Discover Vintage America - MAY 2018

Vintage campers are the new restoration enthusiasm

Spring is finally here, despite that big, fat snowflakes are falling while I type. This month's column is not so much a question and answer but a braggadocio, "Look what I found" piece. Questions that people ask me run the gamut from beanie babies to antique coin silver. But I don't recall ever being asked about a vintage camper.

Exterior of my project camper

Just about everyone is familiar with the sleek, shiny aluminum Airstream and the smaller version, Avion. There are several campers with aluminum exteriors; this was new information to me. Once you start looking at these little gems you will discover brands you have never heard of, functionality and unbelievable design and restoration efforts. The Shasta is adorable with fins on the back.

Two "before" views of the camper interior

About 10 years ago I began my quest for a small pull-behind camper that would sleep two without the feel of a sardine can. I love to travel and having a camper would make traveling more affordable – no more big hotel bills. It would also allow me to set up at some of the big outdoor antique events around the country. I was not obsessed with finding the right camper, I knew that the perfect one would find me someday and was hoping that "some day" would be while I am still able to enjoy it.

Just last month, while drinking my nightly glass
of wine, per doctor's orders, I pulled up a popular buy and sell website. There she was: my camper.
I called immediately and the seller still had her. The sellers purchased the 1969 "Go Tag-A-Long" camper about two years ago so that they could travel and set up at flea markets. They are kindred spirits, but they never had the time to work on it.

After 10 years of looking for a vintage camper I
am familiar with price points and felt that the asking price on the Tag-A-Long was very fair. It was not totally trashed and as far as I know there are no expensive repairs. I am going to incorporate some of the items I already have, such as an old kitchen counter with drawers, 1932 Coolerator ice box, furniture, light fixtures and two large bolts of bark cloth fabric for curtains and cushion covers.
I should be able to come in under budget and
have a wonderful camper that we will all enjoy.

The campers made prior to 1970 are the most in demand and the majority of people are looking for small to medium sized examples. If you are willing to put some work into a travel trailer or camper
you can find a vintage one in the $6,000 price range. If you don't mind waiting a decade, like I did, you will eventually locate a travel trailer in the $2,000 to $3,000 range. If you have building skills you might be able to find one that needs significant work priced below $1,000.

1935 Coolerator model ice box that will be going into my camper

On TV you see a host of house flipping shows. I could certainly benefit from a show that flips vintage campers. After a vintage travel trailer is restored it is very easy to resell for double or even triple the price you paid for it. You do have to be mindful of the cost of restoration and your ability to do the restoration. Keep in mind that it needs to be restored as close to new as possible.

1953 Airfloat camper

Some of the vintage travel trailers and campers are amazing. I have seen photos of a few that are 46-feet long. I saw others that were like an old school motor home where the front looks like a car and the trailer is incorporated in to it. These were the first entrants of the "tiny house" movement.

The older campers were not inexpensive by any means to purchase new. I have looked at old magazine ads showing small campers priced around $600 and the large mobile home trailers for $7,000 and up in the 1950s. There was no skimping on the interior either. Most had birch wood paneling, a nice bathroom, kitchen area, and diner seats and table. The more room the manufacturer had to work with the more extensive the interiors such as built-in vanities, nice closet space, larger kitchens with bars and diner settee areas. I was looking at birch paneling the other day and at $20 a panel I will probably come up with a plan B.

Airstream Avion camper

The national highway system did not officially get under way until the 1920s. Eventually, the decision was made to build "super highways" or roads that would stretch across the USA. The interstate highway system was developed from the 1960s onward and this is when campers and trailers really started hitting the highways so that families could travel with all the conveniences of home and see the wonders of America.

interior view of the Avion

I hope that this has inspired you to look at old campers in a different way. Maybe I have inspired you to look for your own little house on wheels to restore. At the very least, get out on the highway and find new places to explore.

As I progress in the restoration of my 1969 "canned ham" Tag-A-Long I will post videos and photographs on the site for all to follow.

If you are interested in seeing a few of the variations here is an excellent place - www.allmanufacturedhomes.com and vintage_mobile_homes.htm

Here is another site where you can see some of the huge campers - www.vintagecampers.com/danscollection.php


Note: All prices given are for sale in a private sale, antique shop or other resale outlet. Price is also dependent upon the geographic area in which you are selling. Auction value, selling to a dealer or pawnshop prices are about half or less of resale value.

Michelle Staley is a Lenexa, KS-based dealer and researcher with 35 years of experience in the antique trade. Send questions with photos to Michelle to publisher@discoverypub.com. Please keep queries to one question; questions without photos of the item may not be answered. Michelle is also available for consulting and extensive research work beyond this column. If you would like an appraisal on an antique or collectible please go to www.michelleknowsantiques.com for a one-on-one appraisal.