Home » This 86-Year-Old Camper Was Built By A Car Company To Be The Most Durable Trailer Ever Constructed

This 86-Year-Old Camper Was Built By A Car Company To Be The Most Durable Trailer Ever Constructed

1937 Pierce Arrow Travelodge Ts
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If you’ve ever purchased or even just rented a camper before, you know that a hotel room that you can tow behind your car often isn’t as durable as you’d like. This issue isn’t new, either, as camper longevity was a concern back almost an entire century ago. Back in the 1930s, Pierce-Arrow, better known for its incredible luxury cars, tried to survive the Great Depression by creating camping trailers that it claimed were the safest and most durable ever created. One of them has come up for sale, and this Pierce-Arrow Travelodge Model B is a rare look into what camping innovation looked like so long ago.

This camper was sent to us by reader Jason J, and I’ve been fascinated by it ever since. Today, some of the biggest strides in RV innovation are being made in electrifying your camping experience. The RV manufacturers of today are also experimenting with ways to make campers last longer. As I’ve written a number of times before, even a brand-new travel trailer can have worrying issues that make you question if your unit will even make 10 years without some sort of catastrophic failure. The search for the best way to build a durable camper goes back, way back.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

In the 1930s, the RV industry was still in its formative years. Companies and individuals all experimented with shapes, materials, and different camper designs. A number of builders began experimenting with improved durability by taking inspiration from the aviation and automotive sectors. Metal worked well for cars and planes, so some camper builders in this era started laying down steel- and aluminum-bodied travel trailers. The most famous examples from the 1930s are the riveted aluminum Bowlus Road Chief, which made its first appearance in 1934, and the Airstream Clipper, which arrived in 1936. Lesser-known examples are the steel Hunt Housecar streamliner motorhome (1937), and the steel-bodied 1935 Kumfort.

1937 Pierce Arrow Travelodge
Unique Classic Cars

Pierce-Arrow, a brand perhaps better known for its luxurious cars, threw its hat into the ring with its own metal campers.

From Limos To Campers

What would become Pierce-Arrow was founded in New York in 1865 as Heinz, Pierce and Munschauer, a manufacturer of home goods. As the Pierce-Arrow Society writes, George M. Pierce made bathtubs, iceboxes, and gilded birdcages. In the 1870s, Pierce would buy out the other two names in the manufacturer, forming the George N. Pierce Company in the process. The dates vary based on source, but eventually, Pierce got into transportation when it started building bicycles. Then, in 1901, the company created its first car, the single-cylinder Motorette.

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S L1600 (59)
Topps World on Wheels via eBay

By 1903, Pierce had created the two-cylinder Arrow. This vehicle layed the groundwork for Pierce’s future. Like many early cars, Pierce’s had their engines under the body. For the Arrow, the engine was moved to the front of the vehicle. It carried four adults and boasted 15 horsepower from a De Dion engine. In 1904 came the Great Arrow, which featured an aluminum body and a four-cylinder engine by Pierce. The price? $4,000, or $143,951 today.

Pierce would go on to cater to the luxury end of the still very young auto industry. Once a part of the Three Ps (Packard, Peerless, and Pierce-Arrow), the brand became known for innovation and quality. Pierce-Arrow became such a highly-regarded name in America that the brand supplied cars to the White House from President William Howard Taft in 1909 to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933. The company’s innovations included two spark plugs per cylinder for a more complete combustion, hydraulic valve lifters, and engines with four valves per cylinder. Pierce-Arrow wasn’t the first company to use hydraulic lifters, but it was an early adopter.

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U.S. Secret Service

Like so many industries and companies, Pierce-Arrow found itself in trouble during the Great Depression. The company opened the 1930s with displays of power and speed. Pierce-Arrow debuted a new flathead V12 engine and, to publicize the firepower, put driver Ab Jenkins behind the wheel of a 1932 Pierce-Arrow on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Back then, Bonneville wasn’t the speed Mecca it’s known for today. Instead, if you wanted to set speed records in America, you were likely headed to Daytona. As Hemmings notes, Jenkins was one of the men who turned the world’s eyes on the salt flats.

Jenkins piloted the Pierce-Arrow around a 10-mile circular course for 24 hours straight. In the end, he managed to average 112.91 MPH. Since a sanctioning body didn’t witness the run, Pierce-Arrow’s claim of a new record fell on deaf ears. So, Pierce-Arrow collected Jenkins and sent him out onto the flats again in 1933, that time with AAA in tow. On that run, he averaged 117.77 MPH and managed to get a clean shave during the drive. That was another demonstration of not just the power of a Pierce-Arrow, but the refinement.

For 1934, Jenkins wanted to set an endurance record so high that other racers would have to go to Bonneville to beat it. He slipped the Pierce-Arrow V12 into a custom speedster body, cranked the power up from 130 HP to 235 HP, and drove his Ab Jenkins Special to an average speed of 127.229 MPH. Reportedly, it was this run that was the catalyst for many to flee the beaches and to run fast on the salt flats.

