The History and Highlights of Camping In Cars and Vans

There’s an old saying that goes something like, “you can sleep in your car, but you can’t drive your house.” It’s an adage that dates back to the beginning of motoring when Americans made the discovery that they could free themselves from the tight confines of train schedules and begin to explore their beautiful country from behind the wheel of that newfangled invention, the automobile. As long as they didn’t mind leaving the comforts of home behind to embrace the comforts of catnaps in the car.

Since then, many important achievements in the art of car sleeping have been celebrated. Which are our favorites? Check out this list of great moments in vehicular camping history.

1908

Roy A. Faye of Cambridge, Massachusetts, builds a ‘dry-land yacht’ out of a Matheson touring car, which offers four fold-down bunks inside the cabin. It also features extra batteries for lighting, extensive storage compartments, and a 14-foot canvas tent sewn into the hood for use as a shelter, under which he and his friends cook and eat following a day of hunting in the woods of Maine.

1910 – 1921

“Autocamping” becomes a national craze, with vehicle owners folding down the front seats, or removing the back seats and storing them underneath the car, in order to sleep within their vehicles’ cabin. “Sleepers,” or beds designed to fit in or be suspended above a front seat using metal rods, are available by mail-order (A.B.C. Sleeper, McMillin Auto Bed), with hammocks hung from the windshield frame (Universal Car Bed) also popular.

Thousands of Americans also convert their Ford Model Ts into campers and travel the United States on the newly resurgent network of roads. The Tin Lizzy was a popular choice for outdoor exploration in its day, with companies such as Zagelmeyer and even Anheuser-Busch (seeking to offset the effects of Prohibition by leveraging its skill-set in custom delivery truck bodies) offering a diverse range of modular living quarters similar to today’s slide-in vans. A small industry grew up around these “Kamper kits,” with adherents calling themselves “Tin Can Tourists.”

Those looking for a less permanent solution avail themselves of the many car-specific tents such as the “Curtiss Bed” or “Schilling’s Auto-Camp,” designed to fit in the cargo area or running board of a pickup or runabout.

1941

1949

After years of pull-along trailers stealing the spotlight, true car-sleeping enthusiasts are rewarded with the ‘Splitty,’ the Type 2 split-window camper version of Volkswagen’s now-infamous van. Available with pop-up roofs courtesy of outfitter Westfalia, the German camper van becomes a cultural (and counter-cultural) icon. Owners set up shop in places as diverse as Yellowstone National Park and the side streets of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district.

1973

Conversion vans start to take a place in the automotive enthusiast pantheon. These rides are based on full-size domestic vans, and quickly catch fire with customizers looking to out-do each other in terms of style and kitsch. Whether there are wizards airbrushed onto the sides or thick shag carpeting soaking up the, um, vibes, chances are there’s at least an inflatable mattress back there for you to rest on when you get stuck in the parking lot (or maybe in your own head) at the Grateful Dead show.

1979

Volkswagen introduces the T3 and significantly ups the game of the camper van. Westfalia is still in the picture, and internal mod-cons multiply. The van also boasts a larger footprint that attracts a more serious crowd. Not as collectible as the earlier split-window Volkswagen vans, these campers are still in use today by tens of thousands of adventure-seeking owners.

1980-Onwards

Chris Farley might have joked about living in a “van down by the river” on Saturday Night Live, but truth be told sleeping in a car has been a part of many a star’s journey from obscurity to fame and fortune. Jewel Kilcher, Hilary Swank, and David Letterman are just a few celebrities who lived in their vehicles. Even William Shatner spent some time sleeping in his pick-up truck after a particularly nasty divorce took (nearly) everything he owned.

1990s

Conversion vans graduate from stoner central to sleek alternatives to full-size recreational vehicles. The models’ popularity jumps and outfitters rise to the occasion; carving out sleep-friendly accommodations for vehicles such as the Chevy Astro, the Dodge Grand Caravan, and the Ford Econoline. Although the trend toward affordable conversions begins to die out by the end of the decade, these vehicles (alongside the Type 2 Westfalia) later become popular choices for participants of today’s #VanLife movement.

1994

Swedish pop stars Roxette release ‘Sleeping in My Car,’ a song some argue is a metaphor but which we choose to see as a straight-forward anthem for automotive somnolence. It shoots to number 50 in the U.S. and number 7 on the European Billboard charts, and yes, the video has a VW van in it.

2000s

Bosozoku culture redefines 1970s excess with modern technology, creating the loudest, most colorful, and brightest conversion vans ever unleashed into an unsuspecting world. Many of these vehicles double as alternative living spaces for their owners, with full sleeping quarters that are in some cases larger than a tiny Tokyo apartment.

2010-Onwards

2019

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