Vintage Photos: R.R. Conklin’s Land Yacht – Leisurely Cross Country Traveling In 1915 (With Detailed Period Articles)

CC reader Carlton C. sent me a link to these images at the Library of Congress, of R.R. Conklin’s “Auto Bus” land yacht that he commissioned, here underway on a trip from Huntington, Long Island to San Francisco in 1915. Quite the rig.

(Update: commenter BigBeat left a link to a article that includes several period NYT article describing this rig in great detail and a few reports from the journey in full detail. I’m attaching them at the bottom of this post. It’s fascinating reading.)

And what speed did this thing roll along at? Given its vintage and solid tires, almost certainly no more than twenty miles per hour. Maybe fifteen. Leisurely travel, with plenty of time to take in the scenery from the top deck.

Here’s a shot of the interior, with the main salon and the kitchen in the rear. Bunks for six lowered down from the ceiling. A very detailed description is in the article below.


August 22, 1915 New York Times:

“THIS AUTO IS A FLAT ON TIRES; Motor-Driven Gypsy Van with Kitchen, Running Water, Beds, Tables, and Even a Roof Garden

“IF the well-known Haroun-al-Raschid, Commander of the Faithful, had ordered the most powerful Jinns acknowledging fealty to him to produce out of thin air for his royal pleasure a vehicle which should have the power of motion and yet be a dwelling place fit for a Caliph, the result would have fallen far short of the actual house upon wheels which left New York yesterday for a trip to the Pacific Coast.

“This unique motor vehicle, which he calls a ‘Gypsy Van,’ is owned by Ro­land R. Conklin of this city and Huntington, L.I. He is making the transcon­tinental tour with his family. With more sense of space in many ways, although much smaller actual dimensions than the private railroad car, this sub­limated English caravan, land-yacht, or what you will, has all the conveniences of a country house, plus the advantages of unrestricted mobility and independence of schedule.

“Mr. Conklin decided last Spring to visit the Panama-Pacific Exposition and conceived the idea of making the trip in an automobile which would provide living as well as traveling facilities. The result is the present vehicle, which has been constructed under his direction here in New York. Instead of being obliged to lay up in a smoky railroad terminal, it can pitch camp by some wooded stream or lush pasture. It need follow no time tables nor stick to any track. It embodies an extension to the field of recreation of the time-honored principle of carrying one’s office under one’s hat.

“As speed was not a special object, a comparatively small motor of 60 horse power could be used, especially geared for power grades. Canvas strips for sandy sections, a knockdown, portable bridge and a winch operated by the motor, strong enough to pull the car out of a mudhole or ditch are special items of equipment. No such vehicle has ever been attempted before on this scale, but his experience in designing large vehicles for traffic, as the President of the New York Motor Bus Company, convinced Mr. Conklin that his idea was practical, so he went ahead. The result had been the production of a unique unit of travel.

“The body of this land yacht is mounted on a truck chassis, of the motor omnibus type, with such changes and additions as were necessary to meet the varied calls upon it. The inside dimensions of the body are 21 feet in length, 7½ feet wide and 6½ feet high. On top there is a full-sized deck, fitted with a big folding leather top and side curtains. The body has forty-four windows, fitted with glass sash, shades and copper wire screens. Screen doors are provided in addition to the regular doors at both entrances.

“Probably the best way in which to get a clear idea of all the wonders or this unique vehicle is to enter at its main door, which is at the back, and go right ­through the ‘house’ from cellar to garret. As you approach the car from the back you see a wooden door, but no steps, unless you happen to recognize the folding steps of a pattern similar to that used on some of the New York surface cars. When you turn the doorknob and open the door these steps unfold easily. When you have mounted and opened the screen door you find yourself in the rear compartment, which probably combines more different functions with less waste of space than any yacht or launch cabin in existence.

