Home » How A Mysterious Company Turned Semi Trucks Into Campers In The 1980s

How A Mysterious Company Turned Semi Trucks Into Campers In The 1980s


In decades past, owners and operators of semi-tractors had to work around vehicle length restrictions which limited the overall size of their rigs. Cabovers maximized the available length and weight, but complicated the small available space for driving teams who sleep on the road. One company tried to solve this problem by grafting a fiberglass, balsa wood, and metal home onto the back of semi trucks, providing 500 cubic feet of fully-equipped living space.

For decades, regulations on semi-tractor weight and length meant that cabovers ruled the road. As Heavy Duty Trucking writes, the 1930s were a time of increasing regulations in the trucking industry. The Federal Motor Carrier Act gave the Interstate Commerce Commission power to regulate trucking. Carriers had to prove to the ICC that they were fulfilling a needed service to obtain authority to operate. The decade also saw some of the first rules on how long a trucker can drive in a day and as Heavy Duty Trucking notes, it also saw the rise of states imposing limits on the overall length and weight of trucks.

Cabovers Used To Rule The Road

Stan Holtzman

These early length restrictions motivated truck manufacturers to build semis that cut down on length and weight by selling models with their cabs situated above the engine, otherwise known as a cabover. These types of trucks have actually existed for a while before this. Truck manufacturer Autocar claims to have built America’s first truck in 1899 when it constructed the “engine-under-the-seat” Autocar delivery wagon. The company says that this was the predecessor to the cabovers of later decades.

1899 First Truck

Due to those restrictions, Cabovers continued to rise in popularity to the point of becoming America’s dominant truck. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 limited semi and trailer length to a total of 65 feet. For truckers, regulations meant that a cabover maximized their load since length wasn’t lost to a hood as you’d find with a conventional.

One of the disadvantages of a cabover semi is that you have to tilt the cab to service the engine. This can make for a large work area for repairs but at the expense of anything inside the cab. In the case of sleepers, your pillows will find themselves scattered all over along with anything else that wasn’t bolted down. For inventor Gene H. Miller of Livlab Inc of Lake Park, Florida, this was a problem that needed to be solved, so he built a camper that could be grafted onto the back of a semi that had a neat trick.

The Livlab Sleeper

5762913310 E14bc2616f O
Livlab via Alden Jewell

This was originally found by the folks of Curbside Classic. That article was a few pictures and a couple of paragraphs, but it sent me down a rabbit hole of trying to figure out why Livlab sleepers exist and how they work.

A lot of information about Livlab is a bit fuzzy. I have not been able to figure out when the company was started or when it presumably disappeared. However, I have been able to find out a ton about the Livlab units, including an advertisement and patents.

According to the book, Special Use Vehicles: An Illustrated History Of Unconventional Cars And Trucks Worldwide, Livlab introduced its campers in 1981 to give truckers a mobile home on the back of their rigs. These units bolted directly onto the back of popular semis from Freightliner, International Harvester, GMC, Ford, and Mack. The company said that its mobile home units did fit other brands after modifications. Since the Livlab was a direct bolt-on unit, it could be fitted to the back of a conventional or cabover semi.

Us4351554 Drawings Page 2
Gene H. Miller

When fitted, it essentially added an 8-foot wide apartment onto the back of your rig, extending the cab back by 6.3 feet. And inside was a self-sustained camper. Typical sleeper arrangements of the day more or less just offered a place to sleep and put your things. This? It was closer to some of the sleeper designs of today where it was a fully working camper back there.

According to Livlab, its unit had a queen size bed with a built-in vibrator, a full bathroom, a full kitchen, storage areas, and a dinette. Features included a ceramic cooktop, a color television, wall-to-wall carpeting, air-conditioning, heating, an oven, a hot water heater, and even a 4kW generator. These also carried 50-gallon water and 50-gallon waste tanks, good for a decent haul before needing to dump. An archived brochure page illustrates the truck being used by a driver team, which this seems like it would be pretty great for. The Livlab was more or less a tiny house grafted onto your truck and the way it works is pretty neat.

According to a patent from Livlab’s inventor, Gene H. Miller, the Livlab is constructed of a fiberglass-balsa wood core supported by an aluminum structure.

eBay Seller

This structure consisted of 1.5-inch square tubing, 0.125-inch fiberglass, 0.5-inch balsa core, 0.75-inch insulation, and 0.25-inch of interior wall. The Livlab adds 520 cubic feet of living space to the semi truck and just 1,900 pounds of weight. It’s noted that installation may require rerouting the truck’s exhaust and air intake.

A question that one might have is how the camper will interfere with engine maintenance. After all, the queen bed is shown to be flush with the top of the truck’s cab. How are you supposed to get to the engine? According to the patent, a set of outriggers and shocks tilt the front of the camping unit slightly up, allowing the cab of the truck to tilt forward. Given the weight of the sleeper unit, the tilting motion is said to be actuated manually through a hand or foot pump, which causes hydraulic fluid to do the lifting. The inventor pitched a pneumatic system as well.

