This 85-Year-Old RV Is So Ahead Of Its Time That You Could Comfortably Camp In It Today


Last week, I spent a few days surrounded by hundreds of examples of the latest RVs that you can buy today. The campers I saw varied between the novel Airstream eStream and the durable Taxa Mantis, but one RV that stood out to me wasn’t new. In fact, this RV is a whole 85 years old. The 1937 Hunt Housecar is the idea of cinematographer J. Roy Hunt, and it’s so far ahead of its time that it would be usable as an RV today.

When the Housecar was built the RV industry was still in its infancy. In 1934, William Hawley Bowlus–the superintendent on construction of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis–created the aluminum Bowlus Road Chief.

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That trailer borrowed techniques from aircraft construction. Wally Byam followed it up two years later with his own interpretation of an aluminum trailer, the Airstream Clipper. Motorhomes were around during this time, too, but they weren’t called motorhomes. In 1958, Raymond C. Frank launched his Frank Motor Home, and eventually would help popularize the term “motorhome” to describe a self-propelled camper. Before then, motorhomes were known as house cars.

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Many house cars of the past looked like a trailer or boxcar tacked onto the back of a truck. Some looked ungainly or otherwise unappealing. And the trailers weren’t much different, either. That’s what made Bowlus and Airstream stand out. Another striking RV from the era is this, the Hunt Housecar, and there’s more to it than good looks. I got to see it at the RV/MH Hall of Fame during last week’s giant RV show.

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The Housecar is the brainchild of J. Roy Hunt. Born in 1884 in Caperton, West Virginia, Hunt is not a household name. And if his name even rings a bell, it’s probably because you’re a film buff of some kind. Hunt made a career in cinematography lasting between the first World War through the 1950s. Hemmings notes his work:

Despite never getting past the third grade, Hunt was an early Hollywood cinematographer whose work was acclaimed, pre-Oscar, on the Foreign Legion epic Beau Geste, and he later did the camera work for the Oscar-nominated Flying Down to Rio. His cinematic CV, though, also included B-listers such as Parachute Battalion and Brooklyn Buckaroos.

Hunt’s life wasn’t totally dedicated to film. Before his film career, Hunt raced cars and motorcycles. A car enthusiast, during his film career, Hunt worked on a steam-powered car design. And he also reportedly tried to buy Howard Hughes’ incredible Doble E20 steam-powered roadster. That’s pretty awesome by itself, but Hunt also had an offbeat hobby: he liked designing RVs.

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As Hemmings writes, in 1935, Hunt took a Willys sedan delivery and threw a bed in it alongside a table, a generator, and a radio set. But two years later, Hunt would build this, the Housecar.

It’s unclear what inspired this design, but it looks like streamliners of the era like the Stout Scarab and the Dymaxion. The story goes that Hunt acquired a 1937 Ford pickup. He then took it to a fabricator in Southern California to create its 16-gauge steel fuselage-like skin. The exterior is certainly striking and there isn’t a single modern RV that can come close to the elegance of this design. But as great as it is outside, the real magic is inside.

The first thing that blew my mind was the deployable step. When you pull open the door, it pulls out a step that you’d use to climb into the interior.

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Once inside, you immediately see the unit’s small kitchen. Despite the diminutive size, you get a two-burner stove, a sink with running water, pantry, a refrigerator, toaster, and even an electric razor. Historian Al Hesselbart from the RV/MH Hall of Fame Museum notes that the razor was actually a standard feature. Yep, this RV wasn’t just a one-off built for Hunt, but a real production vehicle.

Towards the rear of the Housecar is the bedroom. There’s nothing much exciting going on back there, but it looks big enough for a comfy stay away from home. I do like the period decorations in there from the wood paneling to the stained glass shades for the lamps. Of course, since there’s a kitchen where a passenger seat would be, this is more of a camper for one, maybe two people.

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And the features don’t end there. In the middle of the Housecar is a bathroom. Inside is a sink pulled from a Pullman railroad car and a toilet that swings out from the wall. As Hesselbart explains, you would fill the sink up with water, take a shower from it, then tilt the sink to drain the water. And the chamber pot toilet would have to be emptied after use.

