Identifying the origin of species can be a precarious business, as Darwin found out. When it comes to motor homes, it’s easy: one Ray Frank built himself a crude one in 1958, and called it “motor home”. So that covers the name, but what about the genre? The history of motorized camping vehicles is fascinating, vast, and goes way back to the early years of the automobile. But when it come to picking a starting point for the modern motor home, Ray Frank really does deserve the credit too. His boxy rig turned into the sleek Dodge Motor Home/Travco, and created an industry.
There it is, the sketch that started the whole industry. Looking like something I would have come up during fifth grade Arithmetic class, this one is a bit exaggerated in its length. What I find remarkable is that Frank seems also to have also started the endless tradition of questionable bold graphics on the side of RVs. I didn’t really think it started that far back, and they weren’t so common in the early years, but there it is on that sketch. That stylistic fad went on incredibly long.
Here’s the real thing. Ray Frank built his first one in about 1958 for private use and to test public reaction. A trip to Florida elicited several orders, and he set up a company to make them. He also hooked up with Chrysler to supply the complete chassis and power train.
Chrysler was spreading its wings into leisure activities at this time, having also invested heavily into Chrysler Marine. The motor homes were now branded as Dodges.
The big breakthrough was the change to a fiberglass body in 1963. Molded from two giant halves, the Dodge/Travcos had a distinctive ridge in the middle where they met.
Another competitor in these early motor home days was the superficially similar but otherwise very different Ultra Van (CC here). The Ultra Van utilized super-light aircraft construction, allowing it to be powered by an air-cooled Corvair engine.
The Dodge/Travco sat on what was essentially a Dodge medium truck chassis, and used the “polysphere” 318 CID (5.2 L) V8 backed by the rugged TorqueFlite. The 318 made some 200 hp, and was built with heavy duty components, given the very hard life it led pushing the big, tall and heavy motor home to all the usual scenic locations around the country.
Later versions had the legendary Chrysler RB 413 V8, which is remembered more fondly. It made quite a difference, with its big increase in power. The 440, the final development of that tough engine, powered Travcos in the seventies and eighties.
The Dodge/Travco was a pricey machine, and was not affordable to typical middle-class Americans. The Winnebago, which revolutionized mass-production methods for RVs and dramatically lowered their price, was still a few years off. (Winnebago story here)
Meanwhile, the Travco became a favorite toy for celebrities; Johnny Cash had at least two. It was the equivalent as the luxury giant bus conversions of more recent years.
The Travco was a well built machine, and enjoyed a stellar reputation for ruggedness. This particular example was once the home for a friend of my younger son when his family headed off to Mexico in it for an extended period of time. After sitting here for a couple of years, it’s now gone again. Another adventure?
Eventually, Travco lost its way, trying to both lower production costs as well as diversify. The industry was being dominated by a few giants, and the Travco was one of the so many pioneers in the industry that met its demise. By the eighties, the Travco was history, but not before it had made history. And its timelessly-handsome profile and swept lines are still appreciated by its devoted fans, as well as just being another handsome addition to the street where ever it sits, unless perhaps it’s the wrong kind of folks camping in front of your house. Or certain relatives.