Defining the Vintage Era of RV History
World War II and the Cold War changed American Society. The lifestyle and technology changes significantly altered the RV Industry creating a new era, the Vintage Era (1945-1970). We’ve split the Vintage Era of RV History into two parts.
In part one, you’ll learn about how American Industry was one of the many factors that led to the allied victory. The ingenuity of the war led to the ultimate multi-purpose vehicle. As we continue, you’ll see how all of that vehicle innovation builds up to creating the motorhome.
In part two, we’ll show you how the RV Industry solidified itself to avoid the near disappearance that happened to the Antique Era. Once the Second World War Veterans settled into family life, you’ll see how their influence redefined the RV World’s towable sector.
American Industry Was a Decisive Factor Winning World War II
In 1939, the American Government knew it was only a matter of time before our country would have to play its part in the conflict in Europe. Our society was still recovering from the Great Depression. Nevertheless, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was doing his best to keep his New Deal plan on track to rescue the economy.
Once Pearl Harbor’s events occurred, the United States jumped into action more prepared than the world expected. Due to our industry-focused society and isolationist philosophy, we had already amassed plenty of weapons and equipment for the European Front. Now that we had a Pacific Front, our resources were capable of a quick initial retaliation.
With the movie industry’s help, news media, even down to America’s two favorite comic book heroes (yes, Superman fought in WWII too), American Patriotism was near Revolutionary War levels. Every industry, including the RV manufacturers, retooled and quickly got to work supplying our troops with aircraft, bullets, bombs, equipment, and the vehicles they needed.
Despite racial segregation, Americans of all ethnic backgrounds enlisted to do their part in the war. While many faced the same prejudices in the military that they did back home, some rose to great heights. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American pilots in U.S. Army Air Corps. The 99th Pursuit Squadron flew over 15,000 sorties over North Africa and Europe, becoming highly decorated for their actions. One member, Daniel James, Jr., would finish his career becoming the first African-American Four-Star General of the U.S. Air Force in 1975.
To keep the American industrial juggernaut running, women joined “Rosie the Riveter” on the production lines. While the Nazi Regime focused its attention on administrative jobs to boost the German economy, the United States used industry as its economic recovery method. In the final months of the European Theatre, this left the Nazi Army scrambling for weapons and equipment as the Allies dominated the field.
The same methodology worked on the Pacific front as well. The American Marines had Naval ships and field artillery supporting them while they charged up the hills on the Pacific’s many islands. Despite the many losses between the support and the unbreakable Navajo code talkers (ahéhee’ t’áá ánóltso/ thank you all), the American war machine pushed forward.
The Willys GP is the American GI’s Best Friend
Between 1939-1940, The U.S. Army needed an all-purpose vehicle that could drive long distances, tow artillery, and have a mountable machine gun, to name a few of the many requirements. After initial responses by American Bantam and Willys-Overland, the Army asked for significant changes that allowed Ford to join the mix.
The result was the Ford Model GPW. Each prototype presented had a unique feature that set it apart. In the American Spirit of working together, the Army decided to combine the best parts into this all-purpose vehicle. The all-wheel-drive three-passenger vehicle had Ford’s body while Bantam supplied the transmission and differential. Willy’s Go-Devil Engine with an inline 4-cylinder that gave it 60 horsepower and 105 lb./ft. of torque. In Ford’s lexicon, “GP” stood for “government passenger car, but said together, that’s how the “Jeep” received its name.
By 1941, the Jeep went through three different evolutions before it saw combat. We primarily sold the second evolution to the Russians and British in 1940. The third generation of the Jeep standardized the parts. It also modified the position of various components to decrease catastrophic disasters.
For example, placing the fuel tank under the driver’s seat allowed damage to the rear and passenger side yet kept the vehicle on the road (We know what you’re thinking, but remember, this was wartime, and priorities get shifted around). Almost 640,000 units came off the production line, 360,000 from the Willys plant alone. The same model would continue to serve in Korea until 1949 and 1952 by Willys. In 1960 Ford released the M151 Jeep that served in Vietnam. The partnership between Jeep (formally Willys) and Ford continued.
National Defense Creates a New Way to Travel
General Dwight D. Eisenhower had a distinguished career as a general during and after World War II. He led U.S. troops in North Africa and Europe. After the war, Eisenhower was one of the first Generals to lead the newly formed NATO forces stationed in Paris. Like our Founding Fathers, he gained a unique perspective with his time in Europe that would serve him well as the 34th President of the United States of America.
On June 26, 1956, President Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act into law. The program authorized over 41,000 miles of interstate highways to criss-cross the American Landscape. The program is named the Eisenhower Highway System, but two previous bills passed beforehand paved the way for Ike’s program.
