Recreational Vehicles – Rooted in History – More Popular than Ever in 2021

If you think about it, the first recreational vehicles (RVs) – ones that could be “lived” in, or at least slept in – really belonged to snails and hermit crabs. Perhaps it was from observing these examples from nature that humans figured out they could move a dwelling unit around fairly easily.

While the history of the modern RV in the U.S. began in 1904, these wheeled or towed vehicles actually date back much further in history. Think about the Gypsy wagons in medieval times. The people we now call Roma – then called Gypsies because they were thought to originate in Egypt –  traveled throughout Europe, living in horse-drawn wagon caravans. Wherever these wagons stopped they seemed to bring thefts, pickpocketing and forbidden acts of magic. Local authorities would move in and the vagabonds would move on.

Then, there was the traveling circus. The first recorded example in the U.S. was John Bill Ricketts’ show, which toured the East and Canada in the late 1700s. The traveling circus’s heyday was in the mid-1800s, taking long caravans of gaily decorated wagons holding performers and animals throughout the U.S.

Rolling West in Covered Wagons

An American version of the Gypsy wagon was the covered wagon. The covered wagon was modeled on the Conestoga wagon that freight haulers in the eastern part of America, but smaller. Their greased, canvas-covered tops, seen from afar, resembled sails on the horizon, thus the nickname “Prairie Schooners.” They moved settlers westward, beginning with the opening of the Santa Fe Trail in the 1820s, and increasing with migration along the Oregon Trail. One major wagon train of 120 wagons and about 1,200 settlers, left from Missouri on the Oregon Trail – “The Great Emigration of 1843.”

It took settlers four to six months, carrying all their supplies in the wagons, which weighed up to 2,500 pounds. Generally, the wagons weren’t used for sleeping – tents were usually assembled nightly and were struck each the morning, or people slept beneath their wagons. In the event of bad weather or an Indian attack, wagons offered shelter. Arriving at their destinations, settlers could live out of their wagons – the 19th century version of today’s RVs.

The Birth of the Modern RV

A hand-built shelter built onto a vehicle in 1904 is credited as the first RV. According to a report in The Smithsonian Magazine (Sept. 4, 2018), it had incandescent lighting, an icebox, a radio and slept four. But the earliest vehicle that most resembled today’s RVs was unveiled at the 1910 Madison Square Garden auto show: a Pierce-Arrow Touring Landau with a fold-down backseat that converted to a bed and fold-away sink that increased space.

“Tent trailers,” moderately priced and meant to be towed, carrying tents, sleeping bags and the other accoutrements needed for camping appeared in the 1910s. They developed to include a collapsible tent, cots and storage for cooking equipment.

The Conklin family headed out from New York in 1915 on a camping trip across America in its “Gypsy Van,” a 25-foot vehicle built by the Gas-Electric Motor Bus Company. Conklin’s house-on-wheels with its electric lights, kitchen, built-in furniture, including beds, entranced the media. The New York Times marveled it had “all the conveniences of a country house, plus the advantages of unrestricted mobility and independence of schedule.” Ransom Eli Olds introduced the REO “Speed Wagon Bungalow” in the mid-1920’s, about the same time as the Hudson-Essex “Pullman Coach.”

Americans had discovered the joys of the Great Outdoors and recreational camping: the “Back to Nature” movement. In fact, a group of famous men dubbed the Vagabonds – with names like Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford – took annual camping trips between 1913 and 1924 in a customized Lincoln truck. In the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, Americans again headed west, living out of their vehicles – the migration brought on by the Great Depression.

The Covered Wagon – Motorized

Pharmaceutical executive Arthur G. Sherman had a bad camping experience while trying to erect a tent on a trailer, and his family got soaked. He hired a carpenter to build his own version of a covered camping trailer. Sherman’s “Covered Wagon” was displayed at the Detroit Auto Show in early 1930. It was six-by-nine feet, had windows on the sides and two in front and included domestic amenities like built-in furniture and storage. Expensive at $400, Sherman still sold 118 of them, grossing $3 million by 1936.

In 1929, Wally Byam repurposed a Ford Model T chassis with a teardrop-shaped structure and built the first Airstream trailer – not yet the streamlined stainless steel-clad version we know now. It sold for $500 and up and was light enough to be towed by an average car.

