Cars have been around longer than people realize, with larval versions dating back to the early 1800s. What's also been around a long time is people's infatuation with the idea of a go-anywhere exploration vehicle. Even if they were only built in jingoistic imaginations, it's still a start.

These proto-Unimogs first entered the collective mind around the Victorian era, when cheap, pulp novels containing stories now called "Edisonades" were popular. These were stories about young, bold, innovative men who used their incredible skills at inventing and technology to have adventures, chase bad guys, and, most cringingly to modern eyes, subjugate the crap out of pretty much anyone not white and protestant.

Still, outdated racial unpleasantness aside, these stories were the forerunners of the science fiction and technothrillers of today. That's not to say they were actually good, since, really, they were generally pretty poorly written, with predictable plots and eye-rolling dialog, but the machines they came up with were usually pretty spectacular.


There were all kinds of steam-powered robots and mechanical horses, airships and helicopters and flying packs and submarines and electric cannon, in these stories, but I want to look at some of the off-road vehicles: Franke Reade Jr.'s New Electric Van, his Valiant battle-van, and Jack Wright's Electric Stage.

Both of these stories, even though they came from competing series of books, were written by Luis Senarens, both in 1893, under the pseudonym "Noname." Clever. What's interesting about these vehicles is how much they foreshadow future extreme-use campers and expedition vehicles, but that may be because the basic form of these kinds of things is so straightforward: rugged chassis with good ground clearance, and a big box on top to live/ride/shoot at things in.


The phrase "New Electric Van" nowadays conjures up images of an eco-friendly vehicle UPS is using in urban environments, but back in the 1890s, it was an exciting globetrotting platform you could shoot tigers out of. In the story "Franke Reade Jr.'s New Electric Van," the alternate title is "Hunting Wild Animals In The Jungles of India" which between the two titles, tells you pretty much all you need to know.

Shooting lions from an electric van - what more do you need?

The Electric Van itself is interesting, showing a uniquely 1890s take on the extreme expedition vehicle. The chassis is almost train-like, with large coil springs supporting the main body rails, and leaf springs for the large wheels. The wheels themselves are massive spoked things with what appear to be heavily grooved iron tires. The body itself is screened on the sides for comfortable airflow, I suppose, and has a series of gun ports along each side, for maximum animal-shooting enjoyment. For even more shooting fun, there's a cannon on the roof!


There's a cockpit with a horizontal steering wheel, and the batteries and running gear seem to be crammed into the main spine of the vehicle, which is not a bad idea at all, and not too different from what, say, Tesla does today. It's even got wheel spikes and nasty-looking horns in the front, but all in all it resembles one of the early steam and electric trucks in use at the time.

Frank Reade had a later van-like vehicle, but it was less of an exploration vehicle and more of a proto-tank sort of thing. This was the Valiant, which looks sort of like a quaint Victorian cottage on wheels, with a massive front spike, sharp prow, mounted cannon and a guy on board with what appears to be an electric whip.


The other exploration van was called the Terror, Jack Wright's "electric stage." In this story, subtitled "Leagued Against the James Boys," the massive six-wheeled brute was used, it seems, to hunt down the Jesse James gang.

The Terror itself fit a similar mold as the other proto-vans, but more train-like. The six large wheels are arranged in a locomotive-type formation of two small axles up front, and a large set of wheels at the rear, with the electric propulsion provided by a pair of cylindrical motors that look a bit like reciprocating steam pistons, except for the electric "glow lines" coming off of them.

The body is enclosed and very similar to a train car, and there is an exposed cockpit in the front, with a steering wheel positioned, I guess, to turn all four front wheels. Sort of like the Tyrell P34 race car, maybe? Oh, and of course, there's a huge, scary spike.


All these vehicles are fascinating in how they show that people have been wanting, essentially, tough armored RVs since the idea of self-propulsion even became plausible. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to recommend reading any of these, but all of the Edisonades are at least worth looking up online, and being dazzled by the illustrations, absurd and visionary all at once.