Sadly, the bathroom door was closed during the show.

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This RV often gets called the first to have a functional shower, but I’m not sure if that’s true. A full 22 years before the Housecar, Roland R. Conklin built an RV to cross the country with his family. His RV featured hot water and a working shower. But while the Hunt Housecar may not be the first, it’s still plenty impressive. This has the core features of today’s small RVs, but was done a full 85 years ago.

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Apparently, driving it can be a challenge. The driver seat and steering wheel were moved forward, but the gearshift was not. So, you get the awkward position of basically reaching behind you to shift gears.

This particular Hunt Housecar was a part of an early RV collection owned by David Woodworth, a well-known RV historian. Woodworth found the Housecar in a scrapyard.

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Somewhere in the RV’s history, it was converted into a van and painted black with orange tiger stripes. Inside were a bunch of mattresses and shag carpeting all over. The Housecar got a full restoration and Woodworth’s collection was purchased for the museum.

As I said before, the Housecar was actually a production vehicle and Hunt made improvements on the design along the way.

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Autopioneer & Brausi

It isn’t said what’s under the steel of the 1937 model, but in 1940, Hunt made an update that involved pushing the wheels out for more interior space, a change in body to aluminum, and an upgrade to a 1939 Mercury flathead V8 making 95 HP. The updated Housecar is also said to weigh 2.5 tons.

A year later the design would evolve further, and the 1941 Housecar would ditch the gasoline engines for steam power. It featured a two-cylinder White steam engine powered by fuel oil. Later, that engine would be replaced with a two-cylinder steam engine designed by steam enthusiast Roland Giroux. It’s not known exactly how many Hunt Housecars were made, but the number is believed to be as high as 50. Some examples, like the steam-powered Housecar, appear to have been lost to time.

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As for Hunt, he continued to make films and RVs for decades. His filmography is long and as Hemmings notes, he did both until a short time before his death in 1972. Hunt’s legacy stands with his movies and a handful of weird RVs in a couple of museums in America.


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36 Responses

  1. So, when are we getting Jason’s review of the headlights and taillights?

    Also, it would be nice if clicking on a pic would open the larger (original?) version of the image in a new tab to allow us to savour the details!

  2. I remember our school buses which were usually old British Leyland or Bedford models retired from passenger service having gear sticks mounted behind the driver. Must have been an ergonomic nightmare. Combine that with no power steering, I have much respect for our bus driver now in hindsight. (This was rural New Zealand in the 1990’s).

    1. My diminutive mum only drove small cars, but had such short legs she had to put the driver’s seat all the way forward AND put a cushion behind her to be able to reach the pedals. Before she set off she looked like she had already been in a front-end collision.
      Most of her cars’ gear shifts were OK, but 2nd and 4th in her Fiat 127 were behind her. She just took it in her stride.

      1. My mother sounds the same as yours but she always drove large cars because try getting power steering in anything small in a British car in the early 80s. She drove a Rover 3500 SD1 automatic for a while (she was so short our neighbour got in a panic once because he thought the car was going past driverless). On one of the many occasions it was being repaired we got a manual version as a courtesy car. She took gears 1-4 in her stride (with 2 & 4 behind her as you say) but she had to ask passenger me to put it in 5th as she couldn’t reach it without undoing her seatbelt.

  3. A switch to steam in 1941 was such an out of the blue twist that I had to reread that part.

    And fuel oil to boot, giving you a perpetual chicken and egg issue in particularly cold environments.

    Now I want to see propulsion version 4, where he switched back to ICE, but with a wood gassifier.

    1. Yeah, 41 was an odd time to switch TO steam. I guess steam is better for an RV than a daily driver though. Imagine having to wait 20 minutes for a head of steam to build each time you wanted to drive somewhere.

  4. I wonder if the steam engine in ‘41 was because of gasoline rationing. Not sure when that started. Regardless, this thing is freakin awesome. That beautiful pale interior took a LOT of work: compound interior curves are tough to make properly with veneer. Now I wish I had a shop & fabrication skills.
    Like someone else said, I had no idea I was into old RVs—thanks!

