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Folding -- foldout camper

From mobile tents to folding campers

Throughout the history of recreation vehicles, the most popular style of camper by volume of models sold has always been the folding tent trailer, or its very early predecessor the non-folding tent trailer.

They most closely resembled the tents with which all outdoorsmen were very familiar. The popularity of these models has been based on price and on ease of towing with standard family autos.

folding -- circa 1910 camperCamping wagons were produced and pulled into the countryside by horses in the years before the advent of the automobile. But, with the earliest distribution of horseless carriages, camper manufacturers began to pop up all around the country.

These early manufacturers were very regional in nature. The first campers were not sold more than 100 or 200 miles from their point of production as transporting them to a customer was very inconvenient. Also, retail trailer dealers were unknown and the early campers of all types were pretty universally sold factory-direct to consumers.

The very first units were simply canvas forms draped over an iron pipe or wooden frame to provide some protection from the elements. There was no need to fold the shelter for travel as the autos only drove at 15 or 20 miles per hour.

The earliest tent camper manufacturers appeared in the years immediately after 1910 in Southern California, upstate New York, Michigan, Minnesota and other areas where the outdoor lifestyle was popular.

Folding -- foldout camperSome of the other early camper makers were Auto Kamp of Saginaw, Mich., and Archie and Lawrence Campbell in California, both beginning in 1914.

In 1916, A.P. Warner of Beloit, Wis., was marketing his Prairie Schooner trailer, a comparatively large folding camper. Warner is also known for Warner Instruments and gauges and the Warner Electric Brakes that held a lion’s share of the trailer brake market in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1929, his camping trailer company became part of the Fruehauf Truck Trailer Company.

In 1918, the Marx Trailer Company of San Diego patented its “Komfy Kamping Trailer” and, in 1919, Alexander Curtis of Minneapolis patented a trailer with a rigid central box and fold out canvas-enclosed beds on either side. This may have been the first example of today’s popular hybrid style expandable travel trailers.

Curtis was manufacturing camping trailers as early as 1916. By 1920, Frank Zagelmeyer of Bay City, Mich., was building folding tent trailers with outside accessible pantries and a Model T based “Kamper Kar” with a solid cabin but a canvas “expando” roof and fold out canvas covered beds on either side.

Because there were no consumer magazines available in these early days, the pioneer manufacturers advertised their products in Field and Stream and other outdoor-oriented journals.

In 1929, the Trotwood Trailer Company of Trotwood, Ohio, built a folding canvas trailer with a full length “slide out” that doubled the floor space from travel mode to camping mode.

1929 Trotwood
1929 Trotwood

In the 1930s, the Split Coach Company of York, Pennsylvania, built a camper with a split body that separated and pulled out in either direction to be capped with a snap on canvas panel. The top cap raised up to support the canvas sides and when down provided the seal that kept the two sides together for travel.

One of the longest lived of the early tent camper manufacturers was the Chenango Camp Trailer company of Norwich, N.Y., which produced campers from 1920 until 1950.

1950s car-top camper
1950s car-top camper

These and the many other tent trailer manufacturers of the early days all failed to survive the effects of the Great Depression or World War II but were followed in the 1950s and sixties by companies that became industry giants such as the Apache brand campers by Vesely Manufacturing in Lapeer, Michigan, and the Nimrod campers from Ohio.

The Coleman Company, known world wide for a variety of quality camping and outdoor paraphernalia, introduced its folding camper in the 1960s as did Jayco — another brand that continues to this day.

The 1960s brought a basic design change in the tent trailer industry. Nearly all of the early tent campers had rear entrance doors and beds that folded out on the sides.

Nimrod, Coleman, and Jayco were leaders of the move to position the entry door on the side as on conventional travel trailers and extend the beds on the front and rear. Jayco pioneered the crank-up system that allowed one person to raise and lock the roof into camping position during set up.

A few novelty manufacturers in the 1960s made tent campers designed to be mounted on the roof of cars and open up in that position to be accessed by a ladder. They left the availability for the car to still pull a boat or other recreational device while carrying sleeping space overhead.

As the “mobile tent” has evolved through the years, it has assumed all of the features and comforts of a modern travel trailer with the added utility of a fold down roof that dramatically reduces wind drag and allows the towing driver to use conventional rear view mirrors.

Folding 2016 Jayco Jay Series
2016 Jayco Jay Series folding camper (Photo courtesy of Jayco)

The folding camping trailer of today comes in all sizes from micro mini rigs designed to be towed behind cruising motorcycles to huge campers as large a moderate sized travel trailers.

Conveniences and appliances in common use in modern tent rigs include air conditioning, bathrooms with toilets and showers, convection-microwave ovens, thermostatic furnaces and televisions. Some provide insulated canvas and covers for the screen panels that allow for very comfortable three season or mild-winter four season usage.

A popular feature on many tent campers today is an outdoor kitchen that allows the cook to be closer to the family activities while preparing meals and keeps the preparation heat and odors from overwhelming the interior.

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 ahesselbart@aol.com.

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