In part 1 of the Vintage Era (1945-1970), we talked about how American Industry led to the Allied victory, created the best multi-purpose vehicle, and how these and other factors culminated into the creation of the motorhome category. Part 2 of our Vintage Era discussion in our RV History series will take you through how the RV Industry became strong enough to weather any crisis. We’ll also point out some great travel trailers of the time and show you why people refer to them as Canned Ham travel trailers. Of course, we can’t talk about the Vintage Era without mentioning the road’s iconic silver bullets, Airstream.
How The Antique Era Disappeared
During the Second World War, the RV Industry changed its production lines to build needed war effort equipment. Some would convert their RVs to act as mobile hospitals, prisoner transports, or morgue transports. Others would completely reset for weaponry, aircraft, and other equipment.
After the war, most of these companies took a good look at post-WWII America and what it would take to convert back to RV production. The desire to get back on the road didn’t immediately appeal to the average American. The pre-war RV technology was out-of-date and required a new perspective. Many boards of directors, like the popular Covered Wagon, didn’t see a reason to continue. To that end, most RV companies shut their doors for good.
A New Golden Age of RV History – The Vintage Era
Now that the war was over, the majority of military veterans returned home. These young men were ready to move forward with their lives by finding a good job, settling down, and raising a family. Developers began to build suburbs. Middle-America could move out of the city into free-standing houses with the latest in home furnishings.
Now that the American Economy was flush, the new era had bright colors everywhere you looked. Whether it was your car, furniture, the local diner, or your new TV with Technicolor, the things around you depicted a bright future. The desire to hitch up and take the family on an RV vacation returned, but there were new demands from the public.
The New Definition of the Home on Wheels
If you look around your current RV, it’s easy to see that today’s RV manufacturers do their best to make the coach as home-like as possible. When you walk into luxury fifth wheels or top-end Class A motorhomes, it doesn’t take much to imagine yourself living the full-time RV lifestyle in these models. The idea of mimicking RV interiors to residential schemes started in the early 1950s.
RVers wanted their travel trailers to have vinyl flooring, full kitchen amenities, and real master beds in the trailer. In other words, travel trailer owners wanted the same luxuries in their RV as they did at home. Children would sleep on the convertible four-seater dinette or jackknife sofa, but even these would receive plusher upgrades.
Exteriors had to be as “snazzy” as the cars towing them. RVs in the Antique Era (1910-1944) always had some curb appeal, but they really had to shine in this era. Design and construction materials became more critical for RV makers to achieve the right look. The reaction from the manufacturer’s point-of-view led to weight problems. The concept of using lightweight materials as substitutes began in the Vintage Era too.
The RV Capital of RV History – Elkhart, Indiana
If you look on a map from the 1930s, Elkhart, Indiana, isn’t the metropolis of activity. It’s a small town where the Amish and the English (non-Amish) live together peacefully. If you’re looking for the Indiana Toll Road, you’ll be sitting there for a few decades since it doesn’t exist yet. The question is, how did this little town become the RV Capital of the World?
Milo Miller gave up his traveling sales position. He decided to jump into the RV building industry as a way to better support his family. Miller did okay for himself, but he had one unique advantage: his location. His location put him between the soon-to-be Motor City and the various suppliers. The auto industry and RV industry were developing around Southern Michigan, Northern Indiana, and North Western Ohio. Miller was in the thick of it.
Wilbur Schult had his own company but needed a better location and workforce. He ended up buying out Miller’s company and set up the Schult’s Trailer Company. By 1940, Schults had the largest RV company and attracted suppliers and other manufacturers to his location.
After the Second World War, trade magazines referred to Elkhart as the “RV Capital of the World.” In the mid-1960s, there were over 300 different Elkhart, Indiana, RV manufacturers within the greater area. The oil crisis of the 1970s cleared out many of the small brands, but the city’s location was perfect since auto suppliers who produced parts for both cars and RVs were close to both industries.
Army Surplus Rejuvenates Teardrops and RV History
If you haven’t read our discussion on the Vintage Era, we recommend you go back and learn about the RV origins. We mentioned how the Teardrop Trailer became the first do-it-yourself RV of the 1930s. Magazines would publish blueprints from aspiring RV designers. One of which was Wally Byam (yes, the first Airstream was a DIY wooden teardrop).
After the Second World War, there was a lot of Army surplus lying around. Companies had extra parts that the War Department never bought or completed equipment never made it to the front because it was over. So, with all of these parts sitting useless, teardrop RVers took advantage of them.
If you ever get a chance to check out a vintage teardrop trailer for sale or one in an RV history museum, it’s worth the effort. You’ll find Jeep tires, axles, suspensions, and even shell materials made out of WWII vehicles. Late 1940s teardrop trailer DIY builders loved to get their hands on aircraft aluminum. It was light, easy to manipulate, and if you could get the panel that had the right painted image on it, you were the envy of the teardrop world.
Many of these post-war teardrops have the various emblems painted on the original vehicle they originated. You’d see the Army Air Corps Circle Star Insignia often. Getting the panel that had the aircraft’s “female mascot” proved difficult since it was highly prized. If the builders were careful, the panels would have the original green paint too.