“At your left as you enter is a roomy icebox with several compartments and a hundred-pound ice capacity. In one side of this a folding metal wash bowl, not unlike those in the washroom of a railroad parlor car, is concealed. A little pull brings this basin down into its posi­tion for use. It is fed from the large water tanks on the roof. Above this basin is a water filter for drinking water, one coil of which passes through the icebox, so that chilled water of filtered quality is constantly on tap. Next to the icebox toward the front of the car is a neat porcelain kitchen sink, and near it is an electric range with several burners and a large oven. A miniature dresser with spices, sugar, flour, and the like is on the wall, and other cunningly contrived cupboards and racks hold pots and pans and a plentiful supply of cutlery

“From the ceiling above this part of the compartment a rack hangs which holds the folding dining room table. This is used in the main compartment of the vehicle, and measures eight feet by two feet when set up. Immediately over the door through which you entered there is something more which at once arrests your attention in an inspection of the ceiling. This is the spray head and curtain ring of a shower bath. The first thought that enters your head is in query form. Where does the waste water go when the shower is in use? At first glance it looks as if a bath would be followed by a flooded kitchen. But not at all; this contingency has been provided for in the same ingenious way with which other difficulties have been met in the ‘Gypsy’.

“By raising a little sunken latch in the floor a section of the flooring comes out, disclosing what looks like a small trap door divided into four sec­tions. When these in turn are lifted by their latches they are found to be lined with metal and to form a sort of box, the sides of which are several inches above the floor level and the bottom several inches below that level. With the final touch of a rubber stopper the shower bath arrangements are complete.

“The shower bath is about in the centre of the car’s rear compartment. That is to say, it is midway between the wheels, but near the entrance door. Nearer the front of the vehicle on the right side of the compartment is a folding short step­ladder to be used to reach the companionway which leads to the upper deck or roof. This stepladder leads a double life, however. It unfolds into a card table with a special non-slipping surface. Below the companionway is wainscoting which conceals a deep cupboard with shelves. In this are quite a library of books, a stock of playing cards, films and other small articles.

“Next it, toward the front, one of the sunken latches of which there are so many in the car, is an invitation to prying fingers. Operated, it reveals one of the neatest examples of space-saving in the whole structure – a writing desk which apparently unfolds out of nowhere and contains all the fittings of the ordinary library escretoire.

“After absorbing the wonders of the rear compartment, or sublimated galley, writing room, shower bath and wash room, according as the mood or the time of day governs its function, the visitor aboard the ‘land cruiser’ is ready to go forward, into the central and largest cabin. This has a triple function; it is living room, dining room, and bed­room and most attractive it is for any of these purposes.

“The furniture is covered with attractive material, and there is a sort of valance to match above the windows, which make up the side walls of the compartment All the windows, by the way, open in the same way that house windows open. They are provided with green shades, not unlike those used in a parlor car and have wire screens on the outside. In addition, there are awning strips and frames on the outside of the car which can be let down to keep out sunlight or light rain at night.

“The interior woodwork of the compart­ment is of ash finished in a light neutral tone of pleasing effect. The ceiling, which at first glance appears to be solid, is finished in the same way. As a matter of fact this ceiling contains four berths of bunks which fit into an almost inconceivably small space when not in use, but pull down quite easily and look like decidedly comfortable beds. They are of the same size as the lower berths or couches; that is to say, several inches larger in each dimension than the stand­ard railroad sleeping car berth.

“Above each of the couches one of these berths is located, the other two, both disappearing, being a little further forward and set across the vehicle. There is, therefore, ample sleeping room for six persons in this compartment. Each of the berths is provided with side curtains hung from brass rods, which give complete privacy, and each has a very flexible wire spring and a thick hair mattress. But their comfort does not stop with mere bedding. A clever way has been found to provide bureau and wardrobe space for each bunk.

“At the head of each of the upper berths, as they may be called for convenience, in the partition between the central and rear compartments of the car, is a closet of the ‘scientific management’ variety. When you open its door you see first a little recess, and forming the back of this space, as it were, several drawers with the familiar socket latches. When these are opened they are found to be deeper and more commodious than appearances would indicate. There is lots of room for one’s linen, cravats and small articles. In the space of recess between the door and these drawers there is a hanger, and there is just enough room to hang a suit neatly with the trousers folded once over a bar.

