One of the projects most dear to Knox County inventor George Crise’s heart was the land yacht he designed and built. His sons, Robert and Richard Crise, who prefer to be called Bob and Dick, talked about the creation of the self-contained vehicle, which George was thinking about as far back as 1928. He started construction in the 1950s, after he retired from Price Electric Manufacturing Co., a company he started.
Bob said the land yacht was a major engineering marvel, as George designed everything for it, including a refrigeration system. Starting with a conventional bus frame, George built, with the assistance of carpenter Sylvester Durbin, the unit body out of wood, which required some adjustments.
“He reasoned that when you go down the road,” Bob explained, “you would hit potholes and uneven surfaces and the frame would flex. If he rigidly attached the body to the frame, it would tear the body apart. So, he welded an oil well-like casing down the center of the frame and balanced the body on that. He also added a big mast on the back which helped to stabilize the body, and the frame of the vehicle could flex without transmitting that flexing into the body.”
The vertical I-beam stuck up to the vehicle’s ceiling level and had an adjusting screw so the body could be leveled as a final adjustment.
The mast, while solving one problem, did create another.
“The land yacht had a manual shift, and you had a clutch and a brake pedal and a gear shift,” said Bob. “All of that had to come from the frame engine part up through the body. Well, dad allowed clearance for the clutch pedal and brake but ... coming down a steep driveway from Wise’s Gas in Danville he hit bottom and the body moved so much, and the frame, that it snapped the clutch pedal off and the brake pedal snapped off, too. Fortunately, he was in creeper gear and was able to limp home. Leaving enough clearance was one of the major construction modifications he had to make when he welded the clutch and brake pedals back on.”
Another modification was a grill Crise made out of stainless steel; he designed and welded that himself, as well as the headlights and cells.
For refrigeration and air conditioning, Crise used a system where he had brine plates located underneath the body. What Crise called the “power tower” was mounted on, sticking up from the chassis at the rear end. It featured a five horsepower Wisconsin engine which drove the generator and refrigeration compressor.
“Because it’s annoying to have a compressor coming off and on all night,” Dick said, “he would freeze the brine plates during the day and draw the cold off them at night. A fan drew air over the cold plates. The brine plate system ran the air conditioning and the refrigerator and the freezer.”
Also regarding the power tower, Bob said his father had an arrangement whereby the generator served as the starter for cranking the Wisconsin engine, a design which was adopted by some motor home makers in later years.
Another innovation in the land yacht’s construction was double wall construction for insulation purposes.
“That was also for strength,” Dick said. “And it was all put together with waterproof glue, which had to be kept in the refrigerator because it didn’t have much life. So, whatever you were going to fasten with this adhesive, you had to do it pretty quickly because it set up pretty fast. [Dad] also had an air stapler he used on the plastic-faced plywood.”
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“One of the unique features of the land yacht,” Bob said, “was the front seat. It was like a bench seat, and it served as the front seat. He wanted as much space as possible because he would go down to the [Florida] Keys and stay and he didn’t want to waste the space where the steering wheel was, so he took off one bolt, and you could pull the steering wheel and spline off. And you also could take the gear shift lever off and that seat had different positions. It bolted to the wall and you could flip that over and it became a couch that went right up against the dashboard. So now he had a living room.
“And he had another position that came down and you used the small dining room table in conjunction with that and it made a queen-sized bed, so that front seat was the driver’s seat when you’re driving, flipped up for a couch or had another position to make it into a bed.”
In designing the beds for the land yacht, Crise decided air mattresses would be the best bet, both for comfort and to keep the weight down. His mattress, Bob said, consisted of individual Hodgman air tube held side by side with a foam rubber topper. Air pressure could then be adjusted to get the desired firmness.
Windows and other fittings for the land yacht were conventional mobile home items, and the wheel covers were made of children’s plastic snow discs, cut down to the appropriate size. Cabinets and things were custom-made by Crise to fit the available spaces.