Information about the Livlab gets thin from there. At least some units were made, but I couldn’t find how much they cost or just how many truckers opted for the semi tiny home. To elaborate how hard it is to find information on these, most of the information on this piece came from archived magazine articles found on the Wayback Machine.

Us4351554 Drawings Page 5
Gene H. Miller

There is a possible explanation for why you don’t see these and it’s the same reason that you don’t see many cabover semis anymore. As trucking site Smart Trucking notes, in 1976, length restrictions began easing. When the Livlab was introduced in 1981, the conventional semi was already making its comeback, thus making the nifty Livlab unnecessary for everyone but those sticking to their cabovers.

In other words, it came too late to solve the problems brought on by length restrictions, assuming it could have even achieved the goal given pre-1976 length restrictions.  And with length restrictions cut back, truckers have been able to graft even larger mobile home units to their rigs. Today, you can find larger versions of this with toterhomes and similar.

Yet, I’m still captivated by this concept. It’s like something that our Daydreaming Designer would make, but someone went through the work to make it real. If you happen to know anything else about these, please drop it down below or send me an email at mercedes@theautopian.com.

Us4351554 Drawings Page 3
Gene H. Miller

Support our mission of championing car culture by becoming an Official Autopian Member.

Share on facebook
Share on whatsapp
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on reddit

22 Responses

  1. Someone help me understand what I’m missing here:

    -Cabovers came about as a result of length restrictions, so the idea would be to make the tractor as short as possible.

    -Obviously some space is required between the back of the cab and the 5th wheel hitch to prevent the trailer from contacting the cab in a sharp turn.

    -So the fact that a 6 foot camper can fit behind the cab and in front of the hitch means either the trailer is going to wreck your camper, or that the cabs weren’t optimized for length in the first place. Or both.

    1. I think the clue here comes from the fact that it was introduced in 1981, after length restrictions began easing up. Basically, it was built to solve a problem that was no longer a problem.

      1. I think the difference with this solution is the bed is over the driving compartment like a regular RV and not behind the cab like most semi trucks.

      2. Maybe they thought there was a market of truckers or freight companies that wanted to convert their existing cab-over trucks for long haul or team use and it failed to materialize?

        1. I think what v10omous means is that you’d have to lengthen the frame between the back of the cab and the hitch to make room for this thing. But as dogrivergrad68 observed, the difference between this and a sleeper is the bedroom above the cab. It also looks quite a bit wider than a typical sleeper.

  2. Retired trucker and I’ve only seen one of these in my life. IIRC expensive and the 2000 pounds added weight didn’t help either. When the Livlab first came out several states still had a 55 foot overall length limit and a 45 trailer length limit, so after deducting a couple feet for the front of the trailer to swing in turns you had at most 8 feet to fit a cab into. That required a scrunched short hood conventional day cab or a cabover with a narrow sleeper, so even with the shortest length cabover the LivLab would have eaten up about 5 feet of trailer length in 55 foot overall length states. Then the feds pretty much eliminated the overall length limits with the Surface Transportation Act of 1982, and the truck makers within a few years were offering big sleepers right from the factory.

  3. Why don’t modern truck sleepers have any of these features?

    Modern sleepers are just a bed, and maybe a fridge and/or microwave. A bathroom would prevent the scourge of ‘trucker bombs’ along the highways.

    1. Modern sleepers have most of these features….
      But, if youre an owner/operator you can spend over an extra $100k for a custom sleeper with all of these features, on top of the $200K for the truck.
      But most of the fleet trucks of today, the drivers can barely keep their trucks clean, can you imagine what a toilet would be like, since the drivers dont own the truck….. the “not my truck, not gonna clean it.” mentality. Not to mention, the companies dont want to spend that extra money on comfort for the drivers, or the extra fuel cost to move the weight of all of it…..

  4. One of my uncles was a long haul driver for several years, but had to quit due to medical issues caused by driving a cab over truck. The ride quality of these in the 50s to early 70s was apparently quite brutal. I imagine trying to sleep in the bed over the cab wouldn’t be much better.

  5. The bright colors and optimistic artwork make me imagine a voiceover by Rex Allen (of Disney’s “Charlie the Lonesome Cougar” fame):

    Young Joe and Jane love their life on the road. They have all the comforts of home right in the back of their trusty cabover rig. They’re even thinking of adding a little one, or maybe two. Imagine all the adventures they’ll have together on the open road.

  6. I love the old Autocar photo with the guy doing an action pose. “Archibald, look as if you’ve just passed 10 miles per hour and really got it cooking!”

  7. “According to Livlab, its unit had a queen size bed with a built-in vibrator”

    I am assuming this is like those vibrating beds you see in movies, but that was not the first thing that went through my head.

Leave a Reply