“The lighting arrangement is such that each bunk has an electric bulb at its head, so that if it is one’s custom to turn the pages of a book while awaiting the coming of Morpheus, the habit need not be laid down simply because one is doing motor touring deluxe instead of spending the nights in more usual habitations.

“When you emerge on the upper deck you find it guarded by a wire mesh rail which can be folded inward to give less over-all height to the vehicle. Around the sides are broad lockers, with seat cushions on top, which form delightful seats through the medium of adjustable back racks. These lockers contain guns, fishing tackle, and a commissary supply sufficient for two weeks. They also conceal tanks for hot and cold water, several folding chairs and divans, with mattresses for outdoor sleeping. Clothing can also be stored in them in a special case made to measure, half way between a suitcase and steamer trunk. By means of the seat cushions and sort of folding Morris chair in the centre, five persons can easily ride abreast on the upper deck, all facing forward.

“The land yacht is not without its tender. Like the tender of an sea-going craft, this has its abiding place on the upper deck and is lowered away by means of davits, which are concealed from view when not in use. Here the analogy between sea and land stops, however. The tender in this case is a motor cycle, which is carried on its side in a compartment on the rear of the roof. When it is desired to scout ahead in order to make a first hand survey of the road conditions, test a bridge or measure a place where the headroom if believed to be scanty, all that is necessary is to unship the motor cycle and send the chauffeur off on a tour of inspection. By the same means fresh supplies of light weight may be secured, letters sent to any desired point, and a dozen other ‘chores’ be performed swiftly.

“The great size of the ‘Gypsy’ necessitated special study in the matter of color. The exterior is in great part veneered with wood, a soft tan shade having been chosen to bring out the grain of the ash. The chassis is a quiet gray green. This combination gives the vehicle a sort of protective coloration, as the ornithologists say, blending with the landscape, as the main portion is in harmony with the road itself and the bal­ance harmonizes with the grass. All the interior fittings follow the note of the faun gray walls. The upholstery and valences are of gray Spanish linen, with a design in the mellow greens, blues, and reds of old tapestry. The silk curtains also help to preserve the restful effect of the interior. Even after a dusty day’s run the car should look fresh and inviting within. Here, as in other features of the vehicle, the practical has not been forgotten for a moment.

“One of the most interesting features of this remarkable car is its easy arrangements for converting it into a veritable camp when the owner wants to stop for the night or for fishing or shooting. This is done by raising the top and side curtains for the upper deck and letting out awnings against either side, which when lowered protect the main body from sun and light rains without the closing of windows. This upper deck is also made mosquito proof. When stopping for camp, a flag waves at the head and a powerful searchlight can rotate in every direction. The electrical equipment includes two fans, a drill, emery wheel, soldering iron, &c.

“The weight of the vehicle, with its complement of passengers, crew, and provisions, is a little less than that of a Fifth Avenue motor bus, with its passengers. The wheelbase is 206 inches, but the overhang in the rear is only 46 inches, measured from the rear axle centre. A six cylinder gasoline motor, with cylinders 4¼ by 5 inches, is used. The height from ground is, 11.6 inches and the minimum clearance 16 inches.

“The transmission is of the selective sliding dog type, with gears always in mesh. It is really a double-gear box, as it gives nine speeds forward and three in reverse. This unusual transmission was necessary because of the special requirements of this vehicle. It must be able to travel faster on good roads than the ordinary motor truck of similar weight, and must also he able to negotiate far steeper grades and deep sand.

“The gear ratio on the lowest forward speed is 86 2/3 to 1, as compared with 26 to 1 on a Fifth Avenue motor bus. The gear ratio of the highest speed is 8 2/3 to 1. Final drive is through worm gears. Solid tires 5 by 36 inches, dual on the rear, are fitted.