    1. More than likely it had nothing to do with fuel rationing, as that didn’t come into play until after the bombing of Pearl in Dec, 1941. The design for his steam powered RV would have been completed before then.

    1. Attention EVERYONE.

      Just figured out how to Post pictures on The Autopian, ala 1880 by way of 1980 ascii. Here is a pic of the Hunt Housecar:

      * . . . . o o o o o
      * _____ o _______
      * ____==== ]OO|_n_n__][. |Hunt|
      * [________]_|__|________)< |RV|
      * oo oo 'oo OOOO-| oo\\_ ~~~|~~~
      * +–+–+–+–+–+–+–+–+-$1-+–+–+–+–+

      1. One more time…

        * . . . . o o o o o
        * _____ o
        * ____==== ]OO|_n_n__][.
        * [________]_|__|________)<
        * oo oo 'oo OOOO-| oo\\_ ~~~|~~~~~~|~~~~~|~~~~~|~~~~|
        * +–+–+–+–+–+–+–+–+-$1-+–+–+–+–+


  5. Another great article RV article! This Hunt kind of gives me the vibe of the 1960’s Corvair based Ultra Van, but the Hunt is way cooler looking. That shifter looks really awkwardly place though.

  6. I too wonder about the switch to steam power. I have a suspicion that it would have used a water-tube boiler rather than a fire-tube boiler. Fire-tube boilers are what we think of when we hear the term “boiler” – a great big tank full of water with numerous hollow tubes through it for the heat and smoke to pass through en route to the chimney. They were great for marine and railway applications but they don’t scale down to car size as well and they take a LONG time to heat up (it’s a whole lot of water you need to transfer that heat to). Plus they aren’t as good at dealing with the variability of car driving and the large amounts of energy they contain make them risky for the everyman operator.

    Water-tube boilers are the opposite – long intestinal metal tubing with water inside it, heated from the outside via a burner. They heat up a lot faster because they aren’t heating as much water at once. The Doble (that Mr. Hunt was so interested in) used a water-tube boiler which gave it quite the advantage over the fire-tube Stanley Steamers of the day. (Plus, if you overheated it or ran out of water you wouldn’t blow it up, you’d just f*ck up the tubing. Better to need a replacement boiler vs. a replacement torso.)

    Plus, a two-cylinder steam engine sounds awesome. It’s equivalent to a V8 four-stroke engine in terms of power per crank rotation so it’s always got torque.

    This is an awesome find, Mercedes! It’s sad to hear that none of the steam versions survived, I’m sure they’d have been a sight to see for the curious.

    1. Water tube boilers were more common in nautical (at least naval) applications. They produce more steam per ton of equipment and require less water, whatever scale they’re built at. The advantages of the fire tube (and part of why it was retained for rail use) are: 1. It can live on dirtier water since deposits build up on the outside of the tubes, rather than slowly blocking them up and 2. They provide a greater reserve of superheated water ready to flash to steam when steam demand is temporarily greater than the fire can supply.

      1. That’s really interesting – I didn’t realize that water-tube boilers had a greater steaming-to-weight ratio. But it makes sense, given that modern steam systems pretty much exclusively use water-tube, don’t they?

        Very cool addition, VH. I’m glad to have learned something today. 😉

  7. I had no idea there were still steam powered road vehicles being made as late as 1941. I guess it makes sense for a house car, you can keep the boiler fired up while parked and use the steam for heat, hot water, and electricity

      1. Yeah, but that was a one-off prototype that GM never seriously considered for production, any more than their two Electrovair concepts from the same period, or their pulverized coal powered V8 from the ’80s.

        The Hunt was theoretically a series production vehicle available for sale to consumers.

        There were some factory built steam rollers and traction engines built into the 1950s or even ’60s, but most of the late production ones were special orders by construction company owners realizing the steam age was waning and wanting a nostalgic collectable while they could still get one. And, of course, there’s been lots of homebuilt replicas made in the decades since, but, as far as a factory made, road legal, passenger carrying vehicle intended for consumer sale, the 1941 Hunt has almost certainly got to be the end of the line

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