Camping is the kind of concept that, unless you dwell on it explicitly, passes as something that people have probably always been doing. While communion with nature is the kind of activity that is seen across cultures and ages, the unique North American notion of recreational camping has a concrete history, and it takes off in the 19th Century. Towards the end of that century, outdoorsmen and naturalists took to commodifying time spent in the outdoors and published books arguing for the secular merits of periodic escape from populous centers of life – especially as a remedy to the burgeoning urban sprawls of the late industrial revolution.
Camping inevitably caught on amid these circumstances: being outdoors is a proven antidote. Yet, the "roughing it" aspect of this undertaking was met with less resolute support. While some find joy in the spartan lifestyle of a backpack camping trip or anything tent-bound, others question why luxury and the land are exclusionary terms. Out of the demand for the pleasures of home in (relatively) remote climes, the RV is born.
The Oldest RV Manufacturers
There is surprisingly little info about the earliest RVs, and it isn't evident that they have a singular origin. In the early 20th century, extensive and imaginative car modifications were fairly common. Whereas car mods of the present come in kits or as a highly specialized machined parts, modifying a car a century ago meant building from base materials an altered or extended cabin for your vehicle, among other possible changes, when only the sky marks the limit. There is photographic evidence and testimony suggesting that as early as 1904 wealthy car owners were having their rides modified with more luxurious and accommodating features such as water pumps, sinks, and beds. Oftentimes these modifications were made, not with the intent to turn a vehicle into a home – as one might expect of a contemporary RV – but merely to make long journeys more pleasant. Presumably, without the prevalence of RV parks and the lack of plumbing in vehicle, RVs were not yet ready to be adopted fully as a mobile home.
There is another wrinkle in this history, and it brings into question what fits the definition of a RV. Certainly, when we speak of motorhomes today, the name itself suggests that a true RV ought to be motorized. But is this simply a matter of convention? If so, the history of the RV extends back further, and horse drawn carriages were even earlier given similar treatment to the cars being described here. While it is important to mention, this rabbit hole won't be pursued further in the present article – that would demand too much scope!
If you try and do your own research into the history of the RV, you will likely encounter the two most popular early examples: the (unfortunately named) Gypsy Van, and the Pierce-Arrow Touring Landau. These two vehicles represent the earliest RV-like creations to receive broad cultural awareness, or at least enough to really stick out in the historical record. The Gypsy Van was an independent creation, a heavily modified and visually striking ‘double-decker' bus which was regularly covered by the tabloids for undertaking a trip across the US. The Pierce-Arrow Touring Landau, meanwhile, is the first commercially manufactured vehicle to be recognized as an RV. The story of these two vehicles will be told in the following paragraphs.
The "Gypsy Van", less frequently referred to as the Conklin Autobus, was a creation of the Conklin family – a particularly wealthy one that likely contracted out the elaborate work needed to overhaul the original vehicle. Their journey from New York to San Francisco made its way into the pages of the New York Times, and photographs of the bus prove its capacity – enough space for a driver, some family, friends, and hired help. Balanced atop the rickety tires of the era; long, narrow, and tall – the Conklin Autobus nevertheless looks jarringly similar to the complete modern RV of today. It applies the same rationale too, with non-retractable canopies and a rooftop veranda that are certainly unsuited for mobile use, but when stationary, bring an extra sense of comfort and home.
The Pierce-Arrow Touring Landau, though ostensibly the earliest commercially manufactured RV, shares much less DNA with the modern RV than the Conklin Autobus. The manufacturer, Pierce-Arrow, made incredibly high-end early automobiles for the rich and distinguished. The Touring Landau was a remarkable (and remarkably expensive) piece of engineering having a chamber pot toilet, a fold-out sink, and seating that could be converted into a bed. Its form factor, however, was more in line with conventional vehicles of the day. Given its form factor, price, and complete passenger / driver separation, it is clear that the Touring Landau might be more analogous to a tour bus, an instrument for high status individuals trying to remain comfortable on business, than the proto-RV which sought to get upper middle class closer in touch with the American countryside.
Given the tendency for industry early birds to grow and persist through the ages, one might find it surprising to hear that Pierce-Arrow didn't even make into the 40s. However, this might be because, despite their early innovations, they did not continue in the nascent RV space. It isn't clear how many Touring Landaus were produced, and estimates are that they were few. Indeed, being displayed at Madison Square Garden, and not remaining a part of Pierce-Arrow's production lineup long thereafter, it seems that the car was meant as a novelty or a concept piece. Of course, it's sheer inaccessibility probably played a role in this short lifespan.
