Henry Ford’s pickup camper — the first RV

Phil Berg
Car Culture

Think of Henry Ford as you travel this Thanksgiving weekend.

Not because of the cars, but because he followed his yearning to roam. Back in 1916 he and pals Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and conservationist John Burroughs set out on the first of several annual road trips in Model Ts outfitted in the style of “glamping” (glamor camping).

Henry had designed a car with a built-in stove and cooler, and a truck with show-quality custom bins for tents, beds and lawn chairs. Destinations were mountains and back roads of New York, Vermont (where the four stopped in at President Calvin Coolidge’s home), New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and northern Michigan.

Most believe that the road trips of these four, known as the Vagabonds, were intended to promote road construction so people would buy and use more cars. And it worked: By 1919 the federal government came up with 50/50 matching road building funds for states. I think, however, that Henry also knew a bit more about us humans — we seem compelled to move around, and that means many road miles on Turkey Day.

America had five million registered cars in Henry’s Vagabond days, while the rest of the world had less than one million. The U.S. had about 100,000 miles of highways, compared to about 4 million miles today. Railroads and their adjacent station hotels of the early 20th century were too expensive for common folk. Car campers, however, evolved into RVs as people yearned to leave their communities, and gain new ones, according to expert social analyst James B. Twitchell’s new book “Winnebago Nation.” Today more of us are seeking “unsettlements,” or communities continuously on the move.

Twitchell notes the modern RV industry spun off from Detroit’s Ray Frank (who created the first Dodge motorhome) in the 1950s and culminated in the RV building mecca of Elkhart, Indiana, because parts could be shipped from Detroit out of state without tax. Winnebago evolved long ago in Iowa from the efforts of an undertaker trying to create local jobs, the book explains.

Today there are growing clubs so RVers can belong to a mobile community, but still be able to detach from any permanent communities. There are amazing signs these mobile communities are growing.

Each year 1.5 million people park RVs in the warm Quartzsite, Arizona, desert landscape which officially has just 3,500 permanent residents. This dwarfs the Burning Man festival’s Black Rock City which swells from zero to 65,000 for one week each year in the Nevada desert.

Says Twitchell’s “Winnebago Nation”: It’s a psychological desire that’s growing. There are an estimated one million full-time residents now on the road in RVs in the U.S.

So what’s this psychological desire? In the 1950s Airstream inventor Wally Byam — famous for his worldwide caravans of hundreds of RVers in shiny, aluminum trailers — discovered that a community connection is key to travel, explains Twitchell. Connected yet mobile is a mantra we hear daily about our new habits with smartphones and social media. Other books have recognized the growing trend to live on the road: Author Douglas Keister in his 2008 book “Teardrops and Tiny Trailers” says “RVers are a naturally gregarious lot for the simple reason that if things don’t work out with their neighbors, they can easily move.”

One theory is that mankind is better off nomadic, rather than agrarian and therefore settled, according to Harvard professor of evolution Daniel Lieberman’s new book “The Story of the Human Body.” Farmers tend to grow simple starches that produce high yields, he observes. The ancient hunters and gatherers consumed a much greater variety of different foods and nutrients. This evolutionary biology claims that agriculture has produced a population boom and rapid human progress that we haven’t had time to evolve into, which results in Type 2 diabetes, cavities, and dozens of other diseases. In an evolutionary sense, us humans are still designed to be hunter-gatherers. Wanderers, in other words.

In fact, Twitchell’s book suggests RV living as a lifestyle of the future — called Leisure Nomads. It’s not just because of the increasing number of people forced to live on the road because of the mortgage crisis and recession, but because we actually might be chasing an instinct to roam. Just like Henry.