Tennessee Senator Albert Gore Sr. (D) and Louisiana Congressman Hale Boggs (D) put forth their legislation passed before the Republican President’s Act went through. Senator Gore’s bill created the “cloverleaf” design of on/off ramps, avoiding sharp turns on highways. The bill minimized areas known as “Suicide Alley” and other dangerous spots. Congressman Bogg’s bill created a Highway Trust Fund to help with the costs. Both bills began taxes on fuel, tires, public transportation, and other related concerns.
President Eisenhower’s Act drew 70% of its funding from bonds, State, and Local Governments. Many of the existing roadways were reconstructed and joined to create the highway system we know today between the three bills.
Facts about the Federal Highway Act came from Eisenhower’s experience in America’s first transcontinental motor convoy from Washington D.C. to San Francisco in 1919. The trip had problems through most of the journey because the roads couldn’t handle the various vehicles’ weight. Between his lessons from West Point (The Romans built roads to move their Armies quickly) and his experience in Europe, he knew the U.S. needed a roadway system that could handle military equipment movement if the Cold War heated up.
For the average American, the highway system led to living in the suburbs. Companies could use heavier cargo vehicles on faster roadways, and RVers could get to their destinations on smoother roads. RV History was forever changed.
The RV-friendly highways did change the way vacationers experienced the road, as pointed out by a particular Disney vehicle movie. The standardized numbering system and interstate rest areas made it easier to navigate to your specific destination (even-numbered highways run East to West and odd-numbered roads run North to South).
The Significant RVs of the Vintage Era
At this point, we know what you’re thinking. Everything above is interesting, but when do we get to the fun RV stuff? Here at Camper Smarts, our focus is to increase the reader’s knowledge on all sides of the RV World to truly make you Camper Smart. If you really want to understand the Vintage Era RVs’ influences, you need to know what the world was like and the thought processes behind them.
Enough of that Walter Cronkite stuff. As they said on TV back then, back to our regularly scheduled program.
The First Mass-Produced Motorhome: The Dodge Travco
It’s hailed as the first mass-produced motorhome in RV history. Its look is reminiscent of the legendary GM Futurliner. It’s also this author’s dream RV (next to the Futurliner). The interesting thing is; Dodge initially wanted nothing to do with it.
Please note, we don’t have any ill-feelings towards one company or another. Yet you’ll find that some car companies throughout RV History didn’t see the recreational vehicle industry’s potential. The automotive industry was highly competitive during this time. Motorhomes were too new and untested for them to invest in such a high-risk endeavor. There were still many car brands out there car-makers had to fight through.
Raymond Frank designed his motorhome in 1958 for his family’s personal use. It was the first example of a self-propelled RV not built on existing technology. Previous Housecars from the Antique Era took the body off a bus or truck chassis, and a DIY builder would fabricate everything. Frank’s genius came from the design engineered explicitly for the RV itself.
As people watched Ray and his family travel in the motorhome, he started to receive orders. Living in a northern suburb of Detroit, he decided to approach Dodge for the engine and chassis. They referred him to a nearby dealer. After Ray signed the contract with Lloyd Bridges for 100 chassis and engines, Ray Frank built six models in 1960 and 131 in 1961. The Frank Motorhome changed its name to the Dodge Motorhome.
You can recognize an early model Dodge Travco due to their boxy look. Ray’s son, Ron, at 18-years-old designed a fiberglass front cap that gave the RV a rounded look starting in the fourth year of production. The new design sold 700 units in either the 21 or 27-foot length in 1964. By 1966, more Frank-Dodge Motorhomes were on the road than any other brand, even John Hanson’s famous model.
The company sold to PRF Industries in 1967, changing the motorhome’s name to the Dodge Travco. Two years later, the Travco Divison sold to Foretravel (yes, that Foretravel). Even though his Opus was all grown up and out of the house, Ray wasn’t finished innovating the RV World. He dabbled in the Class B category with the Xplorer Campervan in 1968, giving the United States a taste of the garage-friendly mini-motorhome.
RV History – John Hanson Gets Brave in Iowa
If the Forest City, Iowa Chamber of Commerce chose another company to help boost their economy, Californian RV maker John Hanson would have lived a very different life. The RV manufacturer known for its Flying W might not exist today. Named for the county it resides, Winnebago owes its existence to that one decision in RV history.
February 12, 1958, with 17 employees, Winnebago produced its first 15-foot towable in Forest City. The moment was a second chance for Hanson. After his trailer company failed in California, coming to this little town in the late 1950s had to feel like the middle of nowhere. It’s almost equidistant with Des Moines to the South, Sioux Falls to the West, Minneapolis to the North, and Milwaukee to the East.
