On display on the Motor Midway at the Hilton Head Concours will be a unique exhibit illustrating the history of auto-camping, trailer and recreation vehicles as they evolved over one hundred years. Along with the social and cultural revolution that was ushered in by the automotive age, motorized touring has evolved from roadside tent camping to include trailers, RVs and multi-million-dollar motor coaches with all the comforts of luxury living.
The Early Years - The availability of the automobile made it possible for individuals to travel when and where they wanted. The alternative was rail travel with fixed routes and time tables. In 1905 Abercrombie and Fitch featured an early automobile camping display titled “trekking on tires.” Many people who engaged in motorized touring crafted their own accommodations, and auto-camping over a 100-year period has grown into the American recreational and leisure travel industry.
Early long-distance travel in automobiles was well chronicled by the press, and Dr. H. Nelson Jackson’s 63-day dash across the country in 1903 from San Francisco to New York was a milestone. Others soon joined in the excitement and challenges of long-distance motor touring which generally required camping by the highway at the end of the day. In 1909 Alice Ramsey and three female companions became the first women trans-continental drivers and auto-campers.
Auto-camping was to combine the new love affair with the automobile with the outdoor adventure. Even Emily Post and her son drove across the country in 1915. However, when available, she favored hotel accommodations versus camping. By 1915 sections of the first transcontinental route (The Lincoln Highway) made it possible to follow an “improved,” mostly gravel, 3,389-mile route from coast to coast. By the early 1920s it has been estimated that between ten- and fifteen-million Americans annually experienced the joys and trials of auto-camping. Of the nine million visitors who registered at national forests in 1923, about seventy percent were auto-campers.
Many motorists avoided hotel accommodations, being that they were typically located near railroad lines in town and urban centers. With the dirt, grime, and dust that clung to their outer protective garments, motorists were often regarded as undesirable “outcasts” by the urban and village hotels. Free of fixed routes leading from urban centers and the rigid schedules of rail travel, the motorist reveled in his “freedom” and embraced the concept of “motor hoboing.” The design of the early automobile with its high top and structural frame allowed for the attachment of tenting that often enclosed the vehicle, and running boards were ideal for storage. A few early brass-period cars were fitted with lavatories and toilet bowls, and by 1911 early motor homes were being created by hobbyists on automobile and truck chassis. These creations often adapted design elements of railroad Pullman cars and yachts, incorporating fold-down bunks and compact accessories. Auto-camping was recognized as a life style for both the common and the upper class. From 1915 to 1924 Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone and assorted friends would meet for auto-camping outings. Not only were they enthusiastic travelers, but they created customized vehicles for their outings and gear.
A Nation of Auto Campers - By 1919 auto-campers and “trailerites” had evolved into desired groups of travelers often called “tin can tourists,” and towns endeavored to attract these motorists and their tourist dollars with the creation of municipal auto-camps with many services and amenities. The “Tin Can Tourist Club” was organized with the goal of creating “safe and clean camping, wholesome entertainment, and high moral values.” By the mid 1920s over 5,000 such auto-camps had been established nationwide. Amenities typically included bath and toilet houses, safe drinking water, graded sites, picnic tables, tent floors, electric lights and recreation facilities which even included golf courses.
The auto-camping phenomenon lead to the creation of an industry which supplied the necessary kit and gear. Included were bedding, sleeping bags, folding furniture, portable appliances and tenting which could be free standing or incorporated into the motorist’s vehicle and was often stored on the running board. Typical of the new innovations was the folding Coleman gas stove, which was first produced in 1923. Magazines including Popular Mechanics and Motor Camper & Tourists provided hobbyists with details for building kitchenette boxes for the running board or luggage rack (most commonly on a Model T Ford). Camping trailers were also created to haul the camping gear, and designs were produced that opened up to create a portable folding tent. Dan Hershberger from Plymouth, Michigan, will be displaying his 1927 tent trailer complete with authentic kit and gear from the period. In the Depression era many displaced families and transients turned to auto-camping, and “Hoovervilles” appeared in many communities to accommodate the new homeless. Communities which had previously welcomed the auto-camper tourist were now less receptive to the new clientele.
