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Pierce Arrow Motor Car
Pierce Arrow Motor Car

The RV industry’s earliest visionaries

The men who created the concept of an RV industry and its related lifestyle were amazing visionaries.  Many of the pioneers who originated RV related companies in the early years of the “horseless carriage” prior to World War I were pioneers in other industries as well.

While ingenious campers and hunters were making home built contraptions of all sorts, both motorized and towable, these dreamers created an industry building and selling camping vehicles to the public at large.

In 1910, an unknown engineer at the Pierce Arrow Motor Car Company dreamed up America’s first production motorhome. Pierce Arrow was, at this point, America’s premier prestige auto maker.  The 1910 Pierce Arrow Touring Landau was designed as a chauffeur-driven limousine where the driver sat outside forward of the passenger compartment.  The vehicle was remarkably equipped for camping in the manner of today’s Type B van campers.

The seat folded down into a bed for sleeping. A sink folded down from the back of the chauffeur’s seat.  Under the passenger bench seat was stored a luncheon basket that contained cooking and eating supplies.  In another under-seat compartment was a portable toilet.  Replacing the running boards on both sides were full-length storage compartments that were an early version of today’s basement storage.  The Landau sold for $8,000 plus options.

Automobile Telescoping Apartment
Automobile Telescoping Apartment

By 1915, Gustav Bretteville of San Francisco, Calif., was building and marketing his Automobile Telescoping Apartment.  His camper was a large box designed to be mounted behind the seat on the runabout autos of the day.  In its closed travel condition, the box was approximately a 4x4x4 foot cube that sat behind the runabout seat.

For camping, a full length slide telescoped out the rear of the box providing room for a full length bed.  Once the telescope feature was extended, rudimentary slide outs extended from either side of the back section. One slide contained an outside accessible fully equipped camp kitchen and the other opened into a chest of drawers for storage.

The wooden privacy cover for the sleeping compartment could be supported like an awning and provided a place to hang a showerhead that received its water from a large bladder that sat on the roof.  The Telescope Apartment sold for $100.

Also in 1915, The Superior Custom Truck Builders of Toledo, Ohio, was advertising a very large “Road Yacht” housecar for sale for $2,850. This mammoth vehicle had accommodations for a party of six plus its “crew of two.”

It included such amenities as a generator to provide power for cooking, heating and lights, and a bathroom with a toilet (undoubtedly a chamber pot) and shower.  A small stairway provided access to a “roof garden” equipped with a phonograph “for dancing while parked.”  Other listed standard equipment was a suitcase that held two folding bicycles to be available as “lifeboats.”

Lamsteed Campcar
Lamsteed Campcar

In 1916, the Lambert family of St. Louis began building the Lamsteed Campcar, a small camping vehicle.  The Lamberts were much better known as the owners of Lambert Pharmaceutical Company, makers of Listerine mouthwash.  When prohibition drove their friends and neighbors out of business in 1921, the Lamberts sold the Lamsteed company to the Busch family, owners of Anheuser Busch, brewers of Budweiser beers. They produced the Campcars through the 1920s.

Motor Bungalo
Motor Bungalo

In 1917, Glenn Curtiss, a world champion motorcycle racer, inventor of the Curtiss Jenny airplane, and competitor of the Wright Brothers in early aviation, along with his half-brother Carl Adams, patented the Motor Bungalo camping trailer utilizing a new and unique “fifth-wheel” hitch. It utilized was tire- and wheel-mounted horizontally and clamped into place into which a pin from the trailer fit the axle hole creating an air cushioned means of attaching a trailer to the tow vehicle and using a fifth wheel on the car.

It is remarkable that these amazing dreamers and visionaries, from the years before the war, dreamed up, invented, manufactured and sold every style of RV that we know today and nearly every feature including basement and rooftop storage, slide-outs, on-board generators, rooftop lounges and many others.   Vehicle size and the variety of appliances have changed but their amazing concepts are still in use 100 years later.

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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