What made Winnebago a hit with the American public was its quality and lower-than-average pricing. Hanson could do this due to how he built his RVs. While other manufacturers were still building RVs one at a time, he set up a production line similar to the car companies’ assembly lines. Winnie produced a greater amount of products in a shorter time, with reduced overhead.
Once America fell in love with motorhomes, the assembly line made it easier for Winnebago to set up a 1966 Class A Brave line. Its unique “eyebrow” over the windshield made it stand apart from any other motorhome on the road. At first, the Brave stood on the Ford F-19 chassis but switched over to the D22 Dodge version a year later. Winnebago would use various chassis from the Big 3 automakers and diesel manufacturers for their motorhomes throughout the years.
While producing both towable and drivable RVs, the dominant RV manufacturer of the 1970s would focus on motorhomes. Despite various economic issues throughout the years, Winnie would brave the uncertainty to become today’s powerhouse and a pivotal player in RV history.
VW Campervans in the United States (Sportsmobile- 1961)
Another icon of the Vintage Era travel trailers is the Volkswagen Bus. The actual name is the Type 2 Kombi. The Type 1, we Americans know as the Beetle. European companies like Westfalia would order a stripped-down version of the first generation, nicknamed the “Splitty” due to its split windshield, and finish the interior, converting it into a Class B Campervan. The U.S. wouldn’t see the imported Westfalia VW campervan until 1956.
Other European companies would do the same until Volkswagen realized how much money they were losing and created a separate division. Here in the States, Sportsmobile followed suit not only with the VW Bus, but they would expand with Ford, Chevrolet, and Dodge vans too. While they started in 1961 with their El Paso, Texas, they would open a north plant in Indiana and a California plant.
As times changed, so did Sportsmobile. Their California plant created the Surfer Vans as the sport caught on. Avocado shag green carpet with dark walnut cabinetry and harvest gold furnishings were a popular interior for their pop-top family vans in the 1970s as well (hey, we saw that smirk).
Today, they’re still producing great Class B motorhomes with Sprinters, Transits, Promaster, and other van models. The Class B campervan didn’t die out in the United States; it did very well.
Clark Cortez Motorhome- First Front Wheel Drive
In 1963, the Clark Forklift Company of Battle Creek, Michigan, decided to get into the motorhome game with its Cortez Motorhome. Early units used a Chrysler 225 Cubic Inch engine with a four-speed manual transmission. Until they closed their doors in 1979, later models would use Ford’s 302ci and finish up with GM’s 455ci on the Oldsmobile Toronado chassis.
What made this motorhome so unique was that it was the first in RV history to have a front-wheel-drive. The Others would have success later in the Classic Era, but they were the first. It had all the seating on the passenger side and the kitchen cabinetry starting from behind the driver. The water closet had a commode and a sink. The rear of the RV was the entry door. The four-seater dinette was the main bed. The table would fold in half and secure against the sidewall.
Legendary actor Vincent Price was an owner of a Clark Cortez Motorhome and many other notable people. The first vehicle to carry the astronauts from prep to the Apollo Rockets was Clark Cortez’s custom. It had three seats and room for them to place their air conditioning units. The Airstream vehicle came later when NASA needed a vehicle for more crew members. You can see both shuttle vehicles at NASA’s museum in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Other Brands You Know Today
Many of today’s RV brands not already mentioned started in the Vintage Era. Despite all of the problems ahead of them, these manufacturers had enough popularity, resources, and other things to weather whatever the future held.
- Alaskan Camper- 1953
- Coachmen- 1964
- Coleman’s RV Division-1967
- Fleetwood- 1950
- Holiday Rambler- 1953
- Jayco- 1968
- Lance- 1965
- Lazy Daze RV- Early 1950s
- Mallard- 1952
- Monaco Coach- 1968
- Palomino- 1968
- PlayMor 1964
- Pleasure-Way- 1968
- Puma- 1968
- Starcraft- 1964
- Terry- 1950s
Looking Ahead in Our RV History Series
In part 2 of our Vintage Era discussion, you’ll learn how the RV Industry almost disappeared before WWII and how the post-war era’s new companies avoided the same mistake. We’ll also show you how Elkhart, Indiana, became the RV Capital of the world. Finally, we’ll answer that question we asked you about what processed meat and a famous snack cake have to do with RVs.
For the next legs of our RV History journey, we’ll explore the Classic Era (1971-1989), the Neo-Classic Era (1990-2007), and our Modern Age (2008 to present). Each era has the technology and stylistic advances that define the period.