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:
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!