From the Road: 1940s "Big Rig" Fifth Wheeler

Susan and Keith Hall — 12 February 2011

THERE IS SOMETHING undeniably awesome about fifth wheeler caravans. They have a huge road presence, are spacious and luxurious inside, and seem to embody the latest in caravan technology. In fact, the fifth wheel design was developed in 1911 and initially used for horse drawn wagons.

One of Australia’s most famous fifth wheelers is the Highway Palace, a custom built caravan towed by a Fargo truck. It was completed in 1949 and has a massive fifth wheel. But maybe you are wondering what the expression “fifth wheel” means. The term refers to a tow coupling located in the rear platform/tray of a truck or utility, which connects beneath the overhanging front portion of the van. The tow vehicle has four wheels, and the connector is the fifth. The tow ball on the Highway Palace is fully 9in (22cm) in diameter and comes from military equipment.

We were lucky enough to talk with Richard and Judy Hart about the Highway Palace when we were in SA recently. Richard showed us through the vintage rig, which has a plush dining area upstairs, a spacious kitchen, a large bedroom at the rear, and even a bathroom – complete with a bath and running hot water.

This vintage Big Rig didn’t look quite so swish 12 years ago. It had been used to store horse harnesses and the like, and was badly deteriorated. Restoring it was a major project that took the combined resources of a whole bunch of Adelaide-based Chrysler fans (Fargo is a Chrysler brand). Thanks to their efforts, today Highway Palace is looking as good as ever.

This 1949 caravan has many clever technical features. The water system uses gravity feed, and air pressure differences are used to remove steam from the bathroom. There are plenty of luxurious touches too, from the large wardrobe and chest of drawers with mirror in the bedroom to the leather covered club seating area that can comfortably seat 10 people.

Susan and Keith Hall are regular contributors to Caravan World.


Vintage vans fifth wheeler retro Highway Palace


Susan and Keith Hall