Bowlus Road Chief updates 1930s classic caravan
By David Szondy
February 16, 2013
Caravans make a nice change from holidays in hotels, but they can be as aerodynamic as a shoe box and often about as attractive. Canadian tech entrepreneurs John Long and Helena Mitchell are taking a step forward by going a step backward and reviving the Bowlus Road Chief of the 1930s. It’s an updated version of the classic American design that they call a “revival of an Art Moderne style with 21st century touches.”
The original Bowlus Road Chief was produced in 1934. It was designed by Hawley Bowlus, a pilot, sailplane enthusiast, aircraft designer and builder of the "Spirit of St. Louis” – the airplane made famous by Charles Lindbergh’s first solo flight over the Atlantic in 1927. Being the brainchild of an aircraft designer, the Road Chief was, not surprisingly, based on aircraft principles with a streamlined aluminum body. Unfortunately, it wasn't very successful. Only 80 Road Chiefs were built, but a similar design was adopted by Wally Byam in 1936 for the much more successful Airstream line.
The current design is a modern take on the 1930s obsession with streamlining and polished metal. Each one is hand built and bespoke. According to Bowlus, the 21st century Road Chief is the “world’s most aerodynamic travel trailer.”
It has a monocoque shell made of polished aircraft-grade aluminum over an aluminum frame held together by over 5,000 rivets. There's an enclosed undercarriage, flush elliptical windows complete with brass mesh and a rounded front end. The whole caravan is streamlined front to back, making for more efficient towing on highways.
It has an independently suspended torsion axle and is also extremely lightweight, tipping the scales at 2,000 pounds (907 kg) – with the company claiming that it’s the lightest 24-foot (7.3 m), fully-featured travel trailer ever produced.
The streamlining is further preserved by building the Road Chief with enough internal stowage space to allow propane tanks, bicycles and other gear inside the caravan. There’s a front-entry door for easy storage of long gear within, the cabin has built-in strong points and the Road Chief can carry a payload of 800 pounds (363 kg). This may keep the lines clean, but it does raise the question of keeping the interior from getting banged about after carrying bikes and other gear.
Like all caravans, when it comes to the interior, the Road Chief is a bit like living in a Swiss Army knife – involving lots of unfolding and refolding for different tasks. The layout is the same as the classic Road Chief, with the interior sheathed in aluminum and birch. There's a full-sized sofa and two armchairs that convert into twin beds.
As you would expect, the galley is compact, with a SMEG Italian cooktop and a folding glass top for larger counter space. The sink’s spray hose extends far enough to reach outside the caravan. Though there’s no conventional oven, a microwave is standard, as is the 12-volt, marine-grade fridge. The dining table is detachable for outdoor meals.
In the aft cabin, there are twin “V” beds that can be made into one full-sized bed. These come with Libeco Home linens, and a six-inch (15 cm) thick foam latex mattress. As far as utilities are concerned, there’s a full bathroom with shower and an exterior door that doubles as an emergency exit. The caravan even comes with an awning that can be positioned on either side.
Where the Bowlus Road Chief really shows its 21st century cred, however, is in its electrics and electronics. In the wardrobe closet there are 120-watt solar panels and the caravan is equipped with two high-capacity AGM batteries. Throughout the Road Chief there are power outlets and there’s a built-in inverter, too. Next to the sofa is a charging station for laptops, tablets and cellular devices.
The Road Chief can be fitted with cellular or Wi-Fi routers, amplifiers, or other devices, and waste heat from electronics is passed through a special vent. Meanwhile an 8000 BTU air conditioner keeps the cabin cool – provided you have a 2000-watt generator or handy access to AC mains.
Production of the Bowlus Road Chief is by order only, delivery is scheduled to begin after May 1. The list price is US$100,000.