The Ultimate History of RVs From 1904 to Today
RVs are amazing, and owning one today is a true luxury as you enjoy great comfort with all the amenities you need while hitting the road.
You can have a king-size bed, spacious kitchen, full bathrooms, WIFI, pet-friendly flooring, a fireplace to keep you warm during your adventures, and more.
Even so, RVs have not always been like this. With the history of the RV industry dating back to the early 1910s, it’s unsurprising that the first RVs were simple wooden trailers attached to the back of motorcars.
That said, the combination of the Americans’ adventurous spirit and technological advancements, especially in the automobile industry, has resulted in the creation of modern RVs.
If you are curious about how Recreational Vehicles have advanced over the years, keep reading to find out everything you need to know about the history of RVS.
The First RV Model
The history of camper vehicles dates back to the 1800s, with inspirations drawn from Roma Caravans.
However, the first motorhome model, the Pierce-Arrow’s Touring Landau, came into the scene in 1910.
During this period, automobiles gained popularity, with some becoming more expensive as their features advanced.
With the car sales skyrocketing, the population of campers and adventurers began to grow. So, camping enthusiasts started to find creative ways to customize their vehicles to have a comfortable experience while on the road.
There were single production units, which were hand built between 1904 and 1910 with features like an icebox, radio, and incandescent lighting. Nevertheless, they were not motorized.
The production cost of the first motorized RV was about $8,000, which equates to about $230,000 in modern America, making it a luxury car for the wealthy and elite.
Pierce-Arrow Touring Landau was initially not built for full-time living, but it did feature some of the amenities you would find in modern RVs.
It had a toilet, icebox, sink, and telephone through which passengers would communicate with the driver.
This original RV had a backseat that could fold into a simple bed. The sink, set up behind the driver’s seat, was also foldable to create more room when not in use.
With such features, the Pierce-Arrow Touring Landau is more comparable to a Class-B camper van than a full-sized modern RV.
It’s technically the first RV model, but surprisingly, the first actual RV might belong to a van constructed five years later.
The 1915 Full-Sized RV: Gypsy Van
With the media bringing more national attention to the exciting idea of camping with a car by sharing stories about enjoyable life on the road, adventurers became more innovative.
Roland Conklin Gas-Electric Motor Bus Company built a Gypsy Van, which succeeded in the market in 1915.
While the initial RV is more of a Class-B camper van, the new Gypsy Van is a Class-A luxury motorhome built on the frame of a three-ton Packard pick-up truck.
With 44 windows featuring matching curtains, this van measured about 21 feet in length, 7.5 feet in width, and 6.5 in height.
The double-deck Gypsy Van would accommodate 17 passengers and had the most impressive amenities, just like modern RVs. Adventurers would use this RV to travel from New York to San Francisco.
Inside the 1915 RV, you would find a full shower, icebox, hidden porcelain sink and bath, concealed bookcase, full-sized kitchen, desk, and a phonograph.
The van’s main compartment featured two sofas and four foldable beds mounted to the ceiling, with each bed having curtains and a wardrobe.
And that’s not all. Its roof deck had a vegetable garden and cushioned storage lockers where people could sleep.
With the Gypsy Van and Piercing-Arrow Touring Landau being famous in the market, they resulted in the birth of Tin Can Tourists and later motor hotels.
The Tin Can Tourists Movement of 1919
The Tin Can Tourists movement had travelers known to survive and thrive in their cars for weeks while hitting the road.
This movement became prevalent and gained formal recognition in 1919. It required members to be 12 years old and above, have a solid moral character and be comfortable living the nomadic life.
Another RV was built in 1915 from a Model-T Ford Roadster, which had a bed and a telescope apartment. It was small but provided a perfect space for long-distance drivers to sleep.
RVs in the 1920s
The Tin Can Tourist Movement continued to evolve in this decade. More and more people joined the organization as the nomadic vehicles gained popularity.
By 1921, it had grown to more than 17,000 registered members who would travel fearlessly across unpaved roads.
In late 1920, many Americans resorted to innovatively living in their vehicles, but this was not for recreational purposes.
It was instead for survival, given the economic crisis of the Great Depression that affected many countries across the globe.
Towards the end of this decade, Wally Byam invented the world’s first Airstream trailer, laying the sturdy groundwork for future motorhomes.
The 1930s and 1940s: The Airstream Trailer Laid a Foundation for Future RVs
After building the Airstream trailer in 1929, Wally Byam established the Airstream Company in 1931.
The company aimed at producing travel trailers that adventure enthusiasts would enjoy using for camping.
He started by publishing a DIY guide on building a travel trailer, and many people commissioned him to create the motorhomes for them.
Despite the boom of over 400 competitive companies in the 1930s all over the country, Wally Byam’s Airstream always remained on top.
His trailers had high demand, and he sold them by marketing a brand-new lifestyle that involved being nomadic and constantly exploring the roads.
