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The first dealers sold RVs from their front yards at home. It wasn't until 1938 that the first branded RV dealers appeared on the scene. (Photo taken at the RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Ind.)
The first dealers sold RVs from their front yards at home. It wasn't until 1938 that the first branded RV dealers appeared on the scene. (Photo taken at the RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Ind.)

RV history: From factory direct to dedicated dealerships

In the earliest days of the RV industry there were no RV dealers and almost all sales were made factory direct.  In the early 1930s a few trailer dealers began to appear, but the original dealers had little if any brand loyalty.

For the most part, these early dealers filled their inventory with whatever products were on sale when they needed more stock. There were a few trailer brokers who gathered up some trailers wherever they were available and peddled them “door to door,” like an encyclopedia salesman, to any dealer who needed inventory.

In 1931, a young southern Californian from Los Angeles named Kenneth Dixon began building some very basic trailers in a small barn behind his home and selling them from the curb in front of his house.  As his campers began to become popular, he named his company Traveleze Industries.  Traveleze prospered, but until 1936, their trailers were all sold from the curbside in front of Dixon’s home.

In 1936, Dixon conceived the notion that there would be advantages to having a contracted relationship between his company and specific loyal dealers. In establishing a franchise relationship with his dealers he opened a line of communication between the manufacturer and the seller that had not existed previously.

Setting up the first franchise in San Diego in 1937, Dixon discovered that he had captured lightning. Just one year later in 1938, he had established a formal agreement with more than 100 trailer dealers spread throughout the entire western half of the United States. This growth forced him to abandon his backyard barn and move into much larger quarters in Glendale.

Today, nearly all RV dealers have franchise agreements with their manufacturers.  Some are exclusive, choosing to rely entirely on models made by one specific company and others choose to represent a broader range of models from a variety of builders. Some dealers operate a small business with 30 to 50 units in inventory and others may have over 1,000.

The successful world of RV dealerships that we know today is the direct result of one California backyard trailer builder daring to think outside the box.

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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