RVs of the Apocalypse Part 6: Spartan motorhomes
The history of the commercial motorhome is unanimously agreed to begin in 1961, when Chrysler acquired Frank Motorhomes, a manufacturer of custom motorhomes based on Dodge trucks. The new division became Dodge Travco, and within a few years its products were transformed from “one-off” truck conversions to purpose-built, mass-produced designs. As the backstory of Frank/ Travco makes clear, however, even this clear-cut breakthrough was proceeded by a more complex prehistory, in which any number of ambitious individuals and organizations were trying to make the self-propelled mobile home a reality. Unfortunately, there is no way to know after the fact which homebuilder or start-up shop first produced what we would call a motorhome. But one product can certainly be considered characteristic of the period, a range of motorhomes based on Spartan trailers.
As recounted at the website Spartan Aircraft Trailercoaches (source for the image above), Spartan trailers were introduced immediately after World War 2 by the Spartan Aircraft Company. Spartan’s product was most recognizable for its forward-sloping front (which I have been told would actually have increased air resistance) and wrap-around windshield. Though remembered as a competitor of Airstream, Spartan trailers can be justifiably said to have reached the market first: While Walter “Wally” Byam founded the original Airstream company and built its characteristic aluminum “streamlined” trailers in the mid- to late 1930s, his company and all manufacture of aluminum trailers was shut down as the materials and manufacturing facilities were directed exclusively to wartime aircraft manufacturing. (Ironically, this meant that the military and factories had to house their own personnel in notoriously poor plywood and Masonite trailers!) The Spartan company presumably foresaw that the end of the war would put the shoe on the other foot, and turned to trailer manufacturing by 1946, about a year before Byam revived Airstream. In the emerging marketplace, the two manufacturers were not so much rivals as diverging lines of development and marketing: Where Airstream made inexpensive travel trailers, Spartan not only focused on higher-quality and more expensive trailers, but increasingly on larger units that better fit the “house trailer” description. Models produced in Spartan’s final years exceeded 50 feet in length.
At some point in Spartan’s history, someone thought of using Spartan trailers as the basis for what would now be considered motorhomes. Just when this occurred, and how, has intriguing implications for the history of RVs. In my opinion, it is at least conceivable that this was first done in the early 1950s or even in the late 1940s. There are certainly extant examples where trailer and chassis date from before 1950, such as the pictured example, identified as a 1946 Spartan on an International Harvester Metro chassis, which has ovoid headlights appears consistent with a “teardrop” shape reportedly used only until 1940. In many ways more interesting is the impressive number of Spartan conversions made on Dodge trucks, as notably compiled at dodgetravcos.com. The use of Dodge trucks clearly parallels the evolution of the Frank/ Travco design, and some mutual influence is conceivable. Even more intriguingly, the labor presumably involved and the self-evident quality of the final product is clearly well above the skills and resources of a typical homebuilder, and raises the possibility that some who made such conversions took the further step of offering them to order on a commercial basis. The various Spartan motorhomes certainly represent an intriguing chapter in the evolution of the RV, and an especially worthwhile area of further study for collectors and scholars.