Camper Trailers - By the 1930s cars had more powerful engines, and running boards (with the capacity to store camping gear) were being replaced with more streamlined automotive designs. Responding to these changes, the folding-tent trailer evolved into stand-up “shoe box” camping trailers between 15 and 22 feet in length. As these became increasing popular for recreational use, upscale trailer parks were created to cater to this market. The Life on the Road display will include a 1949 American owned by Forrest and Jeri Bone from Bradenton, Florida, and a 1955 Trotwood Club camping trailer exhibited by Terry and Michelle Bone from Wixom, Michigan.The decade of the 1930s saw further development, with trailers manufactured by aircraft designer Glenn Curtis and glider designer Hawley Bowlus. Few are more unique than those built under license from the Aerocar Land Yacht Corporation. Aviation pioneer Glen Curtis built his first “motor bungalow” in 1919 and later invented the “fifth wheel” coupling hitch. In 1927 he established his Curtis Aerocar Company, which utilized airplane structural engineering concepts. Ken and Lana Hindley will be exhibiting their 1936 Curtis Aero trailer, which they will tow from Canada by the fifth-wheel hitch attached to their ultra-streamlined custom 1938 International truck. The trailer framework is built from oak structural frames with steel airplane truss wires “tuned” with turnbuckles for rigidity. The siding is of fabric stretched over lightweight Masonite panels.Glider designer Hawley Bowlus utilized his knowledge of aerodynamics and aluminum construction in his Bowlus trailers. After World War II Wally Byam, who was involved with the Bowlus sales group, established the Airstream Corporation with its unique shiny, all-aluminum trailers. Many devoted Airstream owners participated in his caravans which even traveled internationally. Hunt and Susan Jones will be arriving from New Jersey to display their 1959 Airstream Globe Trotter with their 1956 GMC tow vehicle.
More than Motels - With the “maturing” of the auto-camp, private cabins were created which initially provided an enclosed shell in which to put one’s own gear and evolved into fully furnished “motel” units with toilet and kitchenette facilities. By the late 1930s many of these facilities had gained unsavory reputations—J. Edgar Hoover called them “camps of crime.” After the War upscale associations such as the AAA and motel franchise groups would restore the reputation of the motel. During World War II house trailers were extensively used as temporary housing for those participating in the war-goods industry. David Thornburg, author of “Galloping Bungalows,” notes that in “the two decades between 1935 and 1955 six million Americans lived and worked and raised their kids in house trailers – not ‘mobile homes’ or ‘campers’ or ‘RVs’. It was a good life for a child: warm and free and flexible.” After the War there was an acute housing shortage. Many returning veterans turned to mobile homes for their housing requirements. By the 1950s, however, traditional housing was available, and retirees and travel adventurers became the prime market for the trailer and mobile home. Entire communities (mobile home parks) were created for the semi-permanent location of mobile homes.
Vans and RVs - In the decade of the 1950s several companies specialized in the conversion of buses into motor homes, and a new industry of creating custom coaches was initiated. During the 1960s the most popular accommodations for living on the highway were custom slide-in camper bodies for pickup trucks. They were relatively inexpensive and could be removed whennot touring. Vans also became increasingly popular for passenger use, and Chevy Corvair and VW vans were offered with camping equipment.
Winnebago created a new generation of motor homes with its introduction in 1966 of inexpensive designs on specialized truck chassis. In recent decades the family automobile has reduced in size and is generally not capable of pulling a camping trailer. SUVs have grown in popularity for their trailer-towing capability, but the self-contained motor home, complete with air-conditioning and home comforts, has evolved into the unit of choice. Instead of towing a camper trailer, the automobile is more often being towed by the motor home.The recent high cost of fuel and current recession have diminished the attraction of RV vehicles, but they continue to appeal to generations of Americans for the lifestyle and freedom of Life on the Road.
“Courtesy of the Hilton Head Concours d’Elegance and Motoring Festival 2009”
If you are in the area, please stop by. The Concours is on October 31 st and November 1, 2009. It is a great honor to have TCT selected to participate in this prestigious event.