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KING OF THE ROAD : David Woodworth Not Only Travels the Country in RVs, He Collects Them in Name of History

July 20, 1994|PETE THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are about 25 million recreational vehicle enthusiasts in the United States, but there is only one David Woodworth.

A former pastor, Woodworth says he has not changed faiths, but to hear him talk you would swear he has converted from Christianity to RVism. His two-story house in Bakersfield has a few Christian decorations. It is loaded with RV and camping paraphernalia.

"I collect everything from underwear to matches to canned goods to sleeping bags to folding furniture to hunting and fishing equipment," Woodworth says. "Anything that would be of interest to RVers for the period of time I'm focusing on."

Woodworth, 55, could very well be the country's only RV historian. When the Smithsonian Institute wants to set up a historical display, it calls him. It did so in 1986 for its exhibit, "At Home on the Road." After all, nobody else had an Imperial Toilet Tent from 1919.

When the Recreation Vehicle Industry Assn. organized its National RV History Tour, Woodworth was a natural. His enthusiasm for RVs and their progression through time borders on obsession.

"He's the perfect ambassador," says Jon Tancredi, a spokesman for RVIA.

Woodworth, sponsored by RVIA, will travel to 87 cities this year, in an RV, of course, to preach the benefits of RV travel.

"The reasons for doing it are freedom, the chance to have your home with you, and to see the country in comfort," he says. "Those reasons have remained constant throughout the whole time. It's only the vehicles themselves that have changed."

Woodworth can tell you that the average RVer today is 49, owns his own home, earns just less than $40,000 a year, travels 5,900 miles and spends more than 23 days on the road each year.

But he can also tell you that the first RVs were built in 1902. That one of the primary factors for the birth of RV travel was a growing dissatisfaction with leisure travel by train, which was considered by some to be too restrictive.

Woodworth can go into great detail about the first RVs, many of which were little more than modified cars. The McMillan Auto-Bed, a 1920s invention consisting of steel rods, brackets and a roll of thick canvass--at a cost of $10--turned early Fords into RVs merely by transforming seat cushions into beds.

"Your bed conforms to every curve of your body, and it is wide enough and strong enough for two grown people or three--yes, at a pinch, four children," reads an advertisement, one of hundreds Woodworth has on the shelves of his library.

Woodworth's home is full of such literature. He has all the records of the forerunners of the Good Sam Club--it offers members travel benefits and discounts--a group of Model T campers called the Tin Can Tourists organized in 1919. He has hundreds of old photographs, including one of a 1919 modified Cadillac "pulling trailer" and one showing a view of Camp Robert E. Lee and the vehicles used on "The Four Vagabond Camping Trips," a demonstration of sorts to publicize car camping in the late teens.

The four vagabonds were car maker Henry Ford, inventor Thomas Edison, naturalist John Burroughs and rubber tycoon Harvey Firestone.

One of Woodworth's books, "Motor Camping," published in 1923, explains the growing popularity of car camping during the Roaring '20s:

"In these days when the (traveling) habit is being contracted by many thousands who tour the southlands during the winter season and across the continent during the summertime, there are many who find it most convenient to have special caravan car bodies, which in effect are land yachts or traveling bungalows."

Such vehicles, some built on standard chassis and others made by special order, became known as motor bungalows.

"The outfit is a real home," wrote the book's authors, J.C. Long and John D. Long. "The beds are made up at night from the seats in somewhat the same manner that a lower berth takes shape under the deft hands of George, the porter. But these berths are longer, wider and infinitely more restful. Then the windows are large and can be raised without the aid of a crowbar."

Woodworth bought his first RV 25 years ago, a 1928 Ford Model A Phaeton that--like other RVs of the day--had been modified for car camping.

He became so caught up in his investment that he began traveling around the country in the old car, reaching a top speed of 60 m.p.h. on the straightaways, camping next to the modern RVs with his two daughters and a 1928 fold-out radio.

"The more I started looking into it, the more I realized that here is a major part of American history that still exists," Woodworth says.

He has since bought 22 more RVs, including his pride and joy, a 1937 Hunt House Car, which when new cost as much as a house--about $2,500. But unlike many houses of the period, the Hunt House Car actually had a shower and restroom inside the house, or car, which Woodworth says is basically the same thing.

The Hunt House Car, built by cinematographer Roy Hunt and nicknamed "the Star," also had a two-burner stove that doubled as a heater and an icebox. About the only drawback of the art deco-style RV is that there are only a couple of places that a person 6 feet or taller can stand without bumping the ceiling.

Woodworth's Hunt House Car is fully restored and functional, but he doesn't drive it much. Nor does he drive the Model A. Or his 1929 Wiedman, or any of his 22 RVs for that matter.

The RVIA is paying Woodworth's expenses while he is touring the country, and letting him use a 34-foot Winnebago, complete with central air conditioning and heating, a VCR and all the other amenities of home.

Woodworth says making the transition from Model A to modern era was easy.

"Now I get to travel in a brand new RV, with all modern conveniences," he says. "And I can sit on the couch and watch (the television show) 'Coach.' "

Ah, the great indoors.

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