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American RV Industry Celebrates 100 Years on the Road

One hundred years ago the first mass-produced recreational vehicles rolled out of factories and onto American roadways. The RV industry has come a long way from the first car campers and camping trailers introduced in 1910. As the RV industry kicks off a year-long celebration of its centennial year, take a look back down the road to see where we’ve been.

It started with the Conestoga wagon. The sturdy pioneers who packed their household belongings into covered wagons and headed west might be considered America’s earliest RVers. America’s love affair with camping in the outdoors may have been born of that early vagabond drive to see what was over the next hill. The advent of gas-powered automobiles in the 1890s and early 1900s opened America to exploration by a new breed of pioneer.

Homemade horse-drawn camping carriages were left in the dust with the introduction of the first self-contained camper, Pierce Arrow’s 1910 Touring Landau, a precursor to today’s Class B motorhome. A converted chauffeur-driven limousine, this first car camper featured a backseat that converted into a bed, a fold-down washbasin behind the driver’s seat, a kitchen basket, toilet and storage boxes in place of the running boards. Passengers communicated with the driver via a telephone. Cereal tycoon C.W. Post is said to have paid $8,250 for a Landau with hot and cold running water.

Primitive RVs took another step forward in 1915 when Gustav Bretteville of San Francisco invented the first truck camper, the $100 Automobile Telescope Apartment (installation not included). Advertised as an apartment on wheels, the camper could be mounted onto the back of a Model T Ford or early pickup. Its most ingenious feature was the series of slideouts, called telescopes, that expanded into a kitchen, wardrobe and storage compartments off the center sleeping area.

Just as it happens today, early RV pioneers dedicated to improving their own camping experience came up with the prototypes for many of the features standard on today’s RV motorhomes and travel trailers. By 1920 tent trailers, travel trailers, early pop-ups, fifth-wheelers and motor coaches were traveling America’s roadways. Self-contained luxury house cars created by small custom builders became popular in the mid-1920s.

With time out for the Great Depression and World War II, the RV industry continued to grow, adding more luxurious features every year. The 1950s ushered in the modern RV era with the founding of today’s RV industry giants Fleetwood, Holiday Rambler and Winnebago Industries. Ray Frank, a small Michigan travel trailer builder, was the first to coin the term motorhome in 1959.

Every decade since has brought new innovations and technology to the recreational vehicle industry. The RV industry moves into its second century strong and energized, ready for the road ahead.

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