Pop Kaesler’s Motorhome

There will always be some contentious discussion on who built the first motorhome in Australia but it is generally accepted that one of the first motorhomes built, if not the first, was the one built by Gerhard (Pop) Kaesler who was born at Tanunda SA in 1885 and who, after attending school for only 5 years, worked for a wheelwright and undertaker until 1921. He then bought land at Nuriootpa and set up his own business as a coachbuilder and blacksmith.

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In 1914 he built a single seater car and 5 years later a 4 seat touring car with a willow tree frame. He built his first caravan in 1929.

“Pop” Kaesler, as he was fondly known to many, passed away in 1987 at the age of 102.

Mos Kaesler, one of Pop’s grandsons and a member of the Kaesler Caravan Trust in Nuriootpa has kindly given permission for the following extracts from a booklet written by Pop and titled “The Beginning of Motor Caravanning in Australia” to be used in this article.

“ During the early 1920s motoring was one of our favourite pastimes, and the South Coast we visited many times. Victor Harbour was a place we enjoyed, but accommodation during the Easter holidays was always a problem.

During one such trip, Easter weekend 1928, with a new ‘Flying Four Dodge Tourer’, we arrived at McLaren Vale, intending to stay the night. No accommodation was available and we had to sleep in an old shed, paying the same tariff as the other guests. We decided that these conditions were not to our liking and started to plan a new idea.
At home there was an old 1924 Dodge tourer, not in very good repair, but we put on a new body with a house effect and called it ‘Home From Home’. This was almost completed by Easter 1929.

Off we set on Good Friday morning, and reached Moana Beach after lunch. Our camping cooker was tried and performed well. We settled down and people came from all directions wondering what sort of gypsies we were. Had a very comfortable night in our new beds, and awoke to a beautiful day. The water police were very confused about us. There were no council laws for ‘Caravans’ then. People with tents had to pay 2/6 per night. It was a very good area for swimming and paddling for the children.”

Pop Kaesler and his family continued their journey to Goolwa where it was “Back to Goolwa” week. At Goolwa the family were introduced to the Mayor, Mr Wells. “Pop” continues:

“He was very interested in our ‘Home From Home’ and asked if I would build one for him on an old Buick car. I declined, so he asked if I would sell our ‘Home From Home’. After much bargaining we accepted his offer. …. That ended our ownership of the first ‘Home on wheels’.”

After the motorhome was sold to Mr Wells it remained in the yard of his house in Goolwa but it is not known how much use was ever made of it, apart from being used as a playhouse by the Wells children.

After the death of Mr Wells the motorhome was given to the local Council who put it on open display in Goolwa. Over the years it suffered minor vandalism and the removal of some parts until the Council decided to remove it to storage at their works depot. It remained there until during a periodic clean up the motorhome was to be dumped. A member of the local National Trust Branch arranged for it to be moved to the Goolwa Museum where it has remained ever since.

Numerous attempts to restore the motorhome were made but none were successful until February 2000 when two volunteers who were familiar with the restoration of this make of vehicle came forward and offered to return the engine to working condition and to make the vehicle roadworthy.

A number of parts had been acquired over the years but not all were suitable so obtaining the right parts still entailed some scrounging, the repair of existing parts and some work on the body panels. The radiator surround was badly rusted out at the base and needed rebuilding and re-painting, and the engine bonnet had to be replaced with the correct type and then repainted. Both were done locally, and now all the remaining bodywork looked rather shabby. A new muffler and exhaust tail-pipe were needed and all electrical wiring had to be replaced. When the vehicle was displayed in the open it appeared that the little boys just had to tinker. With a nice wide engine oil filler in the shape of a funnel, a handful of gravel sounded just great going down the chute, the result, a sump half full of gravel, and a very messy cleaning job. New brake linings and the straightening and adjustment of the brake rods made them effective again. On Monday September 4th 2000 the vehicle was driven for the first time and taken for a service which also entailed the replacement of all grease nipples.

The rest of the bodywork, the “house” is another task for later. There are doors to be repaired, glass to be put back in windows, locks to be fixed and keyed and a bit of general cleaning up still to come.

