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Ready to Roll: A Celebration of the Classic American Travel Trailer


Ready to Roll: A Celebration of the Classic American Travel Trailer

An architect and a photographer co-authored this classic mix of pix and text that rolls us down the American back roads in high style. From the early almost-train cars manufactured for the wealthy, to the poor man's alternative --- "Sleep in Your Car," one ad suggests --- we are drawn along by the fantasy of life fully lived away from home, a fantasy that could only have taken root in America, where roads and cars grew up together in serendipitous symbiosis.

Before the metal bodies and custom interiors, there had been the Conestoga wagons and, before that, the wooden gypsy vardos of old Europe. Sheepherders had "arks" made for crawling across the lonesome prairie, precursors to "tin can tourism" that attracted freedom-loving Americans almost as soon as they discovered the practicality of the auto itself.

From the 1930s onward, the question was not if they would buy it but what shape they would purchase, as independent companies vied for a market share, assembling campers shaped like teardrops, bread loaves and fantastical avian forms lifted from the burgeoning airplane industry.

Today's RVers owe much to Wally Byam, a true fanatic whose conception of a trailer accessible to the average middle-class family resulted in the Airstream, arguably the finest development of the pull-along format. With wood paneled mod cons within and an aerodynamic metal bullet exterior, the Airstream divorced trailering from the Oakie image and spawned many imitators. While confections like the Curtiss Aerocar and Pierce Arrow's faux railcar sought the aristocratic end of the market, and utilitarian itsy-bitsy tent-trailer combos attracted the low budget traveler, Airstream sat doggedly in the middle, offering class, ease of hauling and fine workmanship at an affordable price. "Today, more than four decades after his death in 1962, Byam's basic Airstream design continues to roll off the Jackson Center production lines, still widely regarded as the Rolls-Royce of trailers, and still inspiring imitations."

For nearly fifty years in the heyday of over-the-road vacationing, there was a Very Large Array of metal boxes on wheels, with names like Comet, Gypsy Wagon, Spartanette and Airfloat, and some more durable brands like Shasta. Because these ephemeral blips on the trailering screen were often handcrafted and built, remarkably, to last, many are still rolling or at least set up on blocks in mint condition, alluringly photogenic.

Gellner and Keister sought them out and tastefully snapped their innards and their outer skins, along with the cars that pull them. Where the snowbirds flock, these metal bubbles proliferate, often hauled by cars of equal interest to collectors. Now there's a new craze, and why are we not surprised --- that of building "vintage" campers, look-alikes to the old timey road runners of the early 20th century. Is this true "camp" or what?

Peering inside these metal marvels, via the camera's eye, we get a feeling for what was considered essential to the traveler in times past: parquet flooring, lounge chairs, recessed doors and plastic laminate kitchen counters, the latest thing. Beginning as a simple imitation of home interior design, trailer construction soon became a playground for experimentation in the technology of the tiny, the art of making things work smoothly in cramped quarters without skinning knuckles or having to sleep in a ball.

Like millions of Americans, I've followed the camper craze, the boondoggling and midnight interstate rest area getaways. I've moved with the carnival where homes on wheels have to be durable for the weekly hops. Maybe when I retire I'll look for a campsite at Slab City in California or Quartzite, Arizona.

If you love this book, then you're the guy for me. You and I could hit the high spots --- starting at Braden's Castle in Reno (that's where we'll get married), then on to Shady Dell in Bisbee, Arizona, where overnight guests can stay in vintage trailers. We'll honeymoon there in the Spartan Royal Mansion.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott ( on September 25, 2003

Ready to Roll: A Celebration of the Classic American Travel Trailer
Arrol Gellner and Douglas Keister

  • Publication Date: September 25, 2003
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Studio
  • ISBN-10: 0670030554
  • ISBN-13: 9780670030552