New York Times Articles


DRIVING; Time Travel, In a Trailer


Published: December 26, 2003



            STANDING in the open screen door of her shining, 1953 Aljoa Sportsman camper, Mo Collins, 38, watches her 8-