The vehicle is now in working order and is registered. It has of course been necessary to make some concessions to the current requirements of the Road Traffic Act and turning indicators have been fitted as have rear vision mirrors.

The motorhome is recognised by both the National Museum of Australia and the National Motor Museum as being the first motorised caravan in Australia and as such it is a priceless part of the collection of the Goolwa Museum.
The motorhome is available to local community groups in the town provided that a driver is available to accompany the vehicle. It is also restricted to being driven within the town boundaries only. If it is to be taken further, it must be transported.

Pop Kaesler’s story continues:
“Now we had a big problem to face. A new house on wheels must be built by 1st September 1931. We began to look for a suitable light truck chassis, which I found without much trouble. Mr. J. Krieg of Nuriootpa had bought a 6 cylinder light 1 ton truck of mine, in which he used to cart pigs to Mt. Barker, but he discovered that the tyres were not suitable for his work and changed it for a heavier vehicle, so once more the 1 ton truck was mine.”
Pop Kaesler stripped the truck down to the chassis and lengthened it to “take the shape of the house”. As the wheels would not be suitable to take the weight of the “house” he swapped them for 20” rims from a 1926 Dodge car and fitted 600 x 20 Balloon tyres.

“Once the frame of the house was made, we marked out each section with chalk, changing it around till we were completely satisfied. One of the biggest considerations was the bed. It had to be comfortable after a hard day’s driving. We planned on having cavity walls for all temperatures.”

After much discussion, Malcolm Reid’s of Adelaide agreed to build a custom made settee to Pop’s design and he states that they did an excellent job. The settee converted to a double bed at night, the bedding being stored above the drivers cab when the settee was not in use as a bed.

Two twelve gallon water tanks were made and fitted underneath at the rear. A spare five gallon petrol tank was also made and fitted giving a total capacity of seventeen gallons and a touring range of around 260 miles (416 km). Also fitted and or stowed were a spare tool box to carry an axe, spade, chains, blocks, small and large jacks, a compass, altitude meter, clock and gradometer.

“A collapsible rear step, non slippery but suitable for shoe scraping, was installed at the back of the vehicle. Found a space above the driver’s seat for the rifle (telescopic sights), fishing rods and lines, hooks, knives, bullets etc,. easy to get at and the door could be reached from the driver’s seat. An Atwater Kent 6 valve wireless was fitted, and a brass peg made with a sharp point to put into the ground under the water tap, to make a moist connection for the aerial. The same peg was used to open petrol tins, for refuelling the petrol tank, because there were no Bowsers along the roads. Petrol had to be carried from Depot to Depot, by means of cans and cases. Two small bunks were installed for the smaller children, and the front seat was converted into a bed for the third child. The front cushion was moved forward against the brake and gear lever, and the back cushion laid flat, making a very comfortable bed. Our children’s ages at the time were Gordon 14 years, Hazel 11 years and Eric 7 years. The eldest son Victor, aged 24, had to stay at home and manage the family business – and he did a wonderful job!

The next job was the kitchen. My wife was a wonderful cook, so we wanted everything to be right for her. Our cooker (from previous “Home From Home”) was fixed permanently and neatly, and Shellite was the fuel used for cooking. The cooker was mounted on steel, and at the back was enamelled steel, like imitation tiles for easy cleaning.

Underneath the cooker was a cupboard for kitchen utensils, and above the cooker another cupboard for groceries. Opposite the kitchen was the wardrobe with hanging space and also extra hooks. Boots and shoes were stowed in the bottom. Everything in its place and a place for everything. On one side was a small cupboard for First Aid, very compact. A long mirror was fitted on the wall behind the driver’s seat, this mirror being hinged so you could swing it for dressing or shaving. More cupboards had to be made, right along the wall opposite the settee, to carry bread, crockery, cutlery and not forgetting the wines etc. These cupboards were used as a seat when the table was erected. The table was fitted to the wall and made to fold down to make more space. There was also a collapsible toilet.

Mr Pitman of Waymouth Motors, was mostly responsible for us obtaining the Dodge 6 cylinder Light Truck chassis. Praise also goes to “Vacuum Oil Company” who gave us well marked maps, and offered all petrol purchased at any of their Depots on credit until we returned. No Travellers Cheques were available at that time. This we thought was a generous gesture.”

