOUNT MOTORHOME
1970 VOLKSWAGEN WESTFALIA
1974 GMC MOTORHOME
In the '80s and '90s, folks who wanted upholstery, televisions, sinks, captain's chairs, and other RV-style amenities but didn't want an RV paid to trick out Chevy and GM vans to ride around as “conversion vans.” You can do the same to a Ford Transit or Mercedes-Benz Sprinter today. But even minivans such as the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna tend to have most of those road comforts, while conversions have almost no resale value because, as Jalopnik puts it, “when most people look at a conversion van, they see enough Cheez-It crumbs to stock a grocery store display.”
1985 FLEETWOOD BOUNDER
1990 COACHMEN LEPRECHAUN
Some people hear “converted vans” and think of the conversion vans we mentioned before. But if you look up #vanlife on just about any social network, you'll come up with tiny homes that range from renovated campers to completely built-out panel trucks. The HGTV-fueled do-it-yourself boom met post-recession frugality and produced rolling living spaces that even RV companies can't sell.
TERRA WIND AMPHIBIOUS
If you're going to stake out a spot in the new RV economy,you need to get creative. Few are as inventive as Cool Amphibious Manufacturers International's Terra Wind: A full camper that is also buoyant and capable of up to 7 knots on the water. An onboard computer docking system has internet access, GPS, moving maps, and navigational charts all as standard equipment. The interior options are all custom, but can be had for starting at $850,000 and up to $1.2 million.
WILL SMITH'S RV
There are a bunch of celebrity RVs, but few stack up to Will Smith's trailer, known simply as “The Heat.” This 1,200-square foot beast sits on 22 wheels, has 14 TV screens, six figures worth of granite countertops, a lighted makeup mirror, “Star Trek doors,” and a second story that rises on hydraulic lifts. It cost $2.5 million and isn't even the most costly RV on this list.
MARCHI MOBILE ELEMMENT PALAZZO SUPERIOR
Marchi Mobile set out to make a 45-foot mobile mansion. With a king-size bed, modern kitchenette, expandable roof deck, rainfall shower, recessed lighting, and wine cabinet, this RV does a lot to earn its $3 million price tag.