RVs of the Apocalypse, Part 7: House Trucks!

vardo_truck
So far in this feature, we’ve plumbed the history of motorhomes back to the 1950’s, but one key piece of the evolution of the RV has so far gone unmentioned: The house truck. Before commercial RVs, before their custom precursors, even before the advent of aluminum trailers, people were mixing automotive engineering and carpentry to build antediluvian motorhomes that were literally houses (or at any rate shacks) on wheels. Part Class C motorhomes, part wood shop projects, these improbable experiments are the subject of my all-time favorite RV-related site, housetrucks.com.

The evolution of the house truck undoubtedly began in the earliest days of the automobile itself, when a fair number of people took advantage of the modular, wood-intensive nature of early designs to produce customized camping cars. As a rule, however, camp cars did not differ radically from the stylings of more conventional, contemporary vehicles, probably because they were primarily professional creations and also truly designed for short-term camping trips. It was with the advent of larger, all-metal vehicles and (over)ambitious homebuilders that the house truck came into its full, incongruous glory. Predictably, the provenance of a house truck is especially hard to nail down, but typical specimens are built on trucks from the 1940s and 1950s, and it seems likely that this was indeed the historic peak of production. Interest clearly continued through the 1960s and 1970s, as attested by a specimen based on the iconic VW Bus. Given the predictable problems of preserving their wood construction, it is fairly probable that many if not most extant house trucks were built in the 1960s or later, even if the chassis is of an earlier date.

House trucks were equally predictably a mixed bag of styles and techniques. The least technically ambitious appear to fit the description of a slide-in camper better than a motorhome. Some of the most visually interesting appear to be influenced by gypsy wagon design. The example pictured here, for example (courtesy housetrucks.com), is clearly based on a bowtop vardo. Undoubtedly the most significant vehicle of the house truck description is one built in (ca.) 1952 by Wendell and Edna Turner, credibly nominated as the “first RV”. The “Turner motorhome” is certainly among the oldest whose history can readily be ascertained, and the complete conversion of the chassis to a custom hull fully satisfies the retrospective description of a Class A motorhome. At the same time, the methods, materials and especially the overall design clearly place it in the line of the house trucks. It is, in fact, the perfect blending of the motorhome and house truck, a true “missing link” in the evolution of the RV.

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