Archive for the Cars Category

RVs of the Apocalypse! 1976 Travco Motorhome

Posted in Cars with tags , on September 25, 2013 by David N. Brown

travcoC
Because, judging from traffic, I might as well change the name of this site to “Weird RVs” (if that wasn’t already taken), it’s time for the 10th installment of “RVs of the Apocalypse!” This time, the featured RV comes courtesy of dodgetravcos.com, and reportedly belongs to one Jolene Sloniker. This specimen is a Class C motorhome and appears to be based on a Dodge B300 van, the successor to the previously-featured A100. As noted by the “Dodge Travco” writer, the Class C configuration is unusual for a Travco, though it is worth keeping in mind that, without the readily recognizeable “Family Wagon” legend, this van and any other like it would be hard to distinguish from many other professional and “homebuilt” versions. But surely the most noteworthy feature of the post is closeups of the bathroom!
Travco_toilet

Here we see a closeup of one of Travco’s most notorious innovations, the folding toilet! The compact commode drops down from under a sink, and the bathroom also features a shower head. I have seen this radical space-saving feature mentioned a number of times, but this is the only photo to come to my attention. Based on my research, I believe that these toilets were not used in Travco’s Class A motorhomes.

While I’m at it, I am going to make a correction to a previous post. I previously presented it as a matter of uncertainty where Travco built hardtop “Family Wagons” based on the A108. I am now entirely satisfied that this was not only done, but that the A108 was the STANDARD chassis for this version of the Family Wagon. I won’t say I shouldn’t have caught this before, but in my defense, the differences between the A100 and A108 are less obvious with the side doors fully open, as they often are to show off features of the camper interior. I am also satisfied that Travco did build Family Wagons with retractable roofs based on the original A100 as well as A108. On further review of vintage literature, I think it is likely that Travco phased out the A100 in favor of the A108 by around 1967. In the meantime, there were certainly A100/A108 camper vans built of less certain provenance, including Class C variations. Two examples are featured at this page. Especially interesting is one with a cabover streamlined shell that appears to be made of fiberglass. This suggests either an especially skilled homebuild or truly professional work; unfortunately, the source site offers no useful information.

RVs of the Apocalypse! Class C Flatbed Mystery Motorhome

Posted in Cars with tags , , , , on September 11, 2013 by David N. Brown

I’m back from a summer hiatus, and I decided it was time to do a piece I’ve been wanting to do for a while. There’s a personal story behind this: One night last December, I was meeting up with a friend at a local fast food restaurant (I got there on public transportation because I don’t drive, which makes my interest in this subject highly ironic) when I noticed a motorhome I thought was quite strange in the parking lot. From the brief sighting, I decided it was probably a 1970s Dodge van chassis, and the rest was evidently home-built. Some time later, I decided to see if there was any documentation of this or similar RVs. A few searches led me to this at the website Weird RVs:
ClassC_flat
Source Weird RVs: “Something is missing here”

As can be seen, this van follows the lines of a cab-over Class C RV, with the drastic difference that the camper body is too short to cover most of the exposed van bed. The end result converges on the design of a “sleeper” semi truck. The camper hull clearly provides a bed over the cab, and it would be feasible to fit a kitchen, lavatory or even a shower in the remaining space with no more than moderate ingenuity (though all of the above would be tricky indeed!) The remainder of the bed is open to a variety of uses. such as motor bikes, light watercraft, or a hitch for a fifth-wheel trailer home. The last application, while redundant at face value, would clearly be of some convenience if two people were in the van. In particular, it would allow the occupants to take turns driving and using the facilities without stopping or violating laws against having occupants in a moving trailer. The specimen I sighted was loaded with a mix of loose goods, and to my recollection there was some lining around the sides of the bed, which I suspect may have been a later modification. All in all, this type of RV is one of the more impressive examples of home-builder ingenuity, and an especially convenient way to flee civilization with as much of one’s worldly goods as possible!

RVs of the Apocalypse, Part 8: The Ultra Van!

