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In 1978, Winnebago though its Helihome would fly with RV buyers.  It didn't.
In 1978, Winnebago though its Helihome would fly with RV buyers. It didn't.

RV history: From house cars to motorhomes

From the earliest days of “motor camping,” that is camping with motorized vehicles either to drive or to pull a trailer, driven RVs were known as “house cars.”

One of the earliest was the “Touring Landau,” a chauffeur driven camping limo built by the Pierce Arrow Motor Car company.  It was much like a modern Type B van camper where the passenger area converted to a bedroom and was equipped with a kitchen in a box and a toilet (chamber pot).

The Touring Landau sold for $8,000 — a truly luxurious price.

Hesselbart - MH 1

Through the entire pre-World War II era, most house cars were home-made or custom made by carriage shops or sometimes yacht builders.  After the war, several trailer manufacturers began to build motorized versions of their camping vehicles.

In 1958, a small trailer manufacturer named Ray Frank from Brown City, Mich., built a house car for personal use.  When his family protested calling his vehicle a “house,” they began to call it a “motoring home,” which was quickly shortened to motorhome.

Hesselbart - MH 2

As fellow campers saw and wanted one for themselves, the Frank Motor Home rapidly gained popularity and within a few short years, most manufacturers began building motorhomes and no longer used the term house car.

In 1961, Ray Frank’s son, Ron, received an assignment in his high school art class to take some square object and, with a French curve, create radius for every edge. Choosing his father’s Frank Motor Home, Ron created the smooth rounded design that, a few years later was sold to PRF Industries to become the Travco Motor Home.

Hesselbart - MH 5

The 1960s showed the birth of many of the brand name, factory produced, motorhomes popular today.  This growth was led by the highly affordable motorhome introduced in 1967 by travel trailer manufacturer Winnebago Industries and originally sold for under $5,000.

The assembly line built, no options available, original and affordable Winnebago Motor Home quickly gained such a large following that, by the mid 1970s and through the 1980s, Winnebago was no longer looked on as a brand name, but had become a generic name for all motorhomes — no matter who had made them.

In 1978, Winnebago pushed the line on motorized RVs by introducing the Winnebago Helihome a helicopter based flying RV.  That effort did not become accepted.

Hesselbart - MH 4

About the same time that Winnebago introduced the affordable motorhome, a few manufacturers began to introduce very high line luxury coaches.  Bluebird introduced the Wanderlodge, Newell took over the motorized division of Streamline, Barth changed from travel trailers to coaches, and Foretravel joined the luxury field.

These four manufacturers lead the introduction of diesel pushers in the early 1970s. While $5,000 motorhomes are a dream from the distant past, today’s coach prices vary from well under $100,000 to well over $1 million.

Hesselbart - MH 3

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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