Recently we spent nearly an entire day at the RV/MH Museum in Elkhart, IN, soaking up history of our favorite travel vehicle. They have on display over 35 recreational vehicles starting with the earliest forerunners of today’s Class A, B, C, 5th Wheel, Travel Trailers, Truck and Tent Campers. In addition they have a room that showcases a few of today’s offerings. We met Al Hesselbart, Historian and head librarian, a jolly man in his early 70s, who is about to retire. Al’s claim to fame is as the author of The Dumb Things Sold Just Like That! A History of the Recreational Vehicle Industry in America. (available on Amazon.) “I’ve only written one book, but hundreds of articles about RVs,” said Al. He also presents a half-dozen programs at RV rallies, listed on his website. His history talks and seminars have entertained thousands.
Al Hesselbart joined the RV Museum in 1994 with no prior connection with RVs. He teamed with a dynamic fund raiser, Carl Ehry, President of the Recreational Vehicle /Manufactured Home Heritage Foundation. As General Manager, Al concentrated on historical exhibits and library materials, ending up with the collection housed in a magnificent new building northeast of the city. Al’s earlier life as a Boy Scout executive in Michigan introduced him to a 32-foot yawl. Between sailboat and houseboat fishing trips for 15 years, Al was ideally suited to appreciate and preserve the history of RVs. “Boat interiors have a lot in common with Class B motorhomes,” said Al.
The First Class B?
“Prototypes of every Class of motorhome sprang forth in the first two decades of the 20th Century,” according to Al, but the first sound claim to a Class B was the 1968 Xplorer made by Ray Frank, the pioneer manufacturer who changed the “house car” intro a true van motorhome or van camper. It was actually built on a cutaway chassis like the Roadtrek 200 rather than beginning life as a complete van (like the Roadtrek 170 / 190 /210 models). However, it was a van chassis and not a truck. For more info on the Xplorer click here. Its only competitor at the time was a tent-roof unit based on the underpowered VW Microbus, which lacked the motorhome amenities necessary to make it a true Class B. (You have not truly lived until you have had a VW Microbus engine meltdown on the PA Turnpike, filling the vehicle with blue smoke just before engine seizure. — Roger adds.)
The only thing close to a Class B in the museum was in the modern display area – a small Class C 2014 Winnebago Trend built on the European Dodge Pro Master-badged Fiat chassis. It is similar to a Winnebago View. Outside was a 1979 conversion van which completely lacked RV amenities. How could they not have a Class B in their collection? I asked when the first “real” Class B would be added to the Museum collection, such as a Roadtrek. Al shrugged and said, “We can only hope.” (We saw a very early Roadtrek in the back lot at the Roadtrek` factory in Ontario in 2011 – it would be perfect.)
Pioneers of RVs
Al Hesselbart has written biographies of 19 pioneers of the modern RV industry. Many earlier vehicles were one- or a few-0ff house cars adapted by craftsmen-mechanics from plans of Conestoga wagons, Gypsy caravans, modified cars and buses, and tent trailers. Teardrop travel trailers are well represented. “Five RV pioneers were my mentors,” said Al. “They were Harold Platt, Carl Edwards, Roger Reynolds, and Herb Reeves, Jr. All played important roles in changing garage tinkering into a respectable manufacturing industry, and finally into a mass production of engineered and standardized vehicles affordable to those middle class adventurers who wanted one.
A wise man said, “Many people today can buy anything they want, but not everything they want.”
An Informative Visit
[spp-tweet “We heartily recommend a visit to the RV/MH Museum, Hall of Fame, and Library as worthy of your bucket list.”] You can stroll through beautifully restored RVs fully representative of the history of the vehicles. You’ll see the interiors and exteriors of dozens of units. They’re attractively lighted with informative descriptions of the unit’s history and sometimes it’s advertising literature. Several movies and exhibits describe why and how to “Go RVing!”, and how RVs are made. Some product displays are shown.
The Library is well organized for searching information. Lynn was able to find information on the company (Franklin Coach) that built the travel trailer her parents owned in the early 1960s. Al Hesselbart was able to summarize the history of the company from 1947 to present day. Franklin had evolved from small travel trailers into the park model trailers, large trailers, and 5th wheels but in 2007 a tornado completely destroyed the company’s factory and offices leaving only foundations. The library contained some brochures on Franklin’s travel trailers from the mid-1960s which were similar to the model Lynn’s family had owned. A trip down memory lane.
The Museum is located at 21565 Executive Parkway, Elkhart, IN 46514. Further information and hours can be found at the website here. Overnight parking is allowed in their parking lot and the Elkhart Campground is nearby.
Maybe next visit will have some Class Bs on display!