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Aviation industry influenced early RV products

Aviation pioneers and other aviation-related leaders have played a very large part in the growth of the RV industry from the very early days.

Glenn Curtiss, whose Curtiss Jenny airplane took precedence from the Wright brothers and became the primary aircraft for the U.S. Airmail service and other commercial uses in the years before WW1, created and patented the fifth wheel hitch in 1917.

His hitch, which was conceived using a car’s spare tire and wheel (the auto’s fifth wheel) into which a pin from the trailer was dropped. It became the design basis for today’s steel plate fifth wheel hitches used for RVs and commercial trucks.

Throughout the 1920s, the Curtiss fifth wheel hitch was mounted on autos — at first at the rear bumper, but in the 1920s, under the rumble seat in a rumble seat coupe. Trucks were customized to pull the trailers beginning in the mid 1930s.

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In the 1920s, a young engineer named Hawley Bowlus was assigned the responsibility of leading the project of building the plane known as “The Spirit of St. Louis” for daredevil pilot Charles Lindbergh in his attempt to fly non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean.

In 1933, Bowlus began building the Bowlus Road Chief travel trailer with a novel bright aluminum skin and segmented sections on both ends that was later adopted by Wally Byam and his Airstream trailers. The most notable feature of the Road Chief was the entry door located in the front directly over the tongue.

In the years immediately following World War II, J. Paul Getty, the Oklahoma oil billionaire, converted a part of his Spartan Aircraft Company that had built private and military training planes since the 1920s, into trailer production. His aluminum trailers using aircraft design and construction techniques with aluminum superstructure as well as skin became some of the finest and most popular trailers of the late 1940s and 1950s.

In the 1950s, Getty’s Spartanette and Manor models were popular travel trailers, while his Mansion, Imperial Mansion and Villas were most commonly placed in parks as mobile homes.

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In 1939, young Californian Don Boles was selected to participate in a program conceived by President Franklin Roosevelt as part of the recovery from the Great Depression. He was tasked to learn all aspects of aircraft design and construction in a four year assignment with the Lockheed Aircraft Company in Burbank, Calif.

Upon completion of that program in 1943, Boles enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was assigned after boot camp to a base in Norman, Okla. With no base housing available, and wanting to keep his wife and three children with him, Don purchased a 27-foot trailer, which became the family home for the duration of the war.

Following his discharge, he hooked up his trailer and returned to California where he began designing and building his Boles Aero trailers using the skills he had learned at Lockheed.

The early aircraft industry not only provided design concepts, but much of aircraft technology came into play in the growth of the RV industry.

About Al Hesselbart

The retired general manager of the RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Ind., Al Hesselbart is the author of the RV history book, "The Dumb Things Sold...Just Like That." He also represented the RV Industry Association at two symposiums held in China. He has appeared on multiple TV documentaries and is a frequent speaker at RV events. He can be reached at

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