Dawn of The Great American Road Trip

Published by The Bee News

June 25, 2023

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In 1901, Alexander Winton, a pioneering automobile manufacturer, set out from San Francisco to become the first person to cross the United States by automobile. That venture ended nearly two weeks later in the Nevada desert. There were simply no roads.

But the American sense of adventure was not to be denied. In 1903, Dr. Jackson completed the first transcontinental trip by automobile and in so doing sparked a national mania for adventures in automobiles. Soon a trickle of daring motorists became a torrent. It was the dawn of the great American road trip.

But even as late as 1915, the cross country road trip was not for the faint of heart. In Edsel Ford’s travel journal an entry dated July 15, 1915 notes that he and his friends set out from Williams, Arizona that morning. They followed the National Old Trails Road west to Kingman, and at midnight arrived at the Hotel Brunswick. He also noted that one of his friends driving a Stutz broke a spring.

In Search of Adventure

Edsel’s story highlights the poor and even antiquated condition of America’s rural roads before 1930. And yet people set out on the most amazing adventures. In 1915, Effie Hotchkiss and her mother became the first women to cross the country in a motorcycle with sidecar. Emily Post wrote a best selling book about her cross country trek in the same year.

But few adventurers were as daring as Roland R. Conklin of the Chicago Motor Bus Company, Roland Gas-Electric Vehicle Corporation, New York Motor Bus Company and Hexter Truck. In late 1914 he commissioned the construction of a luxurious land yacht that he dubbed the Gypsy Van. Then he set out on a breathtaking transcontinental family outing with a cook, maid, chauffer, and mechanic.

The Gypsy Van, a summer cottage on wheels of epic proportions, and Conklin’s odyssey was an endless source of fascination. They were chronicled in newspapers, trade journals and publications.

Conklin’s Folly

New York Times, August 21, 1915, “The first impressive thing about the vehicle, which Mr. Conklin calls his ‘land yacht,’ is its size. Overall, it is twenty-five feet in length, six inches longer than the Fifth Avenue buses. It is seven and a half feet wide and thirteen feet high. It weights between seven and eight tons without gear, filled water or fuel tanks, passengers and supplies. The size of the great automobile ceases to dominate one’s thoughts when one investigates the comprehensiveness of its equipment. It is really a house on wheels, though it runs smoothly at moderate speed.”

“As speed was not a special object, a comparatively small motor of 60 horsepower could be used, especially geared for power grades. Canvas strips for sandy sections, a knockdown, portable bridge to ford streams, and a winch operated by the motor, strong enough to pull the car out of a mudhole or ditch are special items of equipment. No such vehicle has ever been attempted before on this scale, but his experience in designing large vehicles for traffic, as the President of the New York Motor Bus Company, convinced Mr. Conklin that his idea for a double deck bus with roof top garden was practical, so he went ahead.”

“The transmission is of the selective sliding dog type, with gears always in mesh. It is really a double-gear box, as it gives nine speeds forward and three in reverse. This unusual transmission was necessary because of the special requirements of this vehicle. It must be able to travel faster on good roads than the ordinary motor truck of similar weight and must also be able to negotiate far steeper grades and deep sand. The gear ratio on the lowest forward speed is 86 2/3 to 1, as compared with 26 to 1 on a Fifth avenue motor bus. The gear ratio of the highest speed is 8 2/3 to 1. Final drive is through worm gears. Solid tires 5×36 inches, dual on the rear, are fitted to steel wheels.”

It had a generator with electric lights and a vacuum cleaner, and storage for the motorcycle to be used in the case the chauffer had to go for assistance. There were freshwater tanks and a shower bath, folding bunks, a hideaway card table, a kitchen with electric cooking range, and bookcases, built in lockers for food, clothes, guns, fishing gear, and tools. There was even an ice box that hold 100 pounds of ice, and a fold out canvas awing.

“As you approach the car from the back you see a wooden door, but no steps, unless you happen to recognize the folding steps of a pattern similar to that used on some of the New York surface cars. When you turn the doorknob and open the door these steps unfold easily. When you have mounted and opened the screen door you find yourself in the rear compartment, which probably combines more different functions with less waste of space than any yacht or launch cabin in existence.”

“In one side of this a folding metal wash bowl not unlike those in the washroom of a railroad parlor car. A little pull brings this basin down into its position for use. It is fed from the large water tanks on the roof. Above this basin is a water filter for drinking water, one coil of which passes through the icebox, so that chilled water of filtered quality is constantly on tap. Next to the icebox toward the front of the car is a neat porcelain kitchen sink, and near it is an electric range with several burners and a large oven. A miniature dresser with spices, sugar, flour, and the like are on the wall, and other cunningly contrived cupboards and racks hold pots and pans and a plentiful supply of cutlery.”

As luxurious and well prepared for rugged use as the Gypsy Van was, the road conditions ensured that the odyssey was fraught with challenges.

New York Times, August 23, 1915, “The land-going yacht in which R.R. Conklin, of the Motorbus Company of New York, and a party of twelve are going from Rosemary Farm, near Huntington, L.I., to the Panama-Pacific Exposition, came near foundering on her second day out, and was obliged yesterday to send a save-our-yacht call at 4:32 P.M. to the nearest port, Briar Cliff. The automobile, with its kitchen, hot and cold water, beds, tables, and even a roof garden, was stuck fast in the slippery mud which lined the channel, the State road just north of Briar Cliff. Puffing contentedly, the big double-decked cross between a Fifth Avenue bus and a prairie schooner left Long Island on Saturday and proceeded on the first leg of its 5,000-mile transcontinental voyage. At the last moment, a change was made in the plans, and the automobile ship steered through Briar Cliff instead of going through White Plains, as was first intended. A bridge only ten feet wide was the cause, the yacht needing but twelve as a minimum.” After two months on the road, Conklin’s odyssey ended in San Francisco. They returned home by steam ship, and shipped the legendary Gypsy Van back to New York.

The infancy of the great American road trip is a colorful, fascinating and smile inducing story. Internationally acclaimed author Jim Hinckley of Jim Hinckley’s America will be sharing some of these stories during his fall tour, and at the Miles of Possibility Conference this October where he will be a keynote speaker.

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