From Covered Wagon to Winnebago: The Evolution of the RV

Rv Rewind


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Rv Rewind


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
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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.

Covered Wagons


The “prairie schooner” that took pioneers to the American West also falls short on the “recreational” aspect — and these wagons most used in the mid-1800s were usually packed so tightly that families were unlikely to try to sleep inside unless the weather was truly terrible.

1910 Pierce Arrow Touring Landau
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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
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This trailer towed by a Model T is indicative of the more commonplace RVs of the time. Believed to be the oldest non-tent travel trailer in existence, it was custom built for a CalTech professor and has the do-it-yourself aesthetic of the Model T trailers and conversions of its day.

Lampsteed Kampkar
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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
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Pop-up tent trailers would take a little while to perfect, but this was one of the first to be commercially produced. Built in Indianapolis by Habig, the Cozy Camper led to more pop-up trailer tents from Zagelmeyer, Auto-Kamp, Jayco, and others.

1931 Chevrolet House Car
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At one time, a movie star's “trailer” wasn't just a giant apartment pulled onto a studio lot. This was built for Paramount Studios to shuttle around actress Mae West when she left vaudeville to make movies for the studio in 1931. While not a “camper” in the modern sense, it was a chauffeur-driven lounge car that West could use to a bit of privacy and preparation before making live appearances.

1938 International Harvester
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Italian explorer Attilio Gatti made 10 expeditions to Africa, the final ones using these “jungle yachts.” They each had a bar, two bedrooms, a bathroom with full-length bath, as well as a telephone.

1954 Shasta
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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
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Fewer than 200 were made by Hille Engineering of California, but those were enough to change RV design forever. It was the first trailer with an all-fiberglass body, and struck an important blow in the RV world's fight against rust and rot. The version at the RV/MH Hall of Fame has a unique slide-out rear bed; upper bunks and wooden support side modifications were by the owner, who wanted to make the unit fit his family.

1955 Flxible
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Flxible, now known as Custom Coach, started as a builder of sidecars for motorcycles under the name Flexible, dropping the “E” to become a distinctive trademark and the sidecar business after Ford began making more customer-friendly automobiles. In 1936, it began making buses known as Clippers that evolved over the decades into luxury motorhomes, featuring wood grain plastic drawers, cupboards, and even air conditioning. All those bus-sized touring RVs you see on roads and at festivals today? This is the start of their family tree.

1955 Spartan Imperial Mansion
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This boat of a trailer was 8 feet wide and a whopping 42 feet long, making it more of a rolling apartment. Even when you see one of these behemoths in a campground today, it typically still has its wood paneling, full-sized bed, twin bunks, full living room, and sink and vanity outside the bathroom.

1958 Airstream Flying Cloud
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Airstream founder Wally Byam began making trailers in 1929 by attaching tents to Model T chassis. When he replaced the tent with a teardrop-shaped shelter with ice chest, he was onto something. The Airstream as we know it wouldn't take shape until the late '40s and early '50s — thanks largely to World War II — but by the end of the 1950s, amenities such as hot water heaters and power generators helped make Airstreams into self-contained travel trailers. The Flying Cloud became an icon and, for a generation, was the spirit of the American road.

1960s And '70s Travco Motor Homes
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Built on a Dodge chassis using fiberglass to eliminate wood rot, the Travco was used by Johnny Cash, William Shatner, and other celebrities. While the dinette, refrigerator, double sinks, huge closets, and quality floor coverings brought in the most business, the “Destroilet” — a toilet that would incinerate human waste instead of flushing it down — has become legendary. The Travco became expendable when fuel crises made Dodge's fortunes waver, unfortunately.

1964 Clark Cortez Motorhome
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Clark Equipment was best known for making forklifts and heavy construction equipment, but when it decided to make an RV, it did something any sensible heavy construction company would do: gave it front-wheel drive for increased traction and control. It isn't an iconic RV by any stretch, but it was a massive step forward for RVs as a whole.

1964 Coachmen Cadet
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Coachmen has been a staple of the RV industry for the past half-century, but this little 15-foot trailer was the company’s first production unit. It doesn't have the bells and whistles of some of the other RVs on this list, but starting one of the largest companies in the RV industry is no small feat.

1967 Winnebago
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RVs were prohibitively expensive for the first half-century or so of their existence. Winnebago helped change that in 1967 when it started mass-producing “America’s first family of motor homes,” five models up to 27 feet selling for as little as $5,000. Winnebago had been around for nine years before it decided to start dealing in volume, and now that W logo has appeared in "About Schmidt," “Spaceballs,” "Escape to Witch Mountain," and a bunch of other RV-centric movies and TV shows. The RV/MH Hall of Fame has a 1967 in its collection, capturing the moment RVs went mainstream.

1968 Jayco Tent Trailer
RV/MH Hall of Fame


The tent trailer hasn't changed all that much in 50 years, and it's because Jayco founder Lloyd Bontrager basically perfected it. From the lofted beds and pop-up kitchen table to the sprawling screens and hard roof, the Jayco tent trailer made trailer RVs not only cost-efficient, but space-efficient as well.

1969 Stites Ford Based Chassis Mount Motorhome
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How else can you trim the cost of an RV? Well, you can skip the step where you mount it onto a truck, and instead just build a camper that a customer can slide into a truck bed. Built by Stites Camper in Denver, this model illustrates the evolution from slide-in truck campers to today's complete type C motorhomes. While slide-ins have their downsides (wear on the truck, lack of access to the driver's seat), they present a cost-efficient option for those who aren't willing to take on another vehicle.

1970 Volkswagen Westfalia
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The Volkswagen Westfalia Camper — later known as the VW Bus — was as well-known for camping as for being the hippie caravan of choice. Technically, it isn't a motorhome, but the Westfalia's large interior, curtained windows, modifications for electric and water hookups, and a pop-up roof have been enough for generations of owners.

1974 Gmc Motorhome
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Yes, it was the “EM-50 Urban Assault Vehicle” from the movie “Stripes” and, at one point, a holiday-season toy Hess truck. The GMC Motorhome was huge, sleek, and powerful — with front-wheel drive and dual-axle rear wheels, it's been made to go nearly 121 miles per hour at the Bonneville Salt Flats — and remains one of the most formidable motorhomes ever produced.

Conversion Vans
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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
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The RV/MH Hall of Fame has the prototype of what “Breaking Bad” fans will recognize as Walter White's rolling meth lab. While Fleetwood RVs now makes a more bus-like Bounder, with bump-out sections such as living rooms and dinettes, this '80s icon was was a blend of form, function, and affordability. With full kitchenettes, large bedrooms and bathrooms and tons of sleeping space, the Bounder set the standard for big Class A RVs going forward.

1990 Coachmen Leprechaun
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Its multicolored stripes created a decidedly '90s design palate, but the Coachmen Leprechaun prepared RVs for the next century by making the most of very little space. It creates an entire extra bedroom bunk in the front of the vehicle without sacrificing dining, bathroom, or sleeping space in the rest of the camper. Some consider it the transition from homes away from home to actual homes on wheels.

Converted Vans


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.

Airstream Globetrotter
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Introduced this year, the 25-foot Globetrotter is a statement on the modern RV. It has LED lighting, high-definition television, a stainless-steel sink, premium kitchen and bath fixtures, a Polk audio system with recessed speakers, a three power-source refrigerator, vinyl flooring, power stabilizer jacks, power awnings, and an optional solar power package. The exterior looks like vintage airstream: Inside, it's all 21st century.

Terra Wind Amphibious
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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
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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.

EleMMent Palazzo Superior
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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.