I’ve written a lot about old RVs here on the Autopian. There are the fantastic fiberglass campers of the 1970s, the pairing of a Silver Streak trailer and a Hanomag, and I even dragged home a camper made by U-Haul. But I’ve long wondered, what’s the oldest RV out there. Thanks to an upcoming Bonhams auction, we now have an idea. This Ford Model T Motor Caravan is over a century old, making it possibly the oldest surviving motorhome in existence.
The origins of the motorhome and the camper go back even further than this Model T. Before the 20th century, covered wagons allowed families and communities to traverse entire countries. People lived out of wagons as they migrated and explored. But those people weren’t camping out of wagons just for the fun of it. As the Smithsonian Magazine writes, the concept of camping for fun didn’t come around until the late 1800s. In 1869, William H.H. Murray published a camping guide called Adventures in the Wilderness; Or, Camp-Life in the Adirondacks, noted to be America’s first book of its kind.
Camping guides back then–just as they do today–touted camping as a way to get away from the stresses of everyday living.
In 1875, John B. Bachelder expanded on this idea with Popular Resorts and How to Reach Them. This book pitched different ways that you could camp from backpacking on foot to hitching a wagon up to horses. The latter offered the most ease, as campers could carry gear in the wagon and didn’t have to hike to get to their camping spot.
As the Smithsonian Magazine writes, it wasn’t long before camping became a popular activity, with people hiking out into the woods, going out on horseback, or if they could afford it, taking the whole family out in a wagon.
And like today, there was a whole industry dedicated to making camping gear to make camping a little easier and a little more comfortable. The idea back then is the same that it is today: You get closer to nature without forcing yourself to suffer.
Going into the 1900s, camping vehicles became more elaborate. It’s debated when the first real motorhome or travel trailer was created, but Smithsonian Magazine points to a motorhome created in 1904 by mating living quarters to a car chassis. This early RV managed to sleep four, had electric lighting, and even an icebox.
In 1910, the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company created the Touring Landau, a vehicle commonly called the first production RV.
Just a few years later in 1913, the Earl Trailer was built for a CalTech professor. It currently resides in the RV/MH Hall of Fame Museum & Library and is believed to be the oldest surviving non-tent camping trailer.
That brings us to this 1914 Ford Model T Motor Caravan. It was built in England just six years after the start of Model T production. The history that is known about it is short, and Bonhams describes it like this:
This unique vehicle was built in 1914, just before the outbreak of the First World War, for a member of the Bentall family, founders of the eponymous British department store chain. It is based on a Ford Model T chassis, extended and strengthened by Baico, while the caravan body was built by Dunton of Reading, a company famous for their high quality traditional travellers’ caravans. It is believed that the vehicle was sold in the 1920s and subsequently abandoned before being discovered derelict in Shepperton and restored in the 1970s by Mr Leo Smith with the help of his friend, Mr Robin Tanner, a cabinet maker.
Bonhams notes that 95 percent of the original body timbers were reusable, so it’s not like one of those situations where the restored vehicle only looks old. The restoration took four years, and after it was finished the camper did show circuits, including a concours.
It’s said to be the oldest surviving motorhome in the world. I’ve done some digging and it seems to be accurate. I’ve found slightly newer surviving motorhomes, but nothing older.
The interior features a polished pine floor, green velvet curtains, a wood stove, and sleeping berths for four people. And there’s ample storage throughout from exterior storage lockers to a dresser and various cabinets inside.
Even the driver seat, which is just a sofa, has a storage bin. That seat also flips around to become a part of the living space. This RV even comes with what looks like a mail slot!
The Model T part of the Caravan features a 177 cubic-inch flathead inline-four producing 20 horsepower. In stock form, a Model T tops out around 45 mph. It isn’t said how fast this one is. That said, I’m not sure that you’d want to go much faster. After all, you’re commanding the thing from what looks like grandma’s couch.
The Smithsonian notes that back in America, the concept of a motorhome would grow in popularity a year after this Ford Model T Motor Caravan was built. In 1915, Roland Conklin’s Gas-Electric Motor Bus Company built a 25-foot-long, 8-ton camper. Conklin and his family took the vehicle on a westward drive from Huntington, New York to San Francisco, California. It featured working electricity, lighting, a kitchen, appliances, and even a roof garden. And the family got to sleep in berths similar to that of passenger trains. The massive vehicle and its journey caught lots of attention, including from newspapers as large as the New York Times. For many Americans, the Conklin rig was the first RV that they’ve ever seen.
You might think that this Model T Motor Caravan should be worth a ton of cash. However, the estimated sale price seems reasonable. When it goes up for auction in England this September 10, it’s expected to sell for £20,000 to £30,000, or about $23,300 to $34,970, respectively.
The recreational vehicle industry exploded after this era. The companies that produced the many vintage RVs that I’ve written about were founded before making their marks on history. There are greats like Bowlus, Airstream, Boler, Scamp, Winnebago, GMC, and so many more. And in the late 1950s, RV pioneer Raymond C. Frank coined the term “motorhome” to describe self-propelled vehicles with the amenities of home in them. Today, giants like Thor Industries continue to construct hundreds of thousands of trailers and motorhomes every year for the traveler who wants to get closer to nature, but not too close.