The land yacht’s bathroom was another of Crise’s innovations, his sons said. Besides an entry system that could be accessed from the front or back areas, it was made so that the entire floor was a shower pan.
“When you wanted a shower,” Bob said, “you just showered over everything. There was a curtain and a vinyl blind and you just showered in the bathroom. It had drains on all four corners, so the water would drain no matter how you were parked or how level.”
“That’s pretty common in boats today,” said Dick.
The land yacht was built in a machine shop in the rear of the Patented Products building in Danville, Bob said, an area not only used for making and repairing jugs, fixtures and machinery but also some hobby work.
“One evening during the land yacht’s construction, someone had planed a piece of wood in the main vise the previous evening, which left an accumulation of shavings on the concrete floor,” he said. “The next day, the state fire marshal appeared unannounced for a look around. We had just completed a tour of the plant, when he asked about the machine shop. When he stepped inside the door, Dad was using the ox/acetylene torch to weld a piece in this same device. Some of the hot metal had dripped on the wood shavings and there was a small smoldering fire going on the floor. Dad didn’t want to stop, since he had the piece heated to the correct temperature and the weld metal flowing. So he was doing a little ‘quick step’ to smother the fire with the soles of his shoes, while he continued welding. The fire marshal watched for a moment, looked at me, shook his head and walked back out the door without saying a word.”
An adjunct to the land yacht was a two-section boat that bolted together and was made to just fit a platform (tramp board) on the back of the yacht. Bob described the boat as follows:
“The 7-foot bow section could be used as a separate, smaller watercraft, but was usually fitted with the stern section to make a 14-foot boat. In transit, the bow section nested inside the stern section, and was stored vertically on the tramp board. The stern had fittings which hooked on the inside of the boats when horizontal on the ground, and could then lift them, pivoting on the hinges, to a vertical position on the tramp board. The sections were then secured by a large safety strap around the boat’s bottom to keep them in place.
“Each 7-foot section of the boat had four L-shaped forgings, one on each side, top and bottom bulkhead, to connect them to the larger boat. The bulkheads, front of stern section and rear of bow section, fastened together with four bolts to make a very good performing 14-footer. Dad carried two twin outboards for regular use, and an air drive for the shallower water in Florida.”
Another complement to the vehicle was a two-passenger, three-wheeled portable scooter which Crise also designed and built. It had two wheels on the front which could be steered, and one wheel in back, which was the drive wheel. The front axle came off to facilitate storage in the motor home. The scooter was powered by a chain saw-type engine, but its unique feature, Bob said, was the use of a joystick for steering, powering and braking.
“Once you started the scooter,” Bob said,” the more you pushed the stick forward, the faster it went: Lean the stick to the left to turn left and lean right to turn right, and back to stop. It had wild acceleration and was very tricky to steer. The first time I tried it, I ended up in the neighbor’s front yard and considered myself lucky to still be alive.”
That scooter was eventually replaced with a more conventional mini-two-wheel scooter, which Crise also built.
Although never built, Crise also made drawings for a design for the ultimate land yacht, one that was amphibious. The design included retractable wheels, an auxiliary propeller drive and rudder.
Once, when his children were little, Bob and his family went to Yellowstone National Park with his parents in the land yacht. He said the vehicle’s top speed was about 54 mph.
“That led to one of the hairiest experiences in my life,” Bob said. “We were coming back through Nebraska, and this road was like the old road used to be out on Coshocton Avenue. It had a crown in the center, but it had concrete on the edges for the water to flow off. Empty cattle trucks, semis, were coming up behind us, and they were going a lot faster than I was. I couldn’t get above 50 mph.
“For them to pass me, I had to kind of go over and put my wheels in that trough in that side. They were passing on the other side, it just seemed like it took them forever to get by me. I’m sitting there trying to keep the [land yacht] straight so we don’t get sideswiped or something. ... Dad eventually bought a V-8 engine and an automatic transmission and installed it.”