Interview with RV Industry Historian Al Hesselbart

Picture of the Book The Dumb Things Sold Just Like ThatFollowing is an interview that Monty’s Musings did with RV industry historian Al Hesselbart. For the last 17 years Al has led the growth and development of the museum and library at the RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Indiana. He also runs educational seminars and can bring attractive vintage RV displays to help promote and entertain RV rallies, shows, or events. You can learn more about his seminars and displays at RV History Programs. He is also the author of the book The Dumb Things Sold Just Like That, A History of the Recreational Vehicle Industry in America.

Monty: How did you first get involved with the history of the RV?

Al: I was hired in 1994 to manage the local operation [for the RV Hall of Fame] while the President of the foundation traveled nationally promoting the Hall of Fame and raising funds to keep it going.

Monty: So you have pretty much been doing this ever since?

Al: Pretty much yes. In the early 2000s I became part time for a while and during that time I worked both for the Hall of Fame and was also a substitute school teacher. At first I was hired to manage a facility and to develop some programs – that was my background, not for profit management and program innovation which I did for the Boy Scouts of America. I was nationally recognized as a program innovator doing some things for the Boy Scouts. I was hired to run the operation at the Hall of Fame because they didn’t have a manager. They built a building in 1990 and didn’t do anything with it. So I was hired to run the operation and in that function I became enamored with the history as I developed a library of vintage publications for the Hall.

Monty: As one of the RV industry’s preeminent historians, what tasks fill your day?

Al: Managing the Hall of Fame’s museum and library, working with companies and visitors, and traveling to shows, rallies and other events. I also train and supervise a corps of volunteers, deal with press (print and TV) from around the world.

Monty: How many press queries do you receive?

Al: I get multiple press inquiries each week and probably several hundred a year – everything from a clarification of some statement made by somebody else to lengthy interviews. I am, I understand, on a reference list as a consultant to both AP and Reuter’s wire services. If there is something they don’t understand doing a story – call Al Hesselbart. I also have become known enough that people like the History Channel call me. I’ve done a documentary for them. I’ve done a documentary for the Travel Channel. I worked with Dan Rather at CBS News back when he was doing that. Just because I’m available business hours every day six days a week, instead of going to some of the other perhaps more appropriate references they come to me because I’m available here full time.

There are a couple of other historians of the RV industry who in some ways have better knowledge than I do about their subject. Roger White at the Smithsonian has in-depth researched the history of motorized RVs. He’s written a couple of books on it and is a curator at the Smithsonian. Well in that subject I’ll bow to him each time but he’s not always available so they come to me.

For the early RV, now this is pre-World War II RV history, David Woodworth in California is far superior to my knowledge. He has 25 years of research in learning the very early days of the industry.

Right now the three of us are pretty much those who are recognized as active as historians and I’m the only one that’s full time active.

Monty: So you are to go to guy in some sense because you are there.

Al: Right, because I answer my phone.

Monty: What is the most gratifying part about being the RV industry’s historian?

Al: The people I have been able to work with, the giants of the industry that I have established personal relationships with. My mentor in learning RV history was a fellow by the name of Harold Platt whose biography is included in my book. He loved to talk and I loved to listen. I spent probably a hundred hours or more over a four year period listening to Harold tell me how the RV industry developed in the heart of the depression in the 1930s.

Monty: What was Harold’s involvement in the industry?

Al: Harold led Platt trailers. He started building trailers in 1935 and built trailers through the 60s and then became a retailer and was a dynamic RV retailer and became the first retail dealer for Coachman Industries when it was founded, became the first RV retailer for Jayco when it got founded. He made himself very successful as a manufacturer and so he loved helping companies get started and was just a giant in the industry and was still selling RVs at trade shows into his 90s. He was just an amazing guy. He was my mentor in learning the history of the RV industry.
Another real pioneer that I got to deal with, also mentioned in my book, was a man by the name of Herb Reeves. He helped me a lot in learning the industry. I came into this function and museum manager and RV historian very late in the game. I never worked a day in the RV industry. So these industry giants with 30, 40, 50 years in the industry helped lead me through learning the history of the industry.

Monty: How much RV traveling do you do yourself?

Al: At this time 5 to 7 rallies a year, 3 to 4 shows, and I snowbird to Florida for 3 months a year, all in my vintage 1978 Newell Motor Home.

Monty: How many miles do you travel in your RV each year?

Al: From 8,000 to 10,000 miles a year is what I’ve done the last few years. Before that it was considerably less.

Monty: Do you have a special place that you go in Florida?

