Auctions and Brokerage
William “Hawley” Bowlus was a pioneering engineer, a master craftsman and a true child of the machine age. His lifelong fascination with the freedom of mobility was apparent from a young age, and, by his teenage years, he was experimenting with gliders and airplanes.
Recognized as an up-and-coming talent in the burgeoning field of aviation, Bowlus joined Ryan Airlines and first gained fame for his role as Superintendent of Construction on Lindbergh’s legendary plane, the Spirit of St. Louis.
A true renaissance man, Bowlus eventually shifted his focus to recreational vehicles, a movement that was gaining ground during the early 1930s. First built to carry his gliders to takeoff sites, Bowlus’ trailers were rooted in years of aviation experience.
His designs resulted in the world’s first riveted aluminum travel trailers and incorporated gas-welded frames (weighing in at 150 lbs.), self-supporting exterior skins, and aerodynamic principles. At a time when nearly all travel trailers were based on crude, ladder-frame designs, Bowlus offered the public exceptional high-quality products that were typically more advanced than the cars to which they were hitched. Not only were Bowlus trailers lightweight and efficiently packaged, they could actually improve gas mileage at cruising speeds!
His interest in the American Southwest was reflected in the model names, “Papoose” and “Road Chief,” and the company’s sales literature often set the gleaming trailers amongst the Joshua Trees of the California desert. Touted as a high-end, luxury trailer, the upscale Bowlus models were quite expensive and often seen coupled to the finest luxury cars of the day.
Sadly, the cost of production, steep asking prices, and limited sales networks forced Bowlus out of the trailer business. Airstream purchased the remnants of the company, established their own brand of polished-aluminum travel trailers, and the rest is history.
Presented here is the very first Papoose, one of the earliest riveted aluminum trailers built by Hawley Bowlus on his family’s ranch in San Fernando, California. Records indicate that six Papoose trailers were built and this prototype example is immediately distinguished from the three other known survivors by its unique axle placement, skirted pontoon fenders, and lack of a serial number.
It is believed that this Papoose was retained for promotional purposes, as it is clearly illustrated in Bowlus factory literature and pictured among the Bowlus-Teller display at the California Pacific International Exposition held in San Diego during 1935.
Compared to the much larger Road Chief, the little Papoose was truly a marvel of creative packaging. Inside its petite droplet form, the Papoose was generously outfitted with four windows, a telephone intercom system, closet, lounge chair, folding table, and bed as well as a working kitchen equipped with a stainless steel sink, two-burner stove, water tank, and ice box. Priced at $750 – just over a dollar per pound – the Papoose was aimed at the traveling salesman, who could demonstrate his wares during the day and sleep in it at night.
The current caretakers discovered the Papoose approximately 15 years ago in Central California. At the time, the trailer was in need of restoration, but remarkably intact and unmodified with its distinctive original features present. Following a painstaking three-year restoration process, the Papoose was returned to its original splendor, and it has since been enjoyed as Hawley Bowlus originally intended – on the open road. Impressively, the Papoose has continued its travels across the Golden State, easily towed by a period-correct V-8 Ford.
A testament to its inherent appeal and its owner’s enthusiastic presentation, the Papoose has never failed to attract admiration. Over the past decade, it has received a long list of awards, including Best of Show at the Stanford University Concours, Favorite Exhibit at the Hillsborough Concours, Best Trailer Camp Exhibit at the Palo Alto Concours, and People’s Choice Award at the 2010 and the 2012 Pismo Beach Trailer Reunion.
Significantly, this marvelous piece of American motoring history is fully outfitted and offered with an incredible, expertly curated array of vintage FDR-era interior furnishings, props and decorations, a restored Coleman stove, and a proper canvas awning, as illustrated in the original sales material.
Additionally, the Papoose is accompanied by an extensive collection of period trailer-related literature that includes original Travel Trailer magazines, builder manuals, parts catalogues, a trailer park and camp directory, and even a 1936 first edition of Howard Vincent O’Brien’s Folding Bedouins, an influential memoir of early trailer travel.
In their day, Bowlus trailers represented the height of style, comfort, and modernity; today, they allow collectors to embark on new adventures in classic motoring. This splendid, one-of-a-kind Bowlus Papoose would be the perfect showpiece for concours, a wonderful companion to an American classic, and a unique paddock display accompanying a field of prewar racing machines.
Combining avant-garde construction methods, spectacular streamlined design, and the status as a pre-production factory prototype, this undeniably charming Papoose trailer is a proud representative of the golden age in American transportation and a lasting testament to the visionary genius of Hawley Bowlus.
Gooding & Company is proud to offer this irreplaceable piece of 1930’s motoring history for public sale. It is truly a remarkable example of Americana fit for the connoisseur.