Veterans that wanted to move on from the war would strip the paint and use the materials. That’s why you won’t find too many vintage teardrop trailers with the original aircraft or jeep paint. Before you get frustrated, think of your grandparents, parents, siblings, or other relatives who served. Would they want a constant reminder of what they went through?
To those who served, thank you for your service to our country. To those who made the ultimate sacrifice, we’ll never forget you.
Shasta Leads the Transition into the New Era of RV History
In RV history, one name that sticks out in the Vintage Era is Shasta. The Shasta Airflyte with its iconic mercurial wings is the first image most people think of for this period. Yet, founder Robert Gray didn’t start his company in 1941 with this highly styled model. He was a government contractor.
San Diego, California, was the hub for the Pacific front. Everything for the military flowed through San Diego to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. As big as the base was, there was a big problem with housing all of the troops and support staff. Robert Gray’s Shasta trailers made excellent mobile home apartments for the overflow to resolve the situation.
After the war, Gray spent his time continuing in the mobile home industry under the Cozy Cruizer brand, but the 14-foot and 35-foot Shasta travel trailer out of his Van Nuys, California, plant wouldn’t hit RV dealer lots until 1952.
The first edition RV models were more box-like than the later models. In 1958, Gray opened up a second plant in Goshen, Indiana, joining the many others in the world’s RV Capital. These later models would gain the front and rear rounded edges and the Wings of Mercury. As Shasta trailer reviews continued to get top marks, Shasta opened a third plant in Leola, Pennsylvania, to keep up with demand in 1963. Plants in Grapevine, Texas, and Battle Ground, Washington, would soon follow.
In 1976, Coachmen bought Shasta, keeping it as a vintage-style travel trailer subsidiary. Coachmen expanded Shasta through every RV category in the 1980s, including motorhomes, fifth wheels, travel trailers, and pop-ups. The expansion would be short-lived as Coachmen trimmed all of their various model lines down in 2000 to streamline production.
When Forest River bought Coachmen in 2009, they celebrated by producing a 12-foot retro-styled Airflyte for one year only. The new corporate parent didn’t continue the Airflyte since it would compete against the R-Pod.
They Don’t Tow ‘Em Like They Used To, Thankfully
Today, Ford’s “Godzilla” Engine is a 7.3-liter V8 engine that puts out 430 horsepower with 475 lb./ft. Torque. Your truck or SUV has a steel chassis and an aluminum body. The various components inside the vehicle are lightweight to maximize fuel-efficiency and pulling power.
If you compare your vehicle to a 1950s car, while it’s a piece of art, your modern-day truck or SUV will outperform it in every other way. A 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air had a V8 that cranked out 162 horsepower. Vintage era cars had steel chassis, frames, and body panels. Over half of the vehicle’s power moved the automobile. Yet, they sure looked pretty!
With limited horsepower for towing, RV manufacturers kept their products on the smaller end of the spectrum. If you ever get a chance to see the 1953 movie, “Long Long Trailer,” where Lucille Ball and Dezi Arnez take an RV trip, they’re using a 1953 Mercury Monterey with 125 horsepower and 218 lb./ft. Torque to tow a 36-foot Redman New Moon.
There was a lot of movie magic involved to pull off that movie. In the real world, the Arnez family would be maximizing the car’s tow capacity. To give you a modern comparison, the 2019 Ford Fiesta had a 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine with 112 horsepower and 202 lb./ft. Torque.
Before you put a hitch on your two-seater, the Monterey had a steel chassis and other components that could handle the weight. The New Moon had an all-wood frame and aluminum siding. The two brothers that created it marketed the trailer as “the longest trailer in the world.” Unfortunately, the height of their popularity was during the war as government housing. The movie couldn’t overcome the fact that most Americans didn’t have the vehicle to pull it properly.
Canned Ham Travel Trailers
One of the questions we asked at the end of our Vintage Era article was how processed meat connects to RVs (we’ll soon get to the snack cake). The answer: Spam.
If you look at Spam’s original tin container, it’s a square with rounded corners. Spam meat stands for “spiced ham” or “Specially Produced American Meat” in Europe. It’s surprisingly nutritious (the original formula) and doesn’t require refrigeration. It kept our troops fed in their foxholes and on the march on both fronts. Hormel hit a home run on this heat-sealed food item.
If you take a Spam can lay it on one of its wide sides, you’ll notice it has an unusually similar shape to the travel trailers of the 1950s and 1960s. The sides, roof, and bottom of the coach are flat. The front and rear of the RV are rounded or flat. Instead of using a squared edge where the roof meets the front and back, RV manufacturers of the time rounded it similar to the meat can. Hence the moniker “Canned Ham” travel trailers.
RV engineers didn’t do the commonalities on purpose, but you can’t know for sure what was going through their minds. Almost 100 different companies had their version of the style. The advantage of the construction design puts the seam lower to minimize water seepage. Today’s one-piece rear, roof, and front cap engineering come from this early method.
