Brief History of Vintage RVs
The American pastime of going RVing is now over 111 years old. It’s a tradition many people seem keen to hold onto, despite the fact that not everyone knows how it began.
While some insisted that campers have been around since 1904, The Smithsonian confirms the first RV of its kind, known as a “camper car,” was introduced in 1910. It was the Pierce-Arrow Touring Landau which made its debut at Madison Square Garden. This first camper boasted a fold-down rear roof portion so that fresh air could come in while on the drive. There was a backseat that folded into a bed and a sold-down sink behind the driver’s seat. For a bathroom, the conditions were quite rustic when positioned next to today’s standards in the industry, as there was merely a chamber pot. Overlooking that though, the driver was able to connect to the passengers using a telephone. This was certainly a sweet ride back in the days before those old roadside motels were off every exit of the highway. It’s amazing to think that all the innovations we now know have made cruising in an RV even more enjoyable.
The Progression of the Recreation Vehicle
By 1930, recreational camping was still a newer idea within an enclosed vehicle. The industry was incredibly new. But somewhere in 1931, the sales of these campers really started picking up. It was certainly unexpected for the Great Depression was upon the country. You’d think that would slow things down, but it only gained steam. The reason? People wanted to hit the road to find jobs or opportunities elsewhere. Using these campers made it easier to take longer rides in search of a better life. Just 6 years later, in 1937, there were over 400 recreational camper builders in the US, a number that jumped by 10 times.
You can’t look back in awe on the RV industry and not discuss the Covered Wagon Company. Back then, it was the industry leader, creating attractive styles that simulated the look of covered wagons like you see in the Old West photos of the past. Some of the earlier models did have a canvas on top, and with the extra large windows, it created a very light and roomy feeling. On the downside, Covered Wagon did use a steel-covered body which would be its downfall. While nothing was wrong with that sturdy construction, because of WWII, it couldn’t use steel anymore. Covered Wagon soon disappeared from the RV landscape right after the war ended. But it wouldn’t leave the pioneers eager to explore the country from coast to coast without a ride.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Shasta, Airstream, and Winnebago all commandeered a slice of the RV pie, becoming bestsellers of the industry. It was during this time that these vintage, retro looks that we know today were born. Back then, the sizes and shapes varied, though most were of the “canned ham” (often
called “tin can”) or “teardrop” variety. The former was a metal camper that looked exactly like a traditional canned ham. These are perhaps the most collectible of vintage trailers with a retro shape and interior trim that dates them in the most charming of ways.
Serro Scotty was a popular retro brand for the time, one that was lightweight and didn’t take up much room in the driveway. The interiors were arranged nicely too, and what’s most remarkable is that there are still many of them around today. If you’re looking for a vintage RV, you may find that one of the remaining Scottys is a perfect choice. Meanwhile, while Winnebago was always known for its larger campers, in the 1960s, it made a number of canned ham varieties. Boles-Aero was another lightweight contender of aluminum-based tins in the 1940s and 1950s. Depending on who you ask, they might just be the most aesthetically-pleasing of all vintage campers out there.
Back to the Future: Why Retro RVs are Popular Today
To fully understand the appeal of the older models, you’ve got to look at them and appreciate how state-of-the-art they were for their time period. Vintage brands you may have the chance to find like Avalon, Gypsy, Mercury, Aladdin, Vagabond, De Ville, and Cardinal, to name a few, have those coveted shapes to them.
The Art Deco era was upon the world with wooden teardrop-shaped trailers in the 1920s and 1930s. This streamlined look was considered futuristic, much like The Jetsons was an imagination of the future for its time. Yet, this streamlined look was the most modern in design. It wasn’t just for looks though. It provided less drag while driving so the tow car didn’t have to put in so much effort while drivers could drive at a higher speed. For today’s times though, those teardrop trailers usually were made with hardwood which is rather lightweight and can easily be restored if you’re interested in having a charming relic of the past to ride around the country in.
You can’t go into retro RVing without discussing Airstream though, whose retro wooden teardrop trailers are still highly coveted even today. The 1940s Alcoa is on the plain side but has a polished look and teardrop shape. Some say that the 1960 Holiday House was one of the most beautiful camper trailers of all. It had wraparound windows and with a pink top portion above the polished aluminum, it was a stylish beauty for sure.
These styles from yesteryear are still prized because they bring back that charm of simpler times. It’s something we all can and should get back to, when we road across the country in search of new dreams and better lives. It reminds us of what’s most important in life. That being said, if you’re interested in owning one of these charming vintage RVs, you should certainly go for it. But if you can’t afford to have one to yourself, you can still rent vintage RV models to enjoy on your next vacation.
Notable Retro RV Models
The Airfloat was made between 1930 and 1957 with round windows and doors, much like a cruise ship. It was very long, particularly for the time period at 45 feet. Aladdin, mentioned earlier, was made from 1963 to only 1973. While it had less staying power, its appeal was that it was positioned as a sort of magic carpet for your vacation.
From Indiana, Elcar was made from 1936 to the late 1960s. The earliest models were often mistaken for the Covered Wagon trailers though its later productions had a more unique style. If you want to talk lasting power though, Fleetwood endured more than 50 years in the industry, building mostly smaller-sized canned hams. It sold larger units under an umbrella of different brand names including Avion, Prowler, Taurus, Terry Coach, and Wilderness.
There are many more vintage RVs too that a keen eye can spot on the road, including Kit Trailers, Tag-A-Long, Palace (with up to 3 bedrooms!), and Vagabond. If you want something you can use daily yet take for those long-haul excursions, the VW Westfalia or Westy (affectionately called the “VW Bus”) could be a better option. While in the 1960s, it was predominantly associated with hippie culture, today it makes a retro way to travel and enjoy the outdoor lifestyle. The latest model, the T4 EuroVan, was discontinued in 2003.
Or if you want a full-on RV that has all that retro appeal but today’s most modern upgrades, you’ll be in for a treat with the Gulfstream Vintage Cruiser. This gorgeous throwback design is like stepping right back into the 1950s, a perfect choice when you want to go back in time but have no time for refurbishments. Ultimately, choosing to go fully vintage or getting a replica is a personal choice. The good news is that you have plenty of options for finding your perfect retro RV today!