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Ford Model T with tent, circa 1915 (Ford)
Ford Model T with tent, circa 1915 (Ford)

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RVs: Home away from home for 100 years Add to ...

More than a million recreational vehicles are in use in Canada today as the RV industry celebrates its centennial, but in 1910 there was just Ucal-Henri Dandurand of Montreal and a handful of other devotees of the new pastime of motorized camping.

Dandurand, who developed the Rosemont and Verdun areas of Montreal in the latter years of the 19th century, became the city's pioneer motorist when he purchased a Waltham steamer in 1899. And as the first decade of the new century unfolded and his family increased to 11, he naturally looked to the automobile industry for a method of escaping the city on weekends. His solution was to purchase a three-ton Packard truck chassis in 1910 and have local coachbuilder Pierre Breault create a unique body for it.

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The result, which he called the "Pullman" after the luxury train coaches of the time, was almost nine metres long, more than two metres wide and three metres tall. It had seats for 22 and could sleep 11, and its amenities included a salon, sleeping area, kitchen with oil stove and icebox, running water and a toilet.

Sleeping under the stars

1931 Chevrolet Housecar owned by Mae West
Click here for more photos of recreational vehicles, from tents attached to Model Ts to luxury camping with all the comforts of home

Other pioneer RV-ers on both sides of the border weren't having it quite as good, many making use of home-modified Model Ts or trailers to facilitate their weekend getaways. But some were also taking advantage of a new breed of dedicated recreational vehicle that was beginning to emerge in the U.S..

The American RV industry claims 1910 as the starting point for manufactured, as opposed to home-built vehicles (no Canadian RV companies appear to have been operating at this point). Its early efforts were called "auto campers" or "camping trailers" and were the forerunners of the eight million plus modern RVs that roam American roads today.

Al Hesselbart, archivist for the Recreational Vehicle and Motor Home Heritage Museum in Elkhart, Ind., pinpoints 1910 as the beginning of the RV industry. "Camping had been around for centuries, but 1910 is when the first auto-related camping vehicles were built for commercial sale," he says.

American RV historian and collector of early RVs and memorabilia David Woodworth agrees, noting that prior to this time only the wealthy could afford to travel any distance to "camp," in private rail cars that were pulled into sidings. "The year 1910 brought a new freedom to people who didn't want to be limited by the rail system. RVs allowed them to go where they wanted, when they wanted."

And, of course, they didn't need to be wealthy enough to afford their own railcar. "The 1910 RVs offered minimal comforts compared to today's homes-on-wheels," says Woodworth. "But they did provide the freedom to travel anywhere, to be able to get a good night's sleep and enjoy home cooking. One notable exception to today's RV was the bathroom. In 1910, it was usually either yonder tree or yonder bush."

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RV's didn't exactly take either country by storm. The roads of the early days were rugged and facilities to aid travel in rural areas limited, including fuel supplies. But road networks began be extended and improved in the 1920s, and vehicles had more power and reliability. By the 1930s, freedom to travel was part of North American's lifestyle - and the RV business began to boom.

Some pioneering motor campers simply towed trailers loaded with camping gear, but more elaborate towable units soon became available.

Early RV designs could be as basic as a tent attached to the side of a model T, or for those with the wherewithal, a unit with unique telescoping bodywork that extended into a bed that could be fitted to a "T". Another example of an early "pop-up," as modern tent-trailers are known, was the elaborate Warren Autotrailer Prairie Schooner of the 1920s, which unfolded like a hatching Mayfly.

Towable units became more elaborate with the invention of the fifth wheel towing system in 1915. One of the more exotic of these early fifth wheel designs was created by aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss and known as the Curtiss Aerocar Land Yacht. Its fifth wheel hitch fitted into the towing car's trunk.

House trailers became increasingly popular in the 1930s, ranging from simple and Spartan to sophisticated and fully equipped. Airstream introduced its aerodynamic aluminum bodied trailers in this period and became arguably the top of its class.

The "housecar" was another early RV that quickly became more elaborate, comprising a home- or factory-produced body fitted to a car, truck or bus chassis, and boasting creature comforts such as bunks, cooking facilities and toilets.

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An early example of the factory-built housecar was the Lamsteed, a boxy van body which fit neatly onto a Model T chassis, with plenty of windows and sides that folded outwards to create beds.

A little more upscale was the 1928 Pierce-Arrow Fleet housecar. The evolutionary process continued with both Ford and Chevrolet producing larger housecars in the early 30s, one of which was owned by actress Mae West. An early example of streamlining was the 1937 Hunt housecar, developed by Hollywood cameraman Roy Hunt.

By the 1950s housecars had evolved into what we know as motorhomes today. They could be simple and homely slab-sided fibreglass affairs attached to a pickup chassis, or as sophisticated and expensive as the fully-fitted-out rock-star tour buses of today. The Banner motorhome of the early 60s was typical of the former and the Bluebird Wonderlodge, Newell and GMC super tourers of the 70s examples of the latter.

With 100 years of history behind it, the modern RV industry has grown to become an almost $40-billion business in North America.

Some 14 per cent of Canadian households own examples of its current range of offerings, which starts with folding and truck campers priced from about $6,000, to conventional towed trailers and fifth wheels, and three classes of motorhomes, the largest the size of a bus.

All of which, as they've done for a century now, provide Canadians the ability to travel freely and affordably wherever they want to go.

Sleeping under the stars

1931 Chevrolet Housecar owned by Mae West
Click here for more photos of recreational vehicles, from tents attached to Model Ts to luxury camping with all the comforts of home



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