KaeslerHouse-of-Wheels-Built1931
This second “motorhome”, Pop’s “House on Wheels”, was fully restored back to its original condition by three of his grandchildren in 1966. This restoration proved to be quite a costly and time consuming exercise but is considered to have been worthwhile considering the interest that it is now receiving.

Pop Kaesler and his family travelled extensively in “House on Wheels”. Their first major journey was their Silver Anniversary Trip from 31st August to 30th October 1931. This particular trip took the family over poorly formed roads and across ferries through Broken Hill, Cobar, Bourke, Cummamulla and Toowoomba before returning home along the East Coast.

Pop and his wife also travelled to various areas of South Australia which included the South Coast, Yorke Peninsula and in 1950 they travelled to Gympie and Maryborough in Queensland. After his wife’s death Pop continued travelling on his own and his last major trip was to Melbourne in 1956 to the Olympic Games.
In a later article we will follow Pop and his family’s adventures as they travel the outback on their Silver Anniversary Trip.

Meanwhile, halfway around the world, our cousins in America were also starting to modify automobiles into what we now call motorhomes, a word which had not yet evolved. In fact the term “Land Yacht” was often used to describe this newly developing class of recreational vehicle, probably because the trades and skills called upon were more akin to those of a shipwright who is more used to being able to use every square inch of available space. Indeed it will be noted that in many places in the text terms are used which have a very nautical “flavour”.
Many of the ideas that developed during the 1920s predate features which we now accept as being of modern derivation.

The following text and illustrations are from an article titled “The Land Cruiser” in a long defunct publication of the era. Our thanks go to Nobby Williams, Q13018 who sent the article in in response to our request on page 37 of the September edition of “The Wanderer”.

“Since there are so many ways in which an automobile can be converted to touring purposes, and so many ideas of personal comfort and convenience to be taken into consideration, it may be manifestly impossible to lay down any set rules and regulations for construction and arrangement. Much depends on the size of the party that is making the trip; if there are not more than two, a touring-car chassis will perhaps answer, but if there are to be three or more, a truck is recommended, unless of course, the party wants to carry tents and camp out literally.
If a touring car is to be rebuilt into a travelling dwelling, the first thing that must be done is to strengthen the rear spring, if it is not already stiff enough, to support the additional weight of the new body, without letting it down against the axle every time the car goes over a bump in the road, and it may also be necessary to lengthen the frame by one or two feet.

Next will come the construction of a body and here the builder gets his first opportunity to exercise his originality and ingenuity in devising new features that will add to his comfort on the road. Figure 1 illustrates a type of body that is easily built. It will be noted that all corners are secured with body irons of various kinds and, if the owner is also the builder, he can have these made by “the village blacksmith” or buy them ready-made. Hardwood should be used throughout and the sides covered with plywood, or heavy wallboard suitably waterproofed. Unless the owner is an experienced “hand” and has considerable skill, it would perhaps be better and ultimately more economical, to have the work done by a professional body builder.

Also for use on a popular make of light car, ready-made bodies for both passenger and truck chassis can be bought.
At the rear of the car are tanks for water, and fuel for the stove used for cooking, as shown in Figure 4. These tanks are placed in the corner on suitable brackets and held in place with straps. The space between them being taken up by a locker for toilet materials, or it may be used as a storage for cooking utensils. An alternative arrangement, by means of which a larger quantity of water could be carried, would be to mount a single tank horizontally in the corner against the roof; then again the tank might be mounted on the outside, above or below the car.

It might be mentioned that the presence of a door at the rear of the car will influence the interior arrangement.
Another view of the convenient interior of this car is given in Figure 5; this shows the combination of table and cupboard locker, and stove. When not in use the door serves as a door for the cupboard, and is raised to the position shown by the dotted lines when in use. The locker, which extends beyond the cupboard, serves as a support for the bed when it is opened out, as shown in Figure 6, and, like everything else, this idea will immediately suggest variations of design and arrangement. The bed may be one of those folding ones best known as a “sanitary couch” fitted with wooden ends and suitably fastened to the body.