Al: I do have. I’m a snowbird. I run away from Elkhart and spend my winter at a campground north of Tampa at Bushnell, Florida.

Monty: Do you doing anything special while you are there?

Al: I do a little bit of everything. The Tin Can Tourists Vintage Camper Club has a monthly get together so I get involved with vintage camper aficionados down there. I do educational programs for several different campgrounds in the area around where I am. Last year I did daily programs for the Tampa RV show. I still keep my feet wet but I sleep in and stay warm and party with the pot luck dinners and all that kind of stuff that is trailer camp life.

Monty: What were the early RVs like?

Al: Primarily Shelter.

Monty: When you say shelter, you mean some place simply to sleep?

Al: Yes.

Monty: No amenities, just bare bones…

Al: The earliest ones were basically hard walled tents – simply a place to sleep. Kitchens were not immediately a part of them. The people that were using the earliest RVs, we’re talking prior to World War I, these were tent campers and to be able to carry twice as much stuff then when they are driving a Model T and a tent was a big advantage. But the vehicles couldn’t pull much of a trailer so they had to be fairly light. They cooked over an open fire outside. As cars and trucks got better, the capability of more stuff in the trailer got better, so in the ’20s we got to kitchens, dining tables, and that kind of stuff. It wasn’t until the ’60s and ’70s that living space – couches and easy chairs and that kind of stuff came into them. They were pretty much just a shelter through the ’50s.

Monty: When did on-board showers and toilets make their way in?

Al: In very rare occasions in the ’30s. We have a ’30s unit with a bathroom in it at the Hall of Fame. Now a toilet in the 1930s was basically a private room where you used a chamber pot and you went outside and dumped it when you were done. But residential toilets were much the same at that time. Running water was not necessarily an important part of a house. It wasn’t until the 60’s that toilets and showers came into any kind of popular use. For most of the ’60s they used minimal space so they provided what we called a wet bath where the toilet sat in the middle of the shower stall. The joke was you could brush your teeth, use the toilet, and take a shower all at the same time without moving. It was about 18 inches square where you had the small vanity sink, the flushable toilet, and a shower head over top. That was very common through the ’60s and early ’70s.

Until that time, anything up to 20 foot was a travel trailer and there weren’t many travel trailers more than 20 to 22 feet long. As we go into the ’70s, and they grew into 30 and 40 foot vehicles, then we got separate showers and toilets, we got living rooms with Lazy Boy chairs and TVs, and that kind of thing. We got into satellites and entertainment systems in the ’80s. Before that TVs and telephones and all of that was what we went camping to get the hell away from.

Monty: When did slide outs become popular?

Al: Popular in the late ’80s through the ’90s. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that motor homes had slide outs. The pull trailer industry, both fifth wheels and travel trailers, had slide outs before anyone conceived putting them in a motor home.

Monty: What are some of the most interesting facts or stories about RVs or even some interesting RV trivia?

Al: The fifth wheel was invented in 1917 by Glenn Curtiss the aviation pioneer. The trailer ball and receiver was not invented until the late 1920s. The earliest RVs were motorized. Towables came a little later. Hawley Bowlus, who supervised the building of the Spirit of St Louis for Charles Lindbergh, designed and built the first aluminum trailers – copied later by Wally Byam for his Airstreams. Type C motor homes came from the slide in truck camper industry as chassis-mounted oversized campers not “mini motor homes”.

Monty: How will the RV industry deal with rising oil and gas prices?

Al: In general “pay it or park it”. Most travelers will restrict the distance traveled but not their time. The industry will also emphasize more efficient rigs.

Monty: What do you mean by pay it or park it? I take that to mean less driving and more time in a location.

Al: That comment is not my own comment. I was part of a discussion where people where whining about the cost of fuel and the answer was quit your belly aching, either pay the price and enjoy RVing or park it. But your reading of it is more accurate. What we’re finding is that instead of a cross country vacation people are taking a one or two state vacation.

Monty: So staying a little closer to home…

Al: Less mileage, spending longer time at individual stops…

Monty: In addition to oil prices, what are the biggest challenges facing the industry?

Al: Available credit. To purchase anything credit is a problem. We get the same thing in the RV industry. One of the RV companies that just went out of business, they had orders being built on the assembly line and the bank cut off credit for their operation and their customers and they went out of business with a bag full of orders. Purely a bank generated close down. Credit is so tight right now for major purchase.

Monty: What does the future hold in store for the RV industry?

