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Americans' love affair with motorhomes

1926 T-Tent Camper
Recreational vehicles: Freedom to roam the open road - but in comfort

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, Elkhart, Indiana

It was the Germans who invented the motor car and steered us all towards the boundless possibilities and endless problems of the age of internal combustion.

But it took the genius of America to recognise that with a little extra hammering and spannering the motor car could readily be converted into the motor home.

I am told it was a matter of days - weeks at most - before someone had converted the first horseless buggy into the first recreational vehicle (RV).

It was a clumsy-looking behemoth whose passengers rode - very slowly - high above the road surface on what was essentially a four-wheeled roof garden, complete with balcony.

But practicality was not the point. The point was Americans had brought their restless love of the open road and their romantic affinity for far horizons into the motor age.

A Daybreak 2010
Modern RVs: Think of a house but with wheels

Even before World War I, the first American motor tourists knew the heady thrill of hearing the winds of freedom playing their seductive symphony in the trees and telegraph wires of a desert highway.

The latest RVs are breathtaking vehicles that express in equal parts the American family's determination to explore the wild outdoors, and their taste for doing it in comfort.

A modern motorhome will be the size of a single-decker bus and will be powered by a 450-horsepower engine - the kind you would expect to find only in a racing car anywhere else on Earth.

In Britain you need a professional licence to drive such a vehicle. In America, all you need is the nerve and the desire.

You need the engine capacity of course, to haul around the rich array of luxuries your RV will boast.

Our greatest heroes like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone would have been caravanners if only they'd been invented
Al Hesselbart
Curator, RV/MH Hall of Fame

The latest models can include ceramic tiled floors, an en-suite bedroom with a king-sized bed, a full sized double-door refrigerator, and six widescreen high-definition TVs.

You take the luxury leather seating for granted of course and the wood panelling - there is a bit of a fashion for real mahogany apparently.

But one or two RVs are built these days with an on-board garage space at the back, big enough to accommodate a small car. Think of your house, but with wheels underneath it.

Bank loans

I went to America's RV capital - Elkhart, Indiana - to test the theory that the industry provides an accurate barometer of the health of the American economy.

It is a simple enough idea. A motor home can cost anything from $200,000 (£123,000) to $500,000, so it is not the kind of thing you buy if you fear the economy is worsening.

And because they are so expensive, many motorhomes are bought like real houses, with secured bank loans stretching for 20 years or so.

1931 Chevrolet Housecar owned by Mae West
This Chevrolet Housecar was owned by screen actress Mae West

If the market is picking up, then that is a sign that banks are loosening credit - an essential precursor to recovery.

RV makers had a tough recession - deliveries were down by 40%, but there is a belief in the industry that is the first to recover as well as the first to suffer in bad times.

I will return to my thesis in a moment, but no visit to Elkhart is complete without a trip to the RV Hall of Fame, which is now very firmly my favourite museum in the world, easily beating rival contenders like the Louvre, the Hermitage and the Smithsonian.

Curator Al Hesselbart is jolly and white-bearded, like an out-of-season Santa Claus. He is a man who relishes the poetry and power of these quintessentially American vehicles in equal measure.

"Americans are vagabonds," he tells me cheerfully. "Our greatest heroes like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone would have been caravanners if only they'd been invented."

Busy again

You are greeted in the entrance by a photo-montage that tells the history of the 20th Century from the RV's point of view. The 1920s for example saw the Wall Street Crash and the launch of the Zagelmeyer Camp Car.

And the 1960s is remembered not just for the introduction of the Corvair Ultravan but also for less widely known events, like the moon landing and the Vietnam War.

1928 Pierce Arrow Fleet Housecar
A heavy road vehicle - literally

There are some wonderful exhibits. The sleekly aerodynamic burnished aluminium of the Airstream brand for example and the homely luxury of the lounge on wheels that once belonged to the movie actress Mae West.

There are some less brilliant ideas in there too - one vehicle has a wood-burning stove, and another, the Pierce Arrow, has a kind of wrought iron fence around its fenders, which looks like it weighs a couple of tonnes itself.

All in all though, the Hall of Fame is a proud history of the American century, written in chrome and leatherette.

And it captures perfectly America's Spartan taste for the great outdoors and its splendid refusal to compromise on comfort. The United States was fitting full-sized showers and flushing toilets in mobile homes about 40 years before Europeans were putting them in actual homes.

At the Damon motorhome factory, a short distance from the museum, the productions lines are busy again.

This is a barometer for the economy, and we're definitely on the way up
Damon motorhome factory manager Amanda Graff

Amanda Graff, the manager who showed me around, agreed with the idea that when the RV industry is back, America is back, and she said recovery was coming.

"So many people do this as a retirement purchase," she told me.

"We're still producing and they're still buying.

"This is a barometer for the economy, and we're definitely on the way up."

Inspiring love

Dealers at a trade show in town were cautiously optimistic too - one told me that in good times they would expect to sell a vehicle a day and in the recession they had been down to perhaps half that.

"2010," one assured me, " is going to be a great year."

And there is no reason why it should not be as long as there are Americans like Al Hesselbart, who proposes to sell his house when he retires and live in an RV.

"My address," he told me romantically, "will be a licence plate."

And the industry can draw on even deeper wells of enthusiasm than that, as it looks to a brighter future like a motorhome owner heading for the sunny horizons of summer.

New RVs in the Damon motorhome factory
Motorhomes: Object of devotion to many who own them

Al told me the story of the Boatman family, patron saints of the RV movement who lived in a motorhome for 48 years while Robert Boatman travelled around the US building city water towers.

When he and his wife retired, they decided to settle in Garrison, Texas, and must have been horrified when the city passed an ordinance banning people from living in trailers - thus outlawing the only marital home they had ever known.

RV folk can be mighty stubborn. The Boatmans got round the law by building a fake house around their vehicle in which they continued to live until Mrs Boatman was eventually called to her eternal reward in the great RV camp in the sky.

No other country could produce outdoors-folk of such ingenuity and determination.

And no other vehicle but the RV could have inspired that kind of love.



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