Posted in Cars with tags , on July 17, 2013 by David N. Brown

Ultra Van
While the annals of motorhome history are full of minor or short-lived brands that achieved some measure of fame and/or notoriety (as in the Daystar saga), very few can be said to have inspired the enthusiastic loyalty of a true “cult following”. One vehicle that surely meets this description is the Ultra Van. The story of this odd motorhome reportedly began with an aircraft designer named Dave Peterson being frustrated by having to choose between towing a Spartan trailer or a boat on his outdoor excursions. In 1960, he hit upon the solution of a custom-built creation on the then-new Chevrolet Corvair chassis. The design saw production of fifteen units through 1963, and then was licensed out to the Prescolite Corporation, a manufacturer of fiberglass. Rechristened the Ultra Van, the vehicle was manufactured in modest numbers from 1964 to 1970. Peterson tried to revive the brand in 1972-1973. While often characterized as a camper van, the Ultra Van’s entirely original body fully warrants the description of a true, purpose-built motorhome. The ovoid hull and aluminum and fiberglass construction converged strikingly with the Dodge Travco, and even its 22-foot length was competitive with contemporary motorhomes. The vehicle’s most unique features were a heating system that reused thermal energy from the rear engine and a mindboggling gas mileage of 15 to 17 mpg, a still-impressive figure that for its time was 50% better than competitors and comparable to a standard car.

Ultra Van’s estimated production run was 370 units, of which more than 200 survive. The impressive number of extant specimens is surely a testimony to the loyalty of owners, a number of whom have reportedly collected multiple units. Unsurprisingly, the legendry of the vehicle includes efforts to assign blame for its demise, mainly to some combination of the discontinuation of the Corvair and the energy crisis of the 1970s. In my opinion, the controversies surrounding the Corvair (itself surrounded by energetic loyalists) can be discounted as a red herring: The use of the Corvair in the first place was by all accounts dictated by what was available at the time, and several alternatives were tested. Dave Peterson himself reportedly held variants using the engine of an Oldsmobile Toronado to be far superior to the original Corvair-based design. The role of the energy crisis, which certainly devastated the RV industry as a whole, also appears to be a red herring: While oil supplies were undoubtedly strained throughout the early ’70s, the outright shortages that defined the “crisis” did not occur until late 1973. The truly obvious culprit in the demise of the Ultra Van is its price tag, which consistently approached $10,000 at a time when Winnebagos were being offered for $5,000. The culminating irony of the Ultra Van story is that the energy crisis was, if anything, the one thing that could have turned the vehicle’s fortunes around if it had survived. Instead, the brand was decisively defunct at precisely the time when consumers might have considered its unique fuel economy as enough to make up for its price tag.

Image (rear interior) and information courtesy of The Ultra Van Page.

RVs of the Apocalypse, Part 7: House Trucks!

Posted in Cars with tags , on June 5, 2013 by David N. Brown

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.

RVs of the Apocalypse Part 6: Spartan motorhomes

Posted in Cars with tags , on May 16, 2013 by David N. Brown

Spartan

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.

RVs of the Apocalypse, Part 5: Daystar

Posted in Cars with tags , on May 9, 2013 by David N. Brown

1975_Daystar_3

As documented in previous posts, the 1970’s were clearly a high point of motorhome production, including a fair number of start-up manufacturers.  The subject of this post is among the more notorious products of the 1970’s boom, and while its merits and overall weirdness are debatable, it certainly has one of the strangest backstories of the period.  The basics of the saga, as recorded in the book Mobile Mansions and various websites, are as follows:  In 1975, a startup company in Texas offered luxury RVs under the name of Daystar.  The name was inspired by Christian legends about the Star of Bethlehem, which claimed that it could be seen even in broad daylight, and is thought to reflect a religious orientation by the manufacturer and/or the target customers.  Manufacturing was a joint venture with Taiwanese businessmen, and reportedly included the manufacture of pre-fabricated teak interiors  in Asia (at a time when commercial motorhome manufacturers had long since shifted to particleboard for any wood furnishings!) which were imported to the States and inserted into the mobile home bodies, which were designed on a Dodge chassis.  Unsurprisingly, the finished products were expensive, with $70,000 being the reported “standard” price, and it is not improbable that actual sale prices went even higher for customers who customized their units. All accounts report that only 16 units were built before the company shut down, evidently under allegations of involvement in money-laundering.  Online photos appear to represent about six different units.  The one pictured above is subject of a page at the Atlas Mobile Directory, which includes shots of the interior.  I believe the same specimen was photographed for Mobile Mansions, which shows only a close-up of the Daystar mark and the even more recognizable ovoid grill and ornamental star.