A more complete view is shown in Figure 7, which shows everything ship- shape, as it would be on the road, with the exception that the steaming pot on the “galley” range would perhaps be endangered by careless driving. This view shows how the oil stove is connected to the fuel tank. Also, like all the other ideas, the arrangement of the stove is susceptible of considerable elaboration, and shelves on either side of the stove would also add to the convenience.

An arrangement that furnishes a maximum of interior space and sleeping accommodation is afforded by a body of the type shown in Figure 8. In this design, one or both sides are hinged to open up at the center, the lower half resting upon what during the day serves as a baggage carrier. Underneath the beds, which form comfortable seats when the ides are closed, provision is made for stowing clothing and other articles. With the sides in the open position, as shown in the drawing, roller curtains are pulled down at the side and across at the ends, to obtain the necessary privacy. Naturally such an arrangement is more suitable for use in warmer parts of the country, although by altering the sleeping arrangements slightly, it could be used with equal satisfaction in any latitude and in any season.

The interior view shows the arrangement of the “mess” and “galley”, the door of the cupboard, or food locker, forming a table when not in use as a door. By placing the stove on top of a cupboard or chest of drawers, additional storage space would be obtained with no sacrifice of space. The hinged sides of the car are held in their open and closed positions by means of chains and bolts respectively, as indicated. Of course, every spare bit of space can and should be utilized for the storage of clothing, food, and supplies, and the ingenious builder, while profiting from the suggestions illustrated in these two types, will doubtless be able to devise any number of additional comforts and conveniences that will meet the special requirements of his own “crew”. These designs have been stripped to the mere essentials for providing comfortable living quarters while on the road, and no attempt has been made to encumber the car with showers baths, refrigerators, or similar arrangements, the inclusion of which is left entirely to the builder. The cost of a body such as is shown here, will, of course, vary as the interior is more or less elaborate, but for $300 or $400, in addition to the cost of the car, a very comfortable “auto cruiser” may be fashioned.”

In the early 1930s, Vic Kleinig set up the engineering business, “Mastercraft” in Granville, Sydney, specialising in the manufacture of “Pantechnicons, Trailers, Caravans, Buses and Mobile Vans”. The business ran successfully for close on 30 years, closing in the late 1950s. We are indebted to C.V. Kleinig who kindly allowed us to use the irreplaceable photos (pictured at the beginning of this article) of some of the motorhomes that were constructed during this era.

A contemporary description of one of Vic’s larger motorhomes built just after the war shows that it contained many of the features that we now take for granted:

“The large caravan measured 27 feet by 8’ and is 6’3” in height. Ten adults and one child can sleep in it and it is insulated throughout with sprayed asbestos, is sound proof, heat proof, condensation proof and very warm even when in extremely cold climatic conditions. The caravan contains two full sized wardrobes and dressing tables, complete double bed run room (sic), metal lined bread and cake boards, which pull out from cabinets, full size five burner automatic pricking Alladin pressure stove with oven at base which is identical to the latest gas stove.
It has a bathroom size 6’ x 2’9” which contains a pivot shower, lavatory 3’6” x 2’9” Sani lid pan system, a copper with dual burners at one end of the bathroom; also wash basin above copper.

The outer bathroom wall hinges out to make a shade over your head to do general washing and boiling and alongside the copper a platform opens up on which you can place the washed clothes ready to hang on the line.

There is also a crockery cabinet and auxiliary table, and a large extension table which will seat twelve.
The caravan is flyscreened right throughout and has 18 large windows and nine large glass ventilators in the roof.
The sunroom windows are of perspex, conforming to the round shape of the body, and measure 5’6” x 5’.
The front windows are of moulded and rounded perspex measuring 10’ long and 21” high right across the van and extending around the corners.

Beds have inner spring mattresses throughout. There is an ice chest, extra large kitchen cabinet, stainless steel sink, essence bottle and vinegar bottle chests and a medicine chest.

A special ironing board is detachable from the auxiliary table.

In addition to a five valve Breville wireless set the caravan carries a small plywood launch which seats five adults and a detachable Power latest Seamaster engine, capable of 12 m.p.h.

The chassis of the van is a 1927 Federal and the owner has extended the chassis and made a full forward control steering, giving equal – and in fact better – than car driving vision. It is powered with a Mercury Ford engine and gear box.