RVs were deployed as mobile hospitals, morgues and jails during World War II. The military bought thousands for enlisted housing. But when the war ended, returning soldiers – perhaps tired of “camping out” in foxholes –  decided a better experience was desirable, and the RV industry happily obliged. Among the offerings in 1952 was a 10-wheel luxury motorhome: carpeted, with two bathrooms, television and even a swimming pool. Its $75,000 price amounts to $810,000 now – not so different from some of the best 2021 RVs.

The era of the modern motorhome/recreational vehicle had begun. And the establishment of the Interstate highway system made it even more attractive.

Many Types to Choose From

The Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) estimates that 12 percent of RVs sold in 2019 in the U.S. were motorized:

  • Class A is essentially a repurposed bus with a flat front end, including the top-of-the-line Canadian Prevost costing more than $1 million, and the Georgetown and Winnebago for more than $100,000.
  • Class B is the repurposed van. Mercedes-Benz’s Sprinter, Ford Transit and Winnebago’s Rebel are examples.
  • Class C includes RVs that generally are built on a pickup or van chassis with the structure coming over the cockpit. There is a “Super C” class built on a semitrailer chassis.

Side Trip to Microbuses and Conversions

Who can forget the first Volkswagen microbus, the Typ (Type) 2, beloved of youth during the freedom-loving days of the ‘60s and ‘70s? According to Volkswagen, the original design was sketched out on a napkin in 1947 by Dutchman Ben Pon, Sr., who imported it into the U.S. beginning in 1950.

“It took you everywhere with your friends, it was a car but also a home on wheels, it was both reliable and unconventional, it was highly emotional,” according to VW Chairman Herbert Diess, speaking in Pebble Beach, California, while introducing a concept all-electric VW microbus, dubbed the I.D. Buzz, planned for production in 2022. It looks amazingly similar to the iconic microbus.

A generation of microbus imitators followed and eventually morphed into the conversion van, which appeared in the 1970s. The mostly standard commercial utility vans were customized with added seats, carpeting and other features to provide the creature comforts Americans wanted while camping out in style. The vans are still popular and are part of Class B.

Lots of Trailers, Too

The RVIA estimates that towables comprise 88 percent of RVs on the road. They also are categorized:

  • Pop-up campers with folding sides and tops.
  • Travel trailers of 13-40 feet, with many floorplans and options. Often with pop-outs on the side.
  • Fifth Wheels of 25-40 feet, that hang over and are attached on the bed of a pickup. Also with lots of floorplans and options.
  • Toy Haulers, which can be any of the above with built-in storage for outdoor gear such as dirt bikes and ATVs.
  • Teardrops, which are smaller and lighter-weight than the above, towed trailers.

The Industry Is Booming

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has made RVs and trailers wildly popular. Americans, unable or unwilling to travel in ways that put them in company with strangers, still have wanted to get out of their houses and go places. Buying or renting RVs or trailers are time-honored ways of doing that.

The Recreational Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA) reported that despite a two-month shutdown because of COVID-19, production in 2020 increased about four percent, for a yearly total of about 400,000 units. Sales have increased hugely. According to RVIA, there was a 43.4 percent increase from November 2019 to November 2020. RV Technical Institute Executive Director Curt Hemmler expects that to continue, “even as the vaccine rolls out and folks’ comfort levels may return to flying again or taking a cruise.” The National Association of RV Parks & Campgrounds predicted that 2021 would be a banner year; a study it conducted predicted that more than 53,000 new privately owned RV/camping sites would be constructed in 2021.

Americans are learning that RVs represent not only freedom to travel but also a good deal. A study by CBRE Hotels Advisory Group indicated that RV vacations are the most economical way to go, even with the cost of RV ownership and fuel, even if fuel prices escalate to as much as $13/gal., and even if they travel in the most expensive types of motorhomes.

Who buys RVs? The Nielsen-conducted “Go RVing Communications Planning Study” estimates that the groups most likely to be interested and to purchase RVs are “Active Family Adventurers,” “Nature Lovers,” and “Kid-Free Adult Adventurers,” about 40 percent of all U.S. households.

By the Numbers

The RVIA’s 2019 research revealed a $114 billion overall impact on the U.S. economy. That includes nearly 600,000 jobs with $32 billion paid out in wages and $12 billion in federal, state and local taxes. The impact on Colorado’s economy is also significant:

  • 11,105 RVs shipped to Colorado
  • 1,028 RV-related businesses
  • 9,752 jobs
  • $491.7 million paid in wages
  • $179.8 million paid in taxes by the industry
  • Retail value of RVs shipped to Colorado: $404.9 million


About timwjackson

Working every day for a better Colorado.
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