REO Speed Wagon wasn’t just a 70s band

by David White

The activity of camping may seem like a concept that’s been around forever. But in the years following the birth of our nation, early American pioneers had little desire to “rough it.” But as those pioneers turned into established citizens thriving enough to live a comfortable, modern life, there was a need to get back to nature – somewhere they could face the challenges of the wilderness that they couldn’t find at home.

Some credit books like William H.H. Murray’s successful 1869 “Adventures in the Wilderness, Camp-Life in the

Above is Roland Conklin’s gas-electric motorbus that had its maiden voyage across the nation from New York to San Francisco in 1915. It was one of the prototypes for the modern-day RV. Left is a 1923 REO Speed Wagon, built by the REO Motor Car Company.

Adirondacks,” the first book printed in America on the topic of camping, and John B. Bachelder’s 1875 book “Popular Resorts and How to Reach Them,” for sparking the rebirth of the camping spirit. The book points out that, at that time, camping by horse and wagon was a far more favorable choice among the wealthier class.

According to a Smithsonian Magazine article, “A Brief History of the RV,” the popularity of camping increased significantly after 1910 when automobiles became much more affordable to the masses. And in 1904, the first RV was hand-built onto an automobile that featured bunks for four adults, lighting, an icebox and a radio. This prototype encouraged several camping enthusiasts with deep pockets to modify their own vehicles.

One such couple reached a new plateau in recreational vehicle (RV) technology in 1915 when Roland and Mary Conklin, founders of Roland Conklin’s Gas-Electric Motor Bus Company, launched the creation of a fully furnished, double-decker vehicle that they named “the Gypsy Van.”

The Gypsy Van turned heads across the nation on a maiden tour from New York to San Francisco. The family received much media attention, especially from the New York Times which chronicled the trip in great depth. The Times described the vehicle as having “an electrical generator and incandescent lighting, a full kitchen, Pullman-style sleeping berths, a folding table and desk, a concealed bookcase, a phonograph, convertible sofas with throw pillows, a variety of small appliances and even a roof garden … a sublimated English caravan, land-yacht, or what you will.”

Automobile and truck manufacturers quickly followed suit and offered a limited number of fully complete motorhomes including REO Motor Car Company’s Speed Wagon Bungalow and Hudson-Essex’s Pullman Coach. While the novelty of these beasts captured the imagination of camping enthusiasts, the large motorhomes had limitations that kept them from being hugely popular, in that they could only get as close to the wilderness as a well-maintained road and parking area, and the price, resulting in the popularity of the less expensive travel trailer. RVs took the back seat to trailers until the 1960s when technological advancements and the economy breathed new life into the RV industry. 

The RV has found its place in American culture. It fills the need to escape the stress of modern life by returning to nature while ironically bringing all the comforts of modern life to our wilderness destination. The modern-day 34-foot Class A motorhome with multiple TVs, two bathrooms and a king bed is a tribute to the Gypsy Van introduced over a hundred years ago. And so, the spirit of the RV keeps on truckin’.

The following article was reprinted from the Spring 2020 Hays County Echo.

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