“A pump, driven by gears from the shaft, is provided for filling the water tanks on the roof. It will lift water from a depth 15 feet below its level. A winch, similarly driven, is attachable to the front or the frame. A 7½ kilowatt generator, driven from the gasoline motor, and a 30-cell battery giving 225 A.H. at 36 volts, supplies electricity for cooking, vacuum cleaners and auxiliary lighting. A separate generator is used for starting the gasoline motor and for lighting. Very easy riding is secured through the employment of semi-elliptic springs, four inches wide and 56 inches long, specially constructed. The brakes are very powerful, the ser­vice brake acting on the rear wheel, having 260 square inches of braking surface.

“Before starting on its transcontinental trip, this motor land yacht was driven several hundred miles over the hills of New Jersey and Westchester County and through the sands of eastern Long Island. No attempt at a speed record will be made in crossing the continent, and Mr. Conklin plans to make a number of side trips en route to in­teresting places. He will follow the Lincoln Highway in the main.”

August 23, 1915 New York Times:

“CONKLIN ROAD YACHT HITS A SHOAL OF MUD; Kitchenette Apartment on Wheels Hangs Undecided Whether to Turn Turtle. ROOF GARDEN ALL ASLANT With “Women and Children First” Passengers and Crew Land Safe in Ditch Surf.

“The land-going yacht in which R.R. Conklin, of the Motorbus Company of New York, and a party of twelve are going from Rosemary Farm, near Huntington, L.I., to the Panama-Pacific Exposition, came near foundering on her second day out, and was obliged yesterday to send a save-our-yacht call at 4:32 P.M. to the nearest port, Briar Cliff. The automobile, with its kitchen, hot and cold water, beds, tables, and even a roof garden, was stuck fast in the slippery mud which lined it channel, the State road just north of Briar Cliff.

“Puffing contentedly, the big double-decked cross between a Fifth Avenue bus and a prairie schooner left Long Island on Saturday, and proceeded on the first leg of its 5,000-mile transcontinental voyage. At the last moment a change was made in the plans, and the automobile ship steered through Briar Cliff instead of going through White Plains, as was first intended. A bridge only ten feet wide was the cause, the yacht needing but twelve as a minimum.

“The rain last night didn’t bother the travelers in the least. With the heavy floor of the roof garden to shed any moisture that might weep through the garden roof, the yachting party could read books and magazine from the well-stocked bookcases which folded into the sides of their dwelling, while they reclined at their ease on couches pulled out from the sides or down from the ceiling of this motor palace. Big electric lights, supplied by current from the yacht’s own dynamo, shed plenty of light.

“Yesterday they went on again and were pitching and tossing along the road about two miles from Briar Cliff when they were forced to turn aside to let an automobile go by. Before the chauffeur could get control the machine had slid into the ditch and stood toppling as though undecided whether to turn over or not.

‘“Port your helm,’ called out Mr. Conklin, but it was too late.

‘“Women and children first,’ was the order, and the whole party scrambled into the muddy road.

“The motor cycle tender was dispatched for aid, but all Briar Cliff’s horses and all Briar Cliff’s men could not pull the yacht into the road again. Machines were invited to try. They came to pull but failed and ended by taking Mr. Conklin’s family to Briar Cliff Lodge, where they spent the night. Mr. Conklin expects to get under way this afternoon at the latest. He is sure that he can eventually make the coast in his motor bus yacht.”

September 26, 1915 New York Times:

“BIG MOTOR LAND YACHT HAS REACHED CHICAGO SAFELY; Roland R. Conklin’s Modernized Gypsy Van Shows That Cruising on Wheels Can Be Delightful Sport ;- Vistas of Trip.

“With all stains of heavy travel removed, as is fitting on any craft plentifully supplied with running water, electrical vacuum cleaners, and a large crew, the Gypsy, Roland R. Conklin’s motor land yacht, with its owner, his family and guests aboard, rolled into Chicago on the afternoon of Sept. 20, one day less than a month out of its home port, New York.