Mysteries  abound regarding the Daystar. Details of its production are the subject of much hearsay and conjecture, such as accounts of luxury features such as gold and marble bathroom fittings and a custom unit furnished in “buckskin” leather. Unfortunately, no photos are available to substantiate these reports, or even to establish the basic layout of the interior (assuming there was one!) In my view, even the total production run can be approached as a minor mystery:  Given the  circumstances, it’s at least conceivable that some “lost” units were completed without documentation, or conversely that some units reportedly manufactured were in fact left incomplete or never built at all. Then there are a few anomalies I have noticed in photos, without encountering explanations or even comment. Some photos show a different shape and position of the front door than the one above, but since these are consistently taken from the left where others are taken from the right, it is unclear if this represents asymmetry in the design or a production variant.  Photos from the left also show a set of vents on one side of the windowless midsection.  My best guess is that these are for air conditioning; the other obvious possibility is that the motorhome had a rear engine.

Overall, I like the Daystar.  I find the styling of the front to be quite appealing, especially in comparison to the increasingly angular shapes of the period.  It can, in fact, be considered a “throwback” to the “streamlined” designs of the 1930’s and 1940’s.  The one disappointing aspect of the design is the tail, which always struck me as giving it a sawed-off look.  In incorporating a Daystar into the Re-Deanimator alternate universe, I was happy to rectify that shortcoming by assuming an alternate design where the styling is more consistent.  I was very interested to make the subsequent discovery that the Daystar was designed by  W.E. Miller, a prominent automotive designer of the 1930’s whose work included quite advanced examples of the “streamlined” style.  In a truly ironic twist, these included a tank truck that not only bears a striking resemblance to the Daystar but has about the same profile I assumed in refashioning the design.  Could it be that this was the way Miller wanted his motorhome to look?  Is there a chance that something like it was built, and slipped through the cracks?  One can always dream…

RVs of the Apocalypse, Part 4: Dodge A100’s

Posted in Cars with tags , on May 1, 2013 by David N. Brown

In the course of researching “Re-Deanimator”, I took special interest in a fairly unique line of vehicles, the Dodge A100 van and related vehicles.  The A100 can be considered one of the more versatile vehicles to be produced, or at any rate one which was put through more variations than most.  What put it on my radar was that it was put through a number of camper conversions, including some by the Travco division of Dodge, best known for producing the first commercial RVs.  Known as the “Family Wagon”, these vans came in two versions, one with a retractable top and another with a solid roof extension.  An even more interesting conversion, the Xplorer 21, lacked a roof extension but had a module built into the original rear of the van.   The website “Old Dodges” features brochures for both lines.

Unsurprisingly, there were additional variations whose origins are subject to some uncertainty, clearly different from known “factory” versions but with enough similarity and overall quality that it seems conceivable they were produced as variants by the same manufacturers.  One such example, featured courtesy of California Streets, is clearly in the style of a Travco “camp wagon”, but based on the A108 variant of the A100.  In my opinion, it is consistent with a Travco variant, but could be the work of another manufacturer or especially skilled homebuilder:

An especially radical variation of the A100 design is an Xplorer with 6 wheels, featured at Vannin and also on Flickr.  The view of the rear wheels leaves no serious doubt that this was a professional job, but without further documentation there is no way to know whether it was produced as an Xplorer variant or (further!) modified at a later date.  It is also not entirely clear whether the available photos, which show two paint jobs but the same caption in the rear window, represent one or two vehicles.

Then, for a truly post-apocalyptic twist, there is the L-series “medium tonnage” trucks that Dodge managed to build from the base A100 design.  The result was the L600 and L700 trucks, which proved versatile enough for many confirmed variants, and are represented in further variations from custom model builders.  These creations have varying degrees of plausibility as genuine variants.  A water tank truck, for example, is reasonably convincing given the known frequency with which L700s were converted to fire engines;  I had no qualms using the model as the basis for Gunga Dodge in Re-Deanimator.  On the other hand, there is the “Hunting Lodge”, a clearly fanciful creation but equally clearly an irresistible example of a post-apocalyptic RV.

Image00083_detail

I say, if this doesn’t bear any resemblance to any actual vehicle that was ever built, it just mean someone missed out on a good idea!