Ask anyone who owns a tiny house trailer or an RV or a house on wheels and they can probably tell you exactly when they became enamored with the idea of taking their home wherever they went. For me it was an old Mickey Mouse cartoon. I have since found out its title: Mickey’s Trailer (1938). In fact, before you read any further I encourage you to watch ‘ol Mickey and his friends scoot around a mountain in their wonderfully streamlined camper that has everything from a bathtub to a fully stocked kitchen! While you’re watching check out 1:18 where Goofy is toting the camper with its awnings fully extended. I love that. Nothing like road safety! All that to say almost every person remember the time they became fascinated with homes-on-the-go and since automobiles first gained popularity and became a familiar site on the road (between 1906 and 1913) there became a desire to figure out how to build a house on axles and take it with you. In fact, although the modern touring car had been invented some years earlier, it wasn’t until Panhard et Levassor’s Systéme Panhard was widely license and adopted that recognizable and standardized automobiles were created. This same Panhard specified front-engined, rear-wheel drive, internal combustion engine cars with sliding gear transmissions. Coach vehicles and buckboards were tossed aside and tonneau-covered touring cars took the roads en masse!
During the 1920s Ford ruled the road and it is said that well over 2,000 after market products and accessories could be purchased for them. The Lamsteed Kampkar body was one of those products.
Engineered by Samuel Lambert of the Lambert Pharmaceutical Company (makers of Listerine) the primary reason for its invention was because Lambert himself loved the outdoors and felt like suitable transportation would increase the fun! The dimensions of the Kampkar body were developed so they would match those of the standard Ford chassis and according to ads of the day it only took hours to attach one. What a marvel. The 1921 Kampkar would comfortably seat six adults, provide sleeping accommodations for four, as well as hold blankets, clothing and even food. The Kampkar also had a folding table, a two-burner stove, an eight-gallon water supply, and a camping set in its trunk (consisted of cooking and eating utensils). Best of all? It sold for just $535.
The Kampkar and similar modifications as well as the emerging social status of camping spawned further exploration into this new medium of housing. Take for instance Roland and Mary Conklin of Huntington, N.Y. whose bus factory built their house-car in the summer of 1915. One of the first custom made “house-cars”, the Gypsy Van (as it was affectionately called), was a 25-foot motor coach built by Conklin’s American Motor Bus Company. It weighed roughly eight tons and was powered by a six-cylinder engine that produced only 60 horsepower. It also used nine forward gears and three reverse gears. Together with their children, a driver, and a butler, Roland and Mary traveled round-trip from New York to San Fran in 1915 on dirt roads, wagon paths, and all other passes that pre-dated modern Interstates.
The early models were still campers at best and served a leisurely purpose more than a permanent one. While they were truly part of tiny house history they had yet to display the features that make them a solid, early predecessor of the tiny house trailer. The idea was catching on though. By 1922 a German construct aptly named Ein fahrbares Landhaus took to the open roads of Europe. Thought little is known about it it clearly shows that the house was more important than the automobile and the tiny house transition began.
With its use of wooden siding, windows boxes, raised pitch roof, and even trailer addition, the LandHaus was the ultimate in camp car and tiny house trailer!
The trail more or less runs dry there as America became plagued by events that would overshadow frivolous fun and exploration. From the stock market crash to World War II to the Vietnam years the tiny house – in either house-car or trailer form – faded from the limelight. The 1950s saw a rise in interest in house trailers but only for recreational reasons as soldiers returning from the war were anxious to work hard and play hard. In the 1960s the travel trailer industry seemed to split, creating the RV industry and the motorhome industry. Coupled with the addition of new materials such as fiberglass and plastic the wooden house-car became a thing of the past.
This isn’t to say they didn’t reserve their space in tiny house history though as without them we would have little understanding of how mobility meets domesticity. How does a car marry a house and what will their babies look like? One can only assume that if you build a house, make it mobile by putting it on wheels the end result is…well, (to be continued…)