“The success of this novel motor vehicle, which provide traveling and living quarters for a party of eight, including chauffeur and steward, and has all the conveniences of a kitchenette apartment, with such added features as a roof garden, bids fair to establish a new mode of travel for the tourist. Am idea of this is given in the following description by Mr. Conklin of the trip from New York to Chicago:

‘“Except for the incident on the first day when we were crowded off the road and had to be pulled out of a ditch by the Briarcliff Fire Department, the trip has been a very delightful experience. It has started, not exactly a new for of recreation, but certainly a successful application, under modern conditions, of a world-old sport originating with our nomadic ancestors, namely, gypsying. We are gypsying deluxe across the continent, and I foresee the time when, with improved roads, a family party can have the choice of and travel many thousands of miles along wonderfully interesting highways amid the most varied and beautiful scenery. Sitting in the open air on the upper deck of our car as it rolls along the highways makes one realize that surely no mode of travel has yet been developed that can compare with it for pleasure or for enabling one to become actually and intimately acquainted with our country.

‘“It has and entirely different feeling from that obtained by the motorist flying along the roads with the speed of a railway train. Even the sport of yachting, with its cruising over monotonous waters, cannot compare with it for we have a continued change in landscape to please the eye and keep one’s interest aroused, and there is no seasickness. One must have enough gypsy blood in his veins, however, to be always ready to gladly camp out on a stream or in a beautiful neck of the woods, when he happens to come upon such a spot, perhaps hours before a day’s journey has been completed. And one must repudiate utterly the least attempt to follow any time schedule. To try to make any speed records would be equally absurd in a vehicle like the Gypsy.  Even over the present bad dirt roads, rendered rough in many places by the frequent rains of Summer, we can average fifty or sixty miles a day, and that quite suffices for us.

‘“We have spent nearly four weeks upon the road since starting, but we have loitered along, sometimes remaining at a choice location in camp a day or so. And then we spent a day in Albany, another day in the Mohawk Valley as the guests of the Oneida Community, two days while viewing the beautiful scenery of Niagara Falls, and a day in Cleveland.

‘“After experiencing the dust and poor traveling on the dirt roads in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, to look back on the concrete and macadamized stone roads of New York fills me with enthusiasm. It is true Ohio has stretches of good roads, mostly brick, but they are only stretches and they never seem to be going one way. Such good roads as there are have been built by enterprising townships that have constructed only according to local needs, and there has been but very little cooperation among the various townships in building continuous highways. If the same amount of money as is now set aside from all sources for good roads was scientifically expended by some central responsible authority, having expert knowledge as to the best type of construction and method of maintenance under a patrol system, similar to that adopted by railways to preserve their roadbeds, we would in a few years be blessed with good roads all over the country.

‘“We will reach the Pacific Coast much sooner than I anticipated when I started. At that time I hoped to be on the road for about three months, bus business matters have arisen which will require my attention in New York in October, and I have decided to send the car to Reno, Nev., Sacramento, or some point on the coast where we can join it, and cruise along the well built and beautiful roads of California a few weeks and then return home by rail. The climate and roads of California are ideal for traveling in such a vehicle and living a life in the open. The weather, too, will soon be so cold in the mountains that it will not be pleasant and an early snow would make it impossible traveling over the Divide.

‘“If the trip of the gypsy can does not more than to call to the attention of a large number of people the desirability of good roads, it will have served a most useful purpose. The enterprise shown by the promoters of the Lincoln Highway in developing an interoceanic road is of vast and far-reaching consequences. The idea has captured the public, and this roadway will certainly be completed, and within a few years there will be two or three more cross continental highways. It has been pointed out time and again that in the event of ware in this country we could not attempt to move our army successfully without means of transporting our troops, without automobiles, such as is daily being done in Europe now, and such transportation would require vehicles as large as mine and, therefore, the various transcontinental roads that are being considered should be built with a due consideration in the width, roadbed, and sharp curves of the road to meet such national uses.”’

There’s more about R. Conklin’s business activities and the gas-electric buses he had developed for NYC transit use at this article at