With quite a few of our blogs, we stumble upon an interesting vehicle online, then we do a bit of ‘digging around’ and start to discover an interesting story which develops into a post…
In this case we saw a picture of this really cool RV or ‘housecar’ which was up for sale in the States. This is a 1941 Ford Western Flyer which has been restored and customised by the famed hotrod customizer Howdy Ledbetter. A bit more research revealed that the original vehicle although very rotten was one of the original Western Flyer or Clipper vehicles designed by Clifford Brooks Stevens. Now as a designer I’m rather embarrassed to say I didn’t know much about this renowned product designer… but now I do.
Brooks Stevens (1911-1995) was one of the most successful and prolific American industrial designers in the pre and post-World War II era. His firm Brooks Stevens Industrial Design produced concepts and visions for everything from coffee pots and kitchenware who helped form the Industrial Designers Society of America. After studying Architecture at University, he formed the company in Milwaukee in 1934.
In 1936 he designed this amazing Zephyr Land Yacht, tractor and trailer for Millionaire playboy Bill Plankinton. Plankinton, whose family ran a very successful packing company, wanted to pursue cross-country travel in style. His brief was to have a tractor-trailer combination of superior design and personal comfort. The tractor would serve as the living quarters for the driver and valet, the trailer would sleep nine comfortably, and include a shower bath, kitchen facilities and the latest in radio equipment. Plans for both the tractor and trailer were filed at the Patent office in 1936.
While the Land Yacht was on a test run they had stopped at a friends for Cocktails (as you do!) and were approached by the Western Printing Company, their president wanted a mobile showroom/office. Brooks Stevens came up with the ‘Western Clipper’ – It was be under 20 feet to facilitate parking in towns and cities, had a top speed of 85mph and did 15mpg.
Brooks Stevens went onto design variants on the original clipper including a display vehicle for Johnsons’ Wax for the 1939/40 New York World Fair. It was planned to use it for research trips to countries such as Brazil and was fitted with bunks and running water. It is reported that on the way to the fair it was stopped in Fifth Avenue for being a banned commercial vehicle, their response was “it’s not a truck but a Housecar” and were allowed to continue. When they reached the fair a live broadcast was made from the vehicle.Another version was designed for traveller and pilot Winfield Cambell of the Cambell Baking Company, who used it for travelling. This version had a much more slanted nose and may well be the version that was found and became the Ledbetter customised version.
Plans were at least drawn up for a longer version but little is known of this or other variants. During WW2 some of the clippers and the Land Yacht were converted and used for Army recruitment, medical needs and as a mobile blood bank.
The ‘Western Clippers’ influence was seen later in Brooks Stevens career when in 1948 he designed the Skytop Hiawatha trains which had a glass observation lounge.Following on from a previous blog on promotional vehicles, Brooks Stevens also designed the famous Oscar Mayer ‘Wienermobile’.
There appears to be lots of gaps in the History of the Brooks Stevens ‘Housecars’, surprising given that the company is still in existence and that the company is well documented in American museums especially the Milwaukee Art Museum. It would appear that as well as the Ledbetter customised version there is at least one more surviving in a private collection which was part of an exhibition ‘The American Road’ at the Harley Davidson Museum, Milwaukee this summer. It wasn’t just Brooks Stevens who were producing this type of vehicle, we came across a couple of other interesting similar examples…
The Hunt House Car
Hollywood cinematographer Roy Hunt had to spend weeks away on location and so between 1935-1945 he built a series of ‘Housecars’. Initially he added a bed, folding table and 110 volt generator to a Willys sedan delivery but in 1937 he bought a 1937 Ford truck chassis and, borrowing some aircraft techniques, designed a smooth fuselage body with a hatch-like flush door and a streamlined shape. It was the first RV to have a working shower. He eventually put it into production, making about 50 examples over a ten year period. One remains in existence and was restored by David Woodworth of Tehachapi, California and today is in the RV/MH Heritage Museum and Hall of Fame in Elkhart.
Chris Craft, boat makers in San Francisco also made a prototype Housecar in 1937, they hoped to go into production but a lack of materials during the war years put a stop to their plans. The only prototype, registered as a Plymouth Housecar was found in 1968 and used as an office before being restored in 1999 by Custom Painter Art Himsl. Finished in 2010 it is known as the Himsl Zeppelin Roadliner.
So there we are, one little picture has led to quite a lot of information. I love some of these vehicles, they are almost like a ‘grown-up’ Mario’, I wonder what the next inspirational find will be – watch this space!