Al: I get asked that question often. Number one I think that through a hundred years we have pretty well proven that it is not going to go away. We have also proven that it is populated with some absolutely visionary genius inventors. We are going to see things in the next ten years that we cannot even imagine. Are we going back to the concept Winnebago introduced in the 1970s and are we going to see in our lifetime flying RVs? Winnebago made Sikorski helicopter-based RVs in the 1970s. So there is a history of that.

We have two extremes in the industry today. We have companies downsizing, going lighter, eco-friendly, green, towable with a four cylinder car. Practical type light small units. And we have a number of companies producing 45 foot and bigger monster units with price tags above seven digits.

Monty: So you are going from ultra-efficient and affordable to price is no object…

Al: Yes. My personal unit which I acquired as a vintage unit, bargain basement, is a Newell. Newell has been around since the mid-1960s totally always as a very high-line custom made only unit. They do not make an RV until it’s paid for and everyone is different, totally custom. I found one basically at a fire sale and bought it for $25,000. Although it is 35 years old but it is as nice a unit as most of them that are made today, but their price tag today starts at $1.5 million and goes up from there.

You’ve got the monster RV company called PowerHouse Coach in Idaho that makes nothing under 50 feet long. They’re huge. They’re a freight train. So you got that extreme and you have things like Dutchman a division of Thor that are making what they call t@B that is a 15 foot little shell of a unit that can be pulled by any 6-cylinder automobile I think. You have several companies coming back with the tiny tear-drop style trailers that are three and a half to four feet tall and ten feet long and the thing that they are questioning is what’s going to happen to everything in the middle?

Monty: What can you tell us about the emergence of the RV rental industry?

Al: It has become very popular. Remarkably the RV rental concept started in the 1930s. It is not a recent concept. But the popularity of RV rental has been over the last 20 years. A lot of dealers, a lot of manufacturers are encouraging prospective purchasers to rent a unit and experience the lifestyle before investing piles of money – a try it before you buy it concept.

There are other people in major metropolitan cities; people who live in the central core of the cities have no real capability of owning, storing, and parking an RV. For those people, for one or two trips a year, rental makes a whole lot more sense than paying some outrageous fee a hundred miles away from home to store a unit that they don’t use on a real regular basis. I think that’s El Monte’s customer – people who are going to take a couple of nice trips a year but are not inclined for any number of reasons to have ownership.

Monty: Who were the early pioneers in RV rental?

Al: Robert Crist in Chicago had a dealership in the heart of Chicago and he conceived the notion of rental as a sales technique. Come to me and I’ll rent you one and when you come back it was basically a rent to buy type of thing. Many people would rent one for a week and come back and buy the one they just had.

Monty: What time frame was this?

Al: He was a dealer primarily for the Covered Wagon Trailer Company in the mid-1930s. Other dealers, retailers, picked up on that. He actually wrote articles in a couple of trade magazines of the late 30s recommending how many more units he sold if he would let someone take it for a week before he would try to close the sale. Now these were trailers, not motorized. But the concept started then before World War II.

Monty: And it came to its present format when?

Al: Within the last 20 years it has taken off and we have specialty rental companies like El Monte RV. There are three or four major national concerns whose entire business is having locations with inventories of units to rent. There are some dealers, there is a dealer in Southwestern Michigan, he’s a retailer but he has a rental fleet of 50 units that he rents out – everything from folding tent trailers to Class C motor homes. His target audience is people from Chicago event though he is a 150 miles out of Chicago.

The concept of RV rental both as just available units for big city dwellers and RV rentals as a sales technique for active retail dealers is growing.

Monty: What advice would you give to someone considering taking an RV vacation?

Al: Number one, quit talking about it and do it. Consider what your expectations are. We have two classes of people who involved in the consumer side of the RV industry now. About equal numbers. We have a group of people who are campers who want to visit the great outdoors and see the forests and woodlands, the beaches, and whatever. Their target is comfortable camping. The other half of the consumer body, my title is RVers, these are the travelers headed for a destination, be it Disney World or a football Super Bowl or whatever, who consider parking overnight in the Walmart parking lot camping. They’re looking for a mobile motel room. They’re taking a mobile suite of rooms which will be their hotel at their destination and want to be as comfortable as possible. These are the 45 foot RVs, the big fifth wheel people, this kind of thing. You get both and I think the classes are about equal in size. The campers look at their RV as a highly comfortable tent, a camping quarters. The RVer is looking for a luxury hotel suite that they can put wherever they want it.

Monty: Thanks Al for your time.

Al: Thank you. Glad to work with you.

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