The tonings inside the caravan are cream ceilings and polished veneer furnishings.
The vehicle has two twin 100 gallon water tanks, under the floor, and a manual controlled pump installed on the bathroom wall pumps water in to a header tank in the bathroom which holds 22 gallons of water and this gravitates to all taps throughout the caravan, which is called “MASTERCRAFT”.

The lighting system is both 240 volts with power plugs and 6 volt running from two large batteries which are charged from the engine of the van when it is running. The occupants can use Petrol or Electric irons for ironing clothes and there is a pressure Alladin 200 candle power hanging lamp.

Interior lighting is English – spiral glass set in chrome mountings throughout the van.
Entrance is gained through a main door which is 6’ x 2’6”. Directly underneath the door at floor level there is a secret panel and from behind this slides out a combination of three steps in one which is let down in approximately three seconds.

At the side of the body near the door is a tradesman’s servery entrance for receiving goods without opening the main door, above which is another light installed showing steps up to caravan at night, and across the glass is the name “VIDORA”, being a combination of the names of both Mr. and Mrs. Kleinig.

The weight of the van, including one ton of water and all the goods, is five tons fifteen hundredweights and it has an average speed of 18-20 miles per hour.

Among the accessories are an 8-day clock, flower vases and scalloped edged mirrors etc.

Another feature is a special draw bar at the rear to enable Mr. Kleinig to tow his car and have the use of it whilst the caravan is parked. This is hitched on in just a few seconds.

A great feature, too, is that the occupants can cook, have meals and sleep whilst the vehicle is travelling along.
You can place a glass of water or milk anywhere in the van whilst travelling and it will not spill.”

Normally one tends to associate “fifth wheelers” with America but there are records of such recreational vehicles being built in Australia before the second world war. One such vehicle was built by Sandy Randell and was towed behind a modified Auburn motor car, see photo below, and featured a masonite exterior.

Sandy, who by this time had two young children, was a builder by trade and after the war decided to build a bigger and better fifth wheeler using some of the vast amounts of Army surplus materials which were coming on to the market at knock down prices. Brand new disassembled Chevrolet Blitz trucks were readily available and sandy bought a few to form the basis of his new RV transported them to his poultry farm at Doonside and started work.

The chassis of the fifth wheeler was constructed from several Blitz chassis which Sandy cut up, welded and bolted to form a very substantial basis for the “home” which was to be built on top. The framework for the body was built using Silky Oak with marine ply being used for the external walls.

The accommodation consisted of the main bedroom over the turntable, a lounge area, a second bedroom with a single bed on either side, and a kitchen at the rear. A full sized enamel bathtub was concealed under the lounge room floor with access via a trap door. The toilet facilities were outside.

For its day, 1947, the interior was very innovative and well thought out by Sandy. It featured a table which slid out from under the bed and which doubled as a desk when bookwork had to be done. It was intended that this should be a working unit and Sandy’s tools of trade were packed away in toolboxes underneath.

The kitchen featured a full size kerosene refrigerator and gas stove. The many cupboards throughout were varnished.
As it was Sandy’s intention to tour New South Wales working on various building projects, he built a very specialised tow unit to suit his needs. It was built on another Blitz chassis and consisted of a cabin also made of marine ply on a Silky Oak frame with a working area immediately behind the cabin. A second Chev. engine was mounted in this working area to provide power for the various pieces of machinery that were needed in his trade for milling and dressing timber.

The fifth wheeler provided full time accommodation for Sandy and his family whilst he was away from home working on construction sites around the State whilst the prime mover doubled as his workshop.

For local transport around town Sandy carried an Austin Seven engine and gearbox together with a back axle and driveshaft, which can be seen on the roof, in the second photograph, just above the driver’s door under the boat. Once Sandy reached his place of work he would assemble them, and a timber chassis and body that he also carried, making a very useful “utility”.

Sandy’s wife and children would often travel in the trailer whilst going from job to job and she would prepare meals “on the go”. When the meal was ready she would call Sandy on a field telephone which linked the trailer with the prime mover, telling him it was time to pull over for lunch.

Photos and details for the above article kindly supplied by “Campervan & Motorhome Trader Magazine”.

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