Don’t worry, for those of us who keep Kosher or keep Halal, roast beef was and still is canned too.
Some famous names include:
- Aloha 1954-Mid 1970s. Aloha, OREGON (not Hawaii)
- Comet 1947-1981. Wichita, KS
- Detroiter 1947-1980s. Detroit, MI
- Eljay Manufacturing 1950s-1960s. Winchester, NH
- Friendship Mobile Homes 1957-1966. Friendship, WI
- Go-Lite 1956-1968. Fremont, NE
- Kenskill 1946- Mid1970s. Burbank, CA
- Leisure Home 1955-1961. Salt Lake City, UT
- Nomad/Skyline 1951-1970. Elkhart, IN
- PleasureCraft 1955-1958. Cucamonga, CA
- Serro Scotty 1957-1997. Irwin, PA
- Spartan 1945-1960. Tulsa, OK
Wally Byam Restarts With His Silver Twinkies
Some call them “Silver Bullets,” while others call them “Silver Twinkies” (famous snack cake). Whatever you call them, Wally Byam reopened the Airstream doors after the war creating the most iconic brand still on the road today. In fact, over 70% of all Airstream travel trailers are still on the road today, including the vintage Airstream models.
During the Depression and the War, Byam shut the doors of his company due to hard times. He ended up working for Lockheed for most of the war. In 1945, Curtis Wright wanted to start a trailer division in his company. Wally had already produced his Airstream Clipper with his riveted shell and other unique processes. Byam also had some unpaid debt to Wright. Knowing the partnership wouldn’t last, Wright brought him on and had a few years of Airstream-inspired coaches in production before Wally left to reopen his plant.
While you’re waiting for your favorite comic book (many of which came from the Vintage Era) or other genre movies, keep your eyes open for the Alumination Movie set to release in April. The documentary will give you a complete history of Wally Byam and the evolution of Airstream.
Byam and his engineers revolutionized the RV industry with groundbreaking manufacturing techniques that the company and others use today. Airstream was the first to use aircraft-quality aluminum, rubber torsion axles, and a semi-monocoque superstructure framing method. Very little has changed in the building method through the years.
Byam immediately went back to work producing the 22-foot Liner, the 16-foot Wee Wind with the first screen door, the 28-foot Whirlwind with a door on each side, and his world-renowned 22-foot Globetrotter. Byam and fellow travelers would take a trip around the world using the Globetrotter, proving his travel trailer’s durability. The trailer also proved how you could travel in comfort and style.
For the longest time, there was only one piece of wood used in construction. A long piece of plywood under the floor held furniture and other interior components down. In 2020, Airstream replaced the plywood with a non-wood composite material that finally solved the potential rot problem that now rarely occurs.
Popping Up With the Ranger
As we discovered in the Antique Era, the RV history of the pop-up camper started with the tent trailer. Those RVs were canvas tents that set up on a towable trailer. The next leap in technology wouldn’t happen until Hille Manufacturing created the Ranger in 1954. The California company designed a crank-up roof with canvas sidewalls. The trailer’s rear would pull out like today’s rear slideouts (not like the tray-like beds of modern pop-ups).
Hille produced only 200 models since the 1,000-pound camper was overpriced for its day. The company closed its doors in 1956, but the technology lives on. The pulley system used to raise the roof is the basis of today’s models.
The Ranger featured cabinetry throughout, including overhead cabinets. It had an icebox and a sink with a hand pump. Only a dozen or so still exist today, but with some restoration, the camper could stand up next to its predecessors.
Relive the Vintage Era With Retro-Styled RVs
If you love the Vintage Era’s styling, some RV companies today make current models with this period’s look. Today, these retro-styled travel trailers have modern amenities and construction, but you’ll find accurate colors, floorplans, and other features that take you back.
Riverside RV’s Retro comes in lengths from teardrop to its 28-foot family-friendly bunkhouse. The classic black-and-white checkerboard flooring, birch wood, and four 1950s colors will get you in the mood for a sock-hop.
Gulf Stream’s Vintage Cruiser has 11 floorplans that range from 20- 26 feet in length. You’ll enjoy the fact that all of these travel trailers are under 5,000 pounds, so you don’t need a large SUV to tow them. You can give your kids the vintage experience of sleeping on the convertible furniture or choose the bunk bed models.
While Timberleaf Teardrops aren’t aesthetically period styled, you can get the same feel of a vintage teardrop. The construction details come from the blueprints from the early teardrop designs. The company uses the highest quality materials and processes, building a durable RV, but you can easily imagine yourself in one of those 1940s versions.
If you want to have a part of RV history by owning a vintage Airstream, some companies specialize in restoring them. Their representatives can help you locate your favorite model, plan the restoration, and their team will get to work. Many of these companies can make modern-day features, like flat-screen TVs, hide strategically, so you get the vintage look with the modern equipment.
In our upcoming RV history discussion on the Classic Era and Neo-Classic Era, you’ll learn what sets these two periods apart. We’ll also show you the next significant evolutions in RV technology and what events shaped the RV World.