Today's RVs really came to the fore at the beginning of the 60s. Many of the companies and styles prevalent then persist now, and on the whole, it is a shockingly stable industry. Whereas most other automotive sectors see dramatic overhauls in the very silhouettes presented by their vehicles, in turn with the whims of fashion or in order to adapt to cutting edge aerodynamics, RVs have long looked just about the same. Though paint jobs change, perhaps motorhomes get larger, or more capacious, the same structure is retained.
The same companies still commandeer the industry, too. While names may change due to mergers and industry politics, certain key players are as prominent today as they were in the 60s. Airstream, among the oldest of all famed RV companies, is a prime example of this phenomenon. Their design is also significantly older than the sixties, having models, especially trailers, that date back all the way to Airstream's founding in the 1930s.
RVs today are about as popular and accessible that they have ever been. As "recreational vehicles", the success or persistence of the RV has always been tied to the prosperity of middle-income people. With younger generations finding it difficult to make as much as those before them, sufficient auxiliary income to afford an RV is less common. That being said, the RV industry is still a growing one. Roughly twenty percent of RVs are owned by Millennials and those younger (most of this percentage likely coming from the older cohort), and the average age of an RV owner is 46 years.
2022 has had the curtain drawn back on upcoming technological advancements in the industry, with fully electric vehicles on the horizon and solar-powered, nearly self-sufficient vehicles occupying the uppermost echelon of what is presently available. Seeing RVs attempt to go fully electric is to the benefit of the entire electric vehicle market, as it may accelerate battery technology, forcing manufacturers and engineers to optimize, lest electric RVs be forced to sacrifice space to a fleet of heavy, inefficient batteries.
Meanwhile, self-driving technology in the RV industry continues to lag behind. The reason for this absence is unclear, though it may be the case that companies find their client base to not be especially interested in ceding their drives to a machine intelligence. Regardless, there is a natural fit between self-driving technology and the situations where RVs are often driven: on freeways and interstates. Present industry leading self-driving technology, such as the kind found in GMC vehicles, has rigorous routing for handling such roads, and we can only hope that some of the bigger names in RVing won't pass up on such an opportunity.
The Rising Popularity of RV Living
While it was stated earlier than the auxiliary income necessary to afford an RV isn't there with the younger generations, that claim comes with a stipulation. RVs are less accessible if they're meant to be just that – recreational. But they are becoming significantly more popular as an alternative to more conventional primary living situations. RVs become more expensive with time – as do all things – but they do not escalate at the outlandish rate that land or housing does. More and more people are therefore choosing to live out of a RV, whether on the go, mostly stationary, or as a member of different camping clubs.
The consequences of the pandemic, amongst them being a broad cultural acceptance of remote working, might encourage distance workers, especially young professionals, to take full advantage of that lifestyle and not be bound to one place. This seems even more likely as city access with RVs becomes more common. RV sites, like one situated just outside of Quebec City in eastern Canada, has its own shuttle which runs from the site to the heart of the city multiple times a day.
RV living, as electric technology and solar power continues to progress, also becomes a good way into sustainable living. While the leaders of self-sufficient mobile homes, companies such as Living Home, are inaccessible to the average earner, this should improve with time. Even with their costliness, as a matter of fact, RVs may be the easiest way to go zero emission – at least, if you tow your trailer with an electric vehicle, or wait for that technology to be fully deployed in RVs.
Part of the appeal of RV living is also likely due to the rise of minimalism and so-called "tiny homes". For those interested in this lifestyle, RVs are much easier to acquire and encounter than a tiny home. Indeed, the sort of mystique surrounding tiny homes makes them susceptible to hyper-inflation and scarcity – not to mention the lack of land to build them on – leaving RVs a sensible a reasonable alternative which certainly provides all the same benefits and desired challenges of a tiny home.
Naturally, there is a limit to how prevalent RV living can be. The industry does not manufacture, and RV clubs do not operate, so as to accommodate a mass transfer from housed living to mobile homes. The vast majority of people will always live in houses and urban centers. But the transition towards RV living shows a wonderful and developing openness towards new forms of life, and the infrastructure growing around it means that those interested are less likely to constrain the opportunities afforded them by choosing to live it. Indeed, it may only open new ones!
While now a worldwide phenomenon, RVs have a history rooted deeply in the classically North American attempt to reencounter nature. Though sourced variously and under different definitions, proto-RVs shockingly resembling of the ones available today have been around more than a century. Reflective of a certain prosperity, RVs found hold amongst the average North American family in the 60s. Today, RVs are becoming a more popular and tenable alternative lifestyle that exceeds the purely "recreational".