One hundred years ago it was becoming clear that this new device called the automobile was here to stay and, although existing highways were primitive at best, the automobile was sparking a newfound wanderlust in the American public. Coincidentally, at about the same time, the U.S. government was laying the groundwork for a system of national parks and people were anxious to see them.
It was only a matter of time before American ingenuity would produce a vehicle that would combine the love of travel with the love of nature and around 1910 the recreational vehicle was born. The Recreational Vehicle/Manufactured Home Hall of Fame Museum and Library in Elkhart, Indiana, celebrates the history of the RV in America with an impressive display of models from very early campers and travel trailers to modern, luxurious motor homes.
The museum is housed in a large warehouse that is attached to the RV Hall of Fame building. The collection of campers and RVs is arrayed along a meandering “roadway” that winds through the building and depicts a loose timeline of the industry.
The oldest RV in the collection is a 1913 Earl Travel Trailer, a fully enclosed wooden trailer that included bench seating on either side of a removable table and storage cabinets in the rear. It was custom made for a Cal-Tech college professor by a Los Angeles carriage maker.
Another early model is a 1916 “Telescoping Apartment” mounted on a 1915 Ford Model T. The Telescoping Apartment was designed and built by California businessman Gustau de Bretteville as an aftermarket accessory for early trucks. To set up the unit, an owner would slide wooden cabinets out from the sides and then lower and pull out the rear tailgate to expose a bed large enough for two.
Many early campers were either custom built or homemade and the museum has examples of each. By the 1920s, however, several manufacturers were offering factory-built units which could be mounted on bare automobile or truck chassis. A 1931 Chevrolet-based “house car” in the museum was custom built for Paramount Studios. The studio had been trying to get Mae West to leave Vaudeville for a movie career and enticed her with a chauffeur driven “lounge car”. It contained an ice box and a hot plate as well as some furniture .
One of the oddest vehicles on display is the Star Streak II, a custom made aluminum-bodied motor home built by Paul Jones of Cape Coral, Florida. The Star Streak II is sits atop a 1976 Cadillac Eldorado chassis and is powered by a 455 cubic inch Oldsmobile Toronado V-8 and front wheel drive train. At 84 inches high, the outrageously styled RV was designed to fit in a standard garage yet contain all the creature comforts of a larger, more cumbersome motor home.
In addition to its large collection of campers, trailers and RVs, the RV/MH Hall of Fame is also home to an extensive research library consisting of some 20,000 books and periodicals, 5,000 photographs as well as production information and sales catalogs from various periods.
The RV/MH Hall of Fame Museum and Library is located on I-80 just east of Elkhart, Indiana. It is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.. Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and $3 for children 16 and under. For more information visit www.rvmhhalloffame.org.
UPDATE: It’s not in a museum, but a fan of the Hemming’s blog has managed to save an even more outrageous car based RV from the crusher. J. Dennis McGuire built the ShamRockAway motorhome from two 1962 Buick station wagons, and it’s powered by a 401 Buick V8 out of Deuce & a Quarter. Except for the engine, it’s got two of everything: gas tanks, heaters, air conditioners etc. Oh wait, it’s got 8 wheels, with both front sets steering just like in a Tyrell six-wheeler F1 racer.
“I just kept one wagon whole in the middle, split another in half, and welded the front and back on the one in center. It fit together like a glove.”