This 1914 Ford Model T Appears To Be The Oldest Surviving Motorhome In The World

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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.

Adventures In The Wilderness, Or, Camp Life In The Adirondacks (1869) (17938817991)
Internet Archive Book Images

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.

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Invaluable

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.

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Pierce-Arrow

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.

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RV/MH Hall of Fame Museum & Library

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.

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Bonhams

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.

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Bonhams
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Bonhams

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.

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Bonhams
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Bonhams

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.

1914 Ford Model T Motor Caravan 1 Scaled
Bonhams

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.

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38 Responses

  1. This is pretty cool but I’m having trouble seeing the pine floor. Is it underneath the carpet that’s visible in all the pictures? Anyway another interesting piece of travel history would be one of the makeshift motorhomes people used to escape the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression.

      1. If I understand correctly, it was last restored in the 70’s, so it was 50 year old wood at the time.
        Still, very good quality, from the times before manufacturers learned how much they could skimp on building materials and get away with it :-).

  2. Great article. 20 hp?!? Egad. What would the torque be like? Yeah, this was just a couple decades after England’s Red Flag Acts so motor traffic wasn’t exactly zipping along at blinding speeds, not to mention when one goes camping one doesn’t usually just race to the camp sites, but even so this rig must’ve moved at a glacial pace even for the time. Hopefully there’ll be some way of doing a followup after the auction where the new owner will demonstrate or even allow test drives.

  3. That is seriously cool! The woodwork inside is beautiful, and overall, this rig is stately. Refined, even. The thought that this magnificence could be sold for only 35k USD in a world where NFTs can fetch 6 figures has me shaking my head. Philistines!

    It also kinda reminds me of the home built cedar-shake shacks built on/around old pickups I used to see in the ‘70s. It’s the sort of rig I imagine Steinbeck would have had his Travels With Charley in if he had done it 30 or 40 years earlier

  4. 20 hp may not be much but considering the fact that in a Model T the only foot brake was the right foot pedal that tightened a band around a drum in the transmission I’d be more interested in a brake upgrade than an engine upgrade.

  5. Considering what roads were like back then, I doubt top speed was only a concern during free fall! Wonder how they would have any surviving plates or glassware for that hutch.
    Also, we need to have more vehicles where you can drive from a leather couch!!

  6. What a great piece of history! Thanks Mercedes.
    I love that the speedometer registers up to 60 mph – quite ambitious! Imagine having 10-pairs of draft horses hitched to the front of this thing. I think the Budweiser Clydesdale wagons top out at 8 horsepower, so more than double that would be an impressive amount of pull on what is essentially a large wooden covered wagon. I’m willing to bet marathag’s estimate of 15 mph is probably accurate.

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  8. so not eligible for the RV we were asked about. I just didn’t want to be a deueschbag about it. Also absolutely no confirmation or provenance. I love Mercedes but just because she posts it doesn’t mean it’s

  9. –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.–

    From the one pic, looks like it has chain drive from the original T axle, to a heavier duty type. I hope that has a seperate brake system than the Stock T with the Transmission band

    So probably gear down quite a bit that way, so my guess would be 22-25 tops.
    The Model TT Trucks, they were geared downgreatly to get their ‘One Ton’ rating, down to 15 mph

  10. Too much to really know. First does an RV have to be a camping vehicle. Frankly this vehicle looks to be far more comfortable than some rural residential houses of the time. Is there any background on this being a design RV or a home built vehicle that modified? The windows look more like a modern design rather than period correct. The stairs are certainly not period correct. Most likely without records to prove provenance I would guess a vehicle modified to be a circus vehicle or period movie prop.

    1. 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.

      1. Yes I read that. It is clearly a custom job so not eligible for the RV we were asked about. I just didn’t want to be a deueschbag about it. Also absolutely no confirmation or provenance. I love Mercedes but just because she posts it doesn’t mean it’s a fact.

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