The other companies soon trickled out, and Airstream took over the market. However, he closed the company during World War II due to a lack of aluminum.
Byam re-opened Airstream soon after the war, and by the late 1940s, he took his trailers all over the globe for road tests. The road tests played a crucial role in improving the functionality of his travel trailers.
The 1950s to 1970s: More RV Models into the Market
Robert Gray built the first Shasta trailer in 1941 for military housing, but he didn’t know that his canned ham-shaped trailers would become a billion-dollar industry.
Shasta trailers became popular in the 1950s, igniting wanderlust in Americans and helping them fulfill their desire to roam and explore the country effortlessly.
These trailers were compact yet incredibly functional. Since you could quickly hook them to your car, Shasta trailers became a cheap and convenient way to vacation in the 1950s.
In the 1960s, Winnebago took advantage of the rising popularity of love for camping drawn from the novel Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck.
This RV became a typical home among travel enthusiasts, and you would easily recognize it because of its “W” signature featured on the exterior.
The company gained popularity for producing many motorhomes, which made RVs more affordable in 1967.
In the ‘70s, Dodge Travco became a favorite motorhome for many celebrities due to its modern and comfy amenities, fiberglass-over-steel construction, large windows, and appealing boxy aesthetics.
Celebrities like William Shatner and Johnny Cash owned and used a Dodge Travco Motorhome.
What was impressive about the Dodge Travco Motorhome was its lasting exterior design that couldn’t rust or sustain damage from harsh outdoor weather elements like other RVs available during the time.
Better known as the VW Bus, the Volkswagen Westfalia Camper is also one of the most iconic vehicles in the history of motorhomes.
While it’s technically not an RV, VW became synonymous with road trips as its bus-shape and sizeable interior space provided an ideal space to spend time and sleep while on the road.
The 1980s: Fleetwood Motorhomes Became the Perfect RVs for Families
While Fleetwood had been producing motorhomes since the 1950s, the company boomed in the 1980s. It made its most significant sales in 1983.
The company experienced significant difficulties in 1980 but overcame the recession by 1982.
Fleetwood RVs had a design of simple family vehicles with amenities necessary for cross-country road trips.
This model was featured in the Television series ‘Breaking Bad,’ where Bryan Cranston (Walter White) had his mobile meth lab.
The 1990s and 2000s: The Coachmen Leprechaun Boomed for its Excellent Space Utilization
In the late ‘90s and 2000s, the Coachmen Leprechaun became very popular for using the available space effectively.
It utilizes the space above the driver and passenger seats to ensure that users get the best value while enjoying a lavish lifestyle at the wheel. The reserved area is handy for an extra bunk bed in the RV.
This motorhome incorporates a simple but functional design complimented by technological advancements and user-friendly features.
While the Coachmen Leprechaun’s multi-colored design emulates the classic style of the 1990s RVs, this motorhome is reminiscent of modern RVs. It strives to make adventurers get as much of a feel of their homes as possible.
The 2010s: Renovated Camper Vans Became the Norm
Most people associate recreational vehicles and motorhomes with the longing for long road trips and a more American experience.
However, this has not been entirely the case in recent years, especially with the many people on the road.
Throughout the past decade, the hashtag “van life” on social media displays endless pictures of adventurous people enjoying life in renovated camper vans.
The lifestyle in renovated camper vans is also closely linked to the new tiny home trend that many people worldwide are embracing.
Renovated camper vans may not look like they have much from the outside, but the truth is that they have almost everything you can find in a typical simple home.
With a spacious sunlit room for working, cooking, sleeping, and relaxing while on the road, camper vans are a stunning combination of a nomadic and creative life full of travel opportunities.
People from different professions, like filmmaking, freelancing, and blogging, buy a van (new or used), then renovate it and adapt it to suit their new nomadic lifestyle.
The nomadic lifestyle usually involves minimalism, adventure, simplicity, and constant reevaluation of what truly matters.
When Did RVs Become Popular?
RVs became popular between 1910 and 1920. During this period, camping was in demand, so people started adapting their cars and trucks to suit their adventures and new lifestyle.
In most cases, they would attach wooded trucks and tents to the back of their cars, where they would have beds, sinks, and other essential amenities.
Given that most adventurers adapting their vehicles were mainly not engineers or mechanics, it’s fair to say that the advancements made in this decade were brilliant.
The RVs kept improving with time, and they started incorporating refrigerators, kitchens, baths, showers, telephones, and other crucial features.
One of the most impressive and remarkable RVs built during this decade was the Gypsy Van of 1915, which had the most amenities RVers need and an interior like that of English country houses.
The iconic Gypsy Van was the first-ever motorized caravan to travel around the US, and it resulted in the RV revolution launch, hence popularizing the Rving lifestyle.
