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The Amazing 'Hippopotabus': The World's First Luxury RV

Did you ever imagine a yacht on wheels? Well, my father did, though now you see such things on our roads and highways all the time. We call them "RV's." Along with his many achievements in his remarkable life, my father invented the first luxury RV.
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Did you ever imagine a yacht on wheels? Well, my father did, though now you see such things on our roads and highways all the time. We call them "RV's." Along with his many achievements in his remarkable life, my father invented the first luxury RV.

This is the story of a bus -- a most unusual bus. In its first incarnation, the large vehicle was named "Diogenes" by its creator, Walter Chrysler, founder of Chrysler Motors. Though he designed it for his own personal use, Walter loaned it to the leaders of the Women's Christian Temperance Union in 1933. They borrowed it to crisscross the country to protest the repeal of prohibition. Up and down hills and vales, through small towns and large, the stalwart bus hauled its equally stalwart occupants on their fruitless mission. Imagine if that bus could talk!

And this is where my father, Jim Davey, comes in. As I've written before, I believe my father had the most incredible life of anyone I've ever known, and his exploits could fill volumes. Born in 1887, he was creative and exuberant by nature. He was a noted tree surgeon, naturalist, world explorer, sought-after lecturer, inventor, builder, and expert photographer. He also had great timing: this was an age when the world was bursting with new ideas in travel, transportation, technology, science, and communication.

Of course, my father had great genes. His father, John Davey, invented the science of tree surgery around the turn of the century. Like his father, my father saw his interest in trees as both a vocation and an avocation. In the 1920's and 1930's, he and his first wife, Mary Binney Davey, traveled the entire globe studying the world's trees for the family's Davey Tree Expert Company. In 1928, he and Mary had the first automobile safari from Capetown to Cairo. Throughout, my father photographed for The National Geographic, and would have been perfectly happy just shooting trees. However, the magazine insisted that he include a person or an animal in the picture. As pioneers in world travel, my father and Mary were often in the news.

The couple lived in Greenwich, Connecticut and Fort Pierce, Florida, traveling back and forth on my father's yacht, which he joyously called the "Dunworkin." While my father was an outdoorsman, he also enjoyed his creature comforts - to be honest, he insisted on it. To that end, he began to envision a yacht on wheels that would allow him to explore North and South America, and Canada; one that could also provide a comfortable home and photography studio that would enable him to photograph in the earliest morning light. Such a vehicle -- a yacht on wheels -- had never been done before.

When my father, an aquaintance of Walter Chrysler, heard about the automaker's unusual bus, he was immediately intrigued. The Diogenes was powered by a 125 horse power Chrysler marine motor, and in addition to the regular gears, had a sub-low gear which could pull it out of almost any hole that it might get into. There was nothing else like it at the time. In other words, it was perfect for my father.

Within three weeks of purchasing the Diogenes, my father transformed it into the "Hippopotabus," so named because its face really did resemble a hippopotamus. It was so ugly, it was cute! Nothing made my father happier than a new building project. Rolling up his sleeves alongside three carpenters who had worked on boats most of their lives, he made the Hippopotabus a veritable house on wheels. It was the prototype of today's RV's, but it was the very first one. It was such a novelty, in September of 1933, House Beautiful magazine featured my father, Mary, and their amazing creation. While the photographs are evocative, the most striking aspect of the magazine spread is that the Hippopotabus doesn't seem all that different from the RV's we see on the road today.

The Hippopotabus really was a home on wheels. It had a galley complete with gas stove and refrigerator, built-in beds, table and chairs for dining, hanging and storage space, a darkroom in the bathroom/shower, screens on the windows, and removable curtains on hooks. It also had a roof for sunbathing and photographing, and a hatch over the driver's seat that would admit enough light to photograph specimens inside the car when the weather outside would not allow it. Water was supplied by a 50 gallon water tank on the roof, and a 25 gallon tank in the galley.

The exterior of the Hippopotabus was painted aluminum with a tangerine trim, and unlike the sometimes drab interiors of modern RV's, the inside was highlighted with cheerful shades of yellow, peach, tangerine, and turquoise. Those same colors were repeated in the plates, cups, containers, and pitchers, which were unbreakable - a brand new invention at that time. The bathroom was entirely black, because it doubled as a darkroom, and the walls throughout were filled with my father's paintings. Mary pointed out that the Hippopotabus was so smooth to ride in, that she was able to do her delicate needlepoint as they traveled.

This remarkable vehicle came into being as a result of my father's wanderlust, a passion that he passed on to me. I had to find a way to see the world, and my timing was pretty perfect too! In 1965, I embarked on a 20-year career as a Pan American World Airways stewardess during the golden age of aviation. Like my father, I traveled the world, but in vehicles fashioned after -- and named for -- the old clipper ships of the nineteenth century.

My "yachts" had wings!