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Hitch up and go — It wasn’t always so easy

When Glenn Curtiss, a world champion motorcycle racer and an aviation pioneer competitor of the Wright brothers, conceived an early camping trailer in 1917, he called it his motor bungalo. Along with his new trailer he devised an entirely new hitch based on the spare tire or “fifth wheel” of the car.

Realizing that motorists needed their spare tires and already involved with airplanes, he used an airplane tire mounted horizontally on the back bumper of a car as the base for his fifth wheel hitch. The motor bungalow was produced in partnership with his half-brother, Carl Adams, from 1917 until 1922 or 1923 when Curtiss had become very involved in his aviation ventures.

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In 1928, demand encouraged Curtiss to resurrect his trailer and hitch system as the Curtiss Aerocar a highly advanced luxury trailer in partnership with Carl Fisher, the developer of the sealed beam headlight and partner in the Indianapolis Speedway.

Desiring to keep fifth wheel camping exclusively available to the very wealthy, Curtiss priced his aerocars at nearly 10 times the price of conventional travel trailers.  Travel trailers at the time were mostly priced from $300 to $800, while the aerocars were priced from $3,500 and up.

The aerocars were primarily pulled by rumble seat coupes and the tire based hitch was mounted under the rumble seat.  In the mid 1930s, pickup style trucks were beginning to become popular and special custom trucks started to appear as the tow vehicles for the aerocars.

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Most of these new pickup tow vehicles included a sleeper compartment as housing for a chauffeur as most users did not drive their own vehicles.  During this period some very exotic vehicles were created to tow the fancy trailers in line with the exclusive pricing.

Aerocar production lasted until the beginnings of World War II and ceased at that time.  During the War, military design changed the tire based hitch to a heavy steel plate as known on semi tractors today in order to use it to pull trailers carrying very heavy loads like tanks etc. There was little or no fifth wheel based RV production from the start of WWII until the mid 1960s.

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In 1964 or 1965, a Sturgis Michigan camper and job shop operator named Bailey designed the down-sized heavy steal plate fifth wheel that we know today and the modern fifth wheel hitch was born and today’s style fifth wheel trailers began to appear.

We have to remember that the fifth wheel is actually the hitch on the vehicle not the trailer attached to it.

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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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