Since this motorhome was a true definition of adventure and freedom to travel on your own terms and schedule, RVs became increasingly popular towards the end of the 1910-1920 decade.
What attracted people to RVs was that they provided a nomadic lifestyle that was comfortable and family-friendly.
The Tin Can Tourists Movement of 1919 also made RVs very popular by encouraging people to join and engage in the nomadic lifestyle.
And since the media covered the adventures the Tin Can Tourists movement made, it gained national attention and spurred more people to join.
Nonetheless, RVs lost popularity during the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, but a few people still used travel trailers, which were simple and cheap mobile homes.
The World War II rationing also affected RVs’ consumption, even though some companies manufactured trailers that served as mobile hospitals and morgues.
Fortunately, the RV industry flourished and became very popular again in the 1950s, as people looked for affordable and convenient ways to vacation.
It started with travel trailers since they were more affordable than luxury RVs.
But as you might have noticed from history, RVs took off after the famous Winnebago company started mass production, making RVs more affordable and easily accessible to consumers.
RVs in the Modern World
Today, it has become common for people to buy second-hand RVs and renovate them thoroughly to make a luxury mobile home that suits their style.
Since RV companies are producing more advanced and luxurious motorhomes, some people choose to buy RVs that already have all the amenities they need rather than renovate.
Some of the RV’s most common luxury amenities in the modern world include lavish showers, heated hardwood floors, granite countertops, coverable skylights, and multiple slide-outs.
How RV Industry is Evolving in the 2020s
As you would expect after studying the history of motorhomes since the 1910s, RV technology continues to evolve.
The advancement of RV relies much on creativity and automobile and technological developments.
Having studied the RV history and inventions made over the years, you would readily agree that motorhomes have always been the most comfortable they can be for the particular period they were built.
Most RVs today feature full kitchens, washers and dryers, bathrooms, Jacuzzis, Saunas, working space, and bedrooms.
In today’s RVs, you can stop wherever you want anytime and still feel at home, only to consume fewer resources than you would at a real house.
More Advancements in the 2020s
One of the most significant recent inventions in RVs is the toy hauler. Toy Haulers are RVs with adequate garage space for families to carry their outdoor recreation toys like motorcycles, bikes, snowmobiles, and ATVs while hitting the road.
The year 2021 saw advancements in outdoor kitchens as many RVers want features like screen TVs, USB chargers, speakers, microwaves, spice racks, grills, and more incorporated.
An essential advancement in RVs is that they have inescapably led to a significant shift in the public’s interest in utilizing them.
Initially, the public believed that RVs are only for camping or full-time living, but the view is now different.
Many people now use recreational vehicles for destination travels like Disney World and Missouri adventures.
Retail stores like Walmart and Amazon have also embraced the RV culture by providing everything those hitting the road need.
In the 2020s, there are more types of RVs than ever before, with hundreds of varied designs and layouts.
It has even reached a point where buyers’ heads spin trying to choose the best one, but the good thing is that many review guides are available online for different RVs.
Whether you are looking for an RV with lighter interiors and simplified graphics, it’s possible to find exactly what suits your needs and preferences.
And if you don’t feel ready for the long-term commitment of purchasing your RV as an adventurer, you can always rent one at a reasonable cost.
Other outstanding features in modern RVs include Tire Pressure Monitoring System, Smart RV capabilities, and solar options that allow travelers to go off-grid without worrying about power.
If you are a pet lover looking to start RVing, you’ll be delighted to know that most modern RVs have pet-friendly features like a dog bed and an exterior leash latch.
What Does the Future of RVs Look Like?
Now that you’ve understood the humble origin of RVs and how they have advanced exceptionally well, you might wonder what tomorrow has for RVs.
Since electric vehicles seem to be the future of the automobile industry, we can predict the future and say that tomorrow’s RVs might be fully electric.
There are already several electric RVs and camper van models in the market, including the Iridium EV, but we never truly know the future.
Currently, the world’s most advanced and most expensive motorhome costs about $3 million, and its manufacturer describes it as a mobile mansion.
The Marchi Mobile eleMMent Palazzo Superior is an alien-like motorhome that offers the ultimate luxury adventurers can ever ask for.
It focuses on functionality and comfort with features like a king-size bed, a modern full kitchen, luxury bathrooms, living room, master bedroom, and an expandable roof deck.
This motorhome hasn’t been on the road yet, but it is an adequate demonstration of how far recreational vehicles have come and where they could possibly go in the coming years.
Overall, the history of recreational vehicles and camper vans has always been connected to creativity and a love for luxury and adventure.
With the first RV dating back to the 1910s, RVs have risen to higher advancements than anyone would have imagined.
And given the ever-advancing technology, it’s inevitable to expect more features from future motorhomes.
They started as a mere expansion of vehicles by automobile and adventure lovers, but they are now much more than that.
Today, RVs are useful for occasional camping and living and transporting touring artists from one city or country to the other.