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RM Sotheby’s

Over at Pierce-Arrow, 1933 also marked a monumental year. That year, it released the $10,000 Silver Arrow at the New York Auto Show. This car looked like it came from the future, and Pierce-Arrow advertised it with the slogan, Suddenly it’s 1940! What made the Silver Arrow so futuristic? It leapt past the era’s design with a streamlined, all metal body. The Silver Arrow ditched running boards, had integrated headlights, and its spare tire was neatly hidden away behind the vehicle’s bodywork. A 462 cubic inch V12 provided 175 HP and a top speed of 115 mph.

The price of the Silver Arrow was far more than the competition. Hemmings notes that it was 25 percent more expensive than the most expensive Cadillac. Just five were ever made as even rich people didn’t exactly line up to spend $10,000, or $238,024 today. Reportedly, Pierce-Arrow lost money on each example.

Despite Pierce-Arrow’s effort to stay on top, even including brief ownership by Studebaker, the Great Depression still did its damage. To keep afloat, Pierce-Arrow started diversifying its portfolio. The company didn’t build cheaper cars. Instead, it started building other things, including a camper trailer venture called Travelodge, which began in 1936.

The Pierce-Arrow Travelodge

1937 Pierce Arrow Travelodge (1)
Unique Classic Cars

When Pierce-Arrow entered the camper market, it pitched itself as the camper brand built by people who know cars. Pierce-Arrow’s advertising noted that since its campers were designed by car engineers, they were safer and more durable than other travel trailers.

One way Pierce-Arrow set itself apart is by building its trailers with welded steel framing rather than the wood commonly used back then and even today. Pierce-Arrow said this not only made its trailers more durable, but also safer than others of the day. On top, 18-gauge aluminum was riveted to the steel skeleton. Underneath, independent suspension and optional Bendix hydraulic brakes smoothed the ride and provided stopping power. Pierce-Arrow’s advertising mentioned the safety of the trailer as far above others and to the same level as a car, and also noted the trailers were rugged and luxurious while blending in the best auto and aviation tech of the day.

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1937 Pierce Arrow Travelodge Tra
Pierce-Arrow via Worthpoint

The advertising also stated Pierce-Arrow’s trailers, which came in three sizes, were the first with all-metal bodies. This claim would seem to be incorrect, given that these trailers were made after the efforts of Hawley Bowlus, Wally Byam, and lesser-known individuals.

Still, what you got was incredible. This 1937 Pierce-Arrow Travelodge Model B was the middle model from Pierce-Arrow, with the Model A being the largest camper and the Model C coming in at the smallest. The Model C was $595 ($13,238 in today’s money) and was 13 feet, 7 inches long. The Model B measured in at about 16 feet, 6 inches for $845 ($18,801), while the 19-foot Model A was $1,145 ($25,476 today). All of these campers came with insulation in the walls and floor. Advertisements touted the thrill of travel, but the ability to bring all of the comforts of home with you.

1937 Pierce Arrow Travelodge (11)
Unique Classic Cars

Pierce-Arrow wasn’t fibbing. The Model B came with a kitchen featuring a gasoline-powered stove, a dinette, two double beds, a bathroom, a heating stove, and plenty of storage. The interior was finished in a warm birch wood with some copper accents. Pierce-Arrow also noted a 6-volt and a 110-volt electrical system, with outlets for appliances and wiring for a table radio if you desired. Warmth was provided through a separate heating stove. The brochures don’t mention anything about holding tanks, but do say you could convert the bathroom into a wet bath by removing the toilet and linoleum and installing a drain.

Reportedly, Pierce-Arrow’s trailers suffered from the same problems its cars did. The trailers were fabulously luxurious, but that was just the wrong idea for the Great Depression. It’s not known exactly how many Travelodge trailers were built between 1936 and 1937, but one estimate places the total number at just 440 built. Of those, 261 units were of the Model B and reportedly, they were built over the course of just four months. Sadly, it’s believed that only 12 Model Bs survive today.

1937 Pierce Arrow Travelodge (2)

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1937 Pierce Arrow Travelodge (3)

1937 Pierce Arrow Travelodge (4)

The dealership selling this example doesn’t say how much of this Model B has been restored, but it looks like a time warp for sure. This one is said to have spent the past several decades of its life in a private collection. A placard states that the trailer weighs 2,250 pounds, which means a variety of vehicles can tow it. The dealership has staged the trailer with a 1935 Pierce-Arrow 845 Limousine. If you want to sleep like a tycoon from the 1930s, the camper will set you back $69,900 and another $89,900 for the matching car.

So, this combination isn’t cheap, but it is an interesting piece of RV history. Pierce-Arrow’s trailer efforts came and went in a relative blink of an eye, but was among the pioneers building more sturdy metal trailers. If you have a Pierce-Arrow or just love vintage campers, this is a unit that you probably won’t see again for a while.

1937 Pierce Arrow Travelodge (5)

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1937 Pierce Arrow Travelodge (6)

1937 Pierce Arrow Travelodge (7)

1937 Pierce Arrow Travelodge (9)

(Images: Unique Classic Cars, unless otherwise noted.)

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MaximillianMeen
MaximillianMeen
3 months ago

$159,800 for this combo seems like a better deal than many of the similarly priced RVs and trailers you’ve shown us over the past year.

Beached Wail
Beached Wail
3 months ago

There’s a 1936 Pierce-Arrow Travelodge trailer with a companion Pierce-Arrow tow car at the Nethercutt Museum in southern California (free admission). The trailer’s design, materials and workmanship are impressive today and must have been spectacular in the late ’30s.

Chronometric
Chronometric
3 months ago

Pierce Arrow story. When I was a kid, my father had antique cars and one of the best car shows was in Ormond Beach Florida, just up the road from Daytona. This is where Nascar got its start racing along the waterfront and kids would drag race along the wide beachfront during low tides.

As an homage to this “Birthplace of Speed”, the event hosted an antique car drag race. We had a 1924 Packard straight 6 sedan. It was big, boxy, and heavy but ran like a fine watch. It was definitely not a race car. Every year we reached the final of our class against a mid-20’s Pierce Arrow. Every year, my Dad smoked him off the line but on the 2 to 3 shift, the Pierce surged and won the race. As a 10-year-old, this was both thrilling and maddening and probably led to me later starting a racing career to avenge our family name sullied by that damned Pierce Arrow.

Scott Ross
Scott Ross
3 months ago

I have only seen one in real life, at the Gilmore Museum in Michigan. There is a whole Pierce Arrow Building

Chronometric
Chronometric
3 months ago

That is lovely. You just wonder about towing a heavy-ish trailer with an antique car.

Expectations were definitely different back in the day. My grandparents towed a huge Airstream with a 50’s era full-size car all around the US. They probably drove 50mph or less and struggled in the Rockies but they got there and back.

UnseenCat
UnseenCat
3 months ago

Well, either that floor material pattern is older than I thought, or it was replaced in the late 60s or early 70s. I grew up with that exact pattern on the kitchen floor of the house my parents had built in 1970. It’s sort of like linoleum tiles, but the pattern is sharply raised above simulated grout lines. Period flooring from the 1930s would have been smooth and flat.

Collegiate Autodidact
Collegiate Autodidact
3 months ago
Reply to  UnseenCat

Ah, yes, late 60s through the late 70s or even early 80s. Extremely durable. Only problem is that such floor coverings almost always contain asbestos which might be why they chose to leave it intact when restoring the camper’s interior since it’s often considered the best option to simply leave it alone so as not to produce any friable asbestos in the course of removing such floor coverings.

UnseenCat
UnseenCat
3 months ago

Worse still, whatever flooring was originally in there probably had/has asbestos fibers in it. Any kind of sheet or tiled composite flooring prior to the asbestos ban, that isn’t vinyl, is highly suspect and a huge hassle to deal with.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
3 months ago
Reply to  UnseenCat

It was most likely some form of cork backed linoleum (eg Korkoid or Marmoleum)

Greensoul
Greensoul
3 months ago

Wow, I actually have a British made Brooklin 1/43 model set of this car and trailer that I bought in 1986 brand new for like $240 dollars. I’d send a pic if this site would allow me. I still have all of the original boxes and packing material. It now resides in my glass encased miniature 600+ model car/rv showroom. I have been collecting trailer house models since about 1969. The pierce arrow trailer was one of the first trailers you could poo inside of without getting scorned and looking so hooty toity while you were tending to natures business to boot. I had to have it! Po folks back in the day used the commoners outhouse in the park. Thank God taco bell didn’t exist then. Can you imagine sharing a bathroom where a Taco Bell was at the corner of the park???

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
3 months ago

That is absolutely gorgeous.

Can you imagine rolling into the KOA with that car and trailer combo?

Anthony Henderson
Anthony Henderson
3 months ago
Reply to  StillNotATony

How many places would kick you out because of the “ten year rule”?

Drive By Commenter
Drive By Commenter
3 months ago

Those look like a nice place to camp. It’s not too far off from a modern camper. Only the 1930’s tech like the icebox and heating stove give it away. And, only $25 grand for that?!? Considering what camper that buys today that’s comparatively a screaming deal!

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
3 months ago

I’ve actually seen one of these in person at a car show several years ago, the craftsmanship is really on another level. Granted, that one had gone through a highly detailed nut and bolt restoration, but everything from the materials to how the paneling and cabinetry were fitted together just screamed quality

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