Vintage Camper Buying Quick Guide

I've spent A LOT of time over the years researching, finding, and working on vintage campers.  I'm not an expert that knows everything about one particular brand, but I do know a lot about many different makes of vintage trailers.  Today, I'm going to pass on a bit of what I've learned, in hopes that it will help someone with their trailer buying experience.  

First, let me say that I highly recommend buying a vintage travel trailer...especially if you're a DIY kinda person.  Paying someone to work on your trailer is extremely expensive....you'll need the confidence to do it yourself.  Second, let me say that if you're not going to buy vintage, at least buy recently used.  New travel trailers devalue(and sometime deteriorate) extremely fast...and warranties are questionable in the travel trailer industry.  From a financial standpoint, buying used/old/vintage makes sense...if you have the time and will to work on the camper.  How much time?  Totally depends on what condition you purchase the camper in....more on that next.

Below are a few general rules for purchasing a vintage camper.  If you're going to do a complete frame off, custom rebuild, then disregard these rules and buy whatever you want.  If you're looking for a vintage camper that you can put a little work into and actually use in this lifetime, here are some guidelines to get you started.

-The exterior should be intact and decent.  If you're new to vintage campers, you might be surprised to learn that the exterior shell pieces are the parts that are hard to find and expensive.  All the body panels and glass should be there and in decent shape.  If glass is missing, make sure it's a flat piece of glass that can be easily replaced....curved glass(like on an Airstream) is expensive and rare.  A few dents in the body is OK, but if it's too beat up it'll probably bug you later on once you renovate the interior.  A rough exterior might also be a potential source of leaks.  I look for trailers that have had maintenance, even repairs done to them.  That shows that the owners were diligent about keeping the trailer in good shape and leak free.  Leaks kill campers...and all trailers can leak.

-Check the floors.  Most old trailers have leaked at some point in time.  Hopefully, the owners addressed it in time.  Floors are a good indicator of past leaks.  Poke around on floor with a screwdriver and check for soft spots.  Do this everywhere you can reach...particularly at the corners.  A soft spot indicates a rotten wood floor, and almost all floors are wood.  If the subfloor(usually plywood) is visible, check the color...dark stains indicate leaks.  A few small soft spots can be managed....big areas need to be replaced, and that can be a big job depending on the model.  I personally would avoid any trailer with large soft spots in the floor....especially in an Airstream.  Silver Streaks, Avions, Shasta, and other vintage brands have floors that are easier and more accessible to replace than Airstreams...but I try to avoid bad floors altogether.  Sometimes it means removing EVERYTHING in the trailer to replace the floor, sometimes you can just patch.  

-You want all (or most) of the systems to work.  Plumbing, electrical, gas, AC, fridge....test every single system for longer than a few minutes.  Turn the AC and fridge on as soon as you get there and see if they cool down while you're testing other systems.  Old systems will eventually fail, but at least start with a camper that's in working order.  That will make it easier to diagnose problems when things do fail.  Electrical problems can be a nightmare, and plumbing is usually hard to get to.  System components aren't cheap, you want to buy as few as possible. 

-Should be tow ready and used recently.   Sometimes, you'll find an awesome trailer that's been siting in a field for 30 years for a GREAT price.  It may seem like a great deal(and it may be depending on model/price), but more often than not, the amount of work needed to get that trailer up and running is cost prohibitive.  Ideally, the trailer should be ready to tow home and recently camped in.  Axles, brakes, and tires can run over 2K, and that's just to get you home.  Not to mention a trailer that's been sitting that long probably has other hidden problems.

-Clean title.  Goes without saying..accept nothing less than a clean and clear title.  If not available, walk away.

Finding a vintage camper that meets these criteria can be challenging, but it can be done.  It's worth being patient to find the right one.  Exterior, floors, systems, and towing are the big areas of concern.  Ignoring these areas can get you trapped in a huge project or financial pitfall.  Make sure those areas pass the test and you'll get to spend your time on the fun renovation stuff and camping. 

Once you have purchased the camper and towed it home...double check everything.  If everything is working and there are no leaks, proceed to getting the interior up to shape.  This is when you can customize and renovate however you'd like....AKA the fun part.  If the interior furniture/fixtures are not to your liking, pull them out and build from scratch.  Repaint the entire interior if you'd like.  I used a combination of acrylic paint, spray paint, epoxy paint, and countertop paint to completely change the look of my camper from 70's avocado to contemporary white.  Cheap foam for beds and cushions can be sourced online.  You can DIY the upholstery or have a local shop make it using cheap fabric you found on sale.  Rip out the old carpet or flooring and install something new.  The possibilities are endless, just try to keep it light.  I don't like too much thick plywood for added weight, and I don't think tile is a good choice in a moving vehicle.  I'll create a complete write-up on interior renovation on the blog soon.

Here are a few brand specific observations:

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AIRSTREAM....Still the best bet in terms of resale, recognition, parts availability, service, clubs, history, and cool factor.  They are not even necessarily the best built campers, but they are the icon in the trailer world.  All aluminum exterior and framing. Tons of information available online. They hold their value better than any other trailer, and are the standard in vintage campers.  On the other hand, Airstream floors are tough to replace without removing the shell.  Be sure to google "rear end separation" and educate yourself with that problem.  Plumbing and system components are notoriously tough to access.  Parts and service are available but expensive, but you're going to do it yourself, right?  

 

AVION...A secret gem that many people assume is actually an Airstream.  In reality, it's a completely different company that also made excellent aluminum trailers.  Since it's not an Airstream, they can be bought for much less.  In my opinion, Avion is the best "value" of the vintage aluminum trailers.  All aluminum exterior and framing. Their system components and floors are easily serviceable, accesible, and very durable.  Strong frames.  Don't have some of the big problems Airstreams can have.  The windows aren't as cool as Airstream windows, and the interiors are a little boring, but you're going to fix that anyways.

STREAMLINE/SILVER STREAK...Two companies that were once one, and they made very similar trailers.  Very similar to Avions in terms of frame strength, accessibility, and build quality.  All aluminum exterior and framing. They have a cool, unique steampunk look.  Body parts, clubs, and information on the web are hard to find.  Not many of these left on the road.  Can be purchased cheap, but are quality trailers.  If you find a good one don't hesitate.

BOLES AERO...A neat trailer that looks like kinda like a canned ham but is all aluminum and still made with aluminum ribs...meaning the structure won't rot.  I like these.  They are not rounded like the other aluminum trailers, but they can be bought cheap and redone nicely.   If you like the look, they are worth investing your time.

SHASTA/CANNED HAMS....They have an iconic look and are popular with lots of folks.  These can be bought relatively cheap and renovated in a variety of ways.  They are typically smaller then the all aluminum trailers.  They were generally made with affordable materials. There are tons of different brands in the canned ham world.  The main problem with these trailers is that most of them were constructed with wooden framing and panel siding...therefore these campers are more prone to rot throughout.  They must be resealed regularly, because any moisture from leaks can rot/ruin the framing of the camper.  I personally would rather put my time and money in an all aluminum camper because I think they're much more durable, but I do like the looks of the canned hams.

OTHER MAKES...There are tons of good quality camper companies that have come and gone over the years.  Some are great, some are not.  Use the same rules to assess them.  Remember that rare campers have rare parts that are hard to find, and information may not be available to fix them.  

Now that you know what to look for...go get a vintage camper and get out there!

 

Comanche Cocoon featured in Cool Tears magazine!

The teardrop camper I built, the Comanche Cocoon, was featured as the cover story in the JAN/FEB 2016 issue of Cool Tears magazine!  It's free to read/download, or you can order a hard copy print version.   I wrote the article, and there's lots of good pictures and information on the build process.  Please check it out!        http://www.cooltears.com/

 The Comanche Cocoon on the cover  of Cool Tears.

The Comanche Cocoon on the cover  of Cool Tears.



Backyard Chicken Coops 101

I build a lot of custom backyard chicken coops.  The designs vary greatly, and I love to use as much salvaged material as possible.  Old windows, vintage doors, antique stained glass, salvaged lumber, barn tin...the older the better.  The design process is a lot of fun, but the design must always be functional and meet my standard space requirements for the chickens to live comfortably and produce the best eggs.  Here is a chicken checklist to get you started:

 Church's Chickens

Church's Chickens

HOUSING/SPACE

There are many fun, creative ways to design and build a chicken coop.  As a general rule, Chickens need 4sq ft. of space per chicken in the coop (where they sleep), and 10sq ft. of space in the run (the outdoor section).  If the chickens will be free ranging during the day, then they don’t need a run, or they can get by with a smaller run.  Chickens will sleep on a roosting bar, and they prefer it to be highest, safest location in the coop.  Chickens need one nesting box (where they lay their eggs) for every 3-5 birds.  All of these numbers are recommendations…they can be adjusted depending on the situation.  Baby chicks should be kept in a brooder/box with a heat lamp(and an area to escape the heat lamp) until they’re old enough to move to the coop.

Some breeds of chicken are very cold hardy, and some are not.  Most chicken breeds can survive a typical North Texas winter if they have a dry shelter with proper ventilation, but using a heat lamp (or other type of heater) in the coop can help protect your flock through the cold months.  Heaters must be used and setup with caution to avoid a coop fire.  Chickens need plenty of ventilation in all seasons, especially winter.  They produce a lot of moisture through breath and chicken poop, and if moisture accumulates in the coop it can cause frostbite, bacteria, odors, respiratory problems, and poor health.  Coop cleanliness is another factor to consider.  Your coop will need periodic cleaning so make sure you choose a design that is able to be easily cleaned.  Chickens also need sunlight to produce eggs efficiently, so take that into consideration with your coop design/free ranging plans.

FOOD/WATER

There are many ways to feed a chicken.  Crumbles, pellets, organic, cheap, expensive, free…it’s all available.  Some folks just let their chickens forage for themselves.   They say that a natural, varied, organic diet will yield better tasting eggs.   As long as your chickens have access to food and plenty of clean water they’ll be fine.  Water will freeze in the winter and will need to be replaced accordingly.  There are also heated water bowls available.  Chickens don’t last very long without water, so keep a close eye on their water source.

PREDATORS

North Texas has plenty of predators that would love to eat a chicken or eggs for dinner.  There are several common predators, but hawks and dogs seem to be the worst.  Your coop should be completely enclosed in such a way that no animal can climb or dig inside.  When your chickens are free ranging they are at the mercy of the hawks, but chickens are alert and always on the lookout for such predators.

EGGS

Each breed of chicken produces a slightly different egg.  Some eggs are large, small, blue, green, brown, etc.  Some breeds are known to be “good layers” and they lay and egg every day.  Other breeds might only lay 3-5 eggs per week.  The eggs have a natural coating that keeps them fresh for weeks without refrigeration.  Once the eggs are washed, they need to be refrigerated like store bought eggs. All backyard eggs are delicious!

PERSONALITY

Each breed has a different personality.  Some breeds are more laid back than others, while some are more dominant.  Your flock will sort out their own pecking order.  Most chickens will behave like pets if you raise them from chicks and handle them often.  They will follow you around the yard and beg for treats (they love meal worms, crickets, yogurt, scraps, etc.) and they will enjoy being picked up and handled if they are used to it.  This excludes roosters, as their personalities can be unpredictable.

CONTACT

I have experience building decorative, original, functional coops using a variety of materials.  Please get in touch if you’d like to discuss a chicken coop setup for your backyard or property.  

Justin.preston@gmail.com

 

A Brief history of Teardrop Trailers

 The Comanche Cocoon in New Mexico

The Comanche Cocoon in New Mexico

Teardrop campers were a common sight in the 1940's, often built by returning WWII veterans out of surplus aircraft aluminum.  The first teardrops were built by DIY woodworkers in their backyard shops.  Magazines in the 1930's-1950's, such as Mechanix Illustrated, published detailed plans for building teardrops.   There were very few commercial manufacturers of teardrops during this time period, but there were a few.  Since most of the teardrops were custom made, they were all unique with lots of personality.  Some were simple hunting campers, and some were elegant and followed the bold lines and fishtails of the automobiles of that time period.  In the years that followed, teardrops began to disappear as gas prices dropped, cars become more powerful, and RV's grew to gigantic proportions. By the 1970's, very few teardrops were being commercially built.                

The 1990's saw the resurgence of teardrop trailers.  Modern gas prices, a slow economy, and an environmental consciousness have catapulted teardrop trailers back on the road. Teardrop trailers are durable, affordable, cozy, and comfortable. They can have most of the amenities you find in larger RV's, at a fraction of the cost(and a fraction of the carbon footprint). They can be towed by almost any vehicle, including many 4 cylinder cars, trucks, and vans. Teardrops can fit in any garage, parking spot, or campground location. Teardrops also make a great guest bedroom, man cave, or bug out room at your house...my guests love to "camp out" when they visit. Owning a teardrop grants you access to an elite club of proud teardrop owners that regularly hold meetings/camp outs/functions around the US. Owning a teardrop also means that you will soon meet new friends....every time you tow your camper people will want to know all about it!

 The Comanche Cocoon In Texas

The Comanche Cocoon In Texas

These days, there are many commercial manufacturers in the teardrop game.  Little Guy(affordable) and Camp-Inn(luxury) seem to be the largest companies making teardrops.  Of course, custom DIY teardrops are still being made by folks all over the world.  There are many online forums that provide tons of instructions and advice if you'd like to make your own. (www.tnttt.com) 

My version of a teardrop trailer is called the COMANCHE COCOON.  The cabin is  is 5' wide, 8' long, and 4' high. Approximate dimensions of entire camper including wheels, and tongue: 6 high, 11 long, 7 wide.  It weighs about 1400 pounds.  It includes an LCD TV/DVD, interior lights, cupholders, interior storage, lighted kitchen galley in the back, air conditioning, 12-volt roof fan/vent, AC and DC power options, on board battery charger, baby moon hubcaps on 15 inch wheels, custom wood accents, custom wood bumper, extra long California king mattress...and an XBOX 360.

 

 The Comanche Cocoon off grid in Wyoming

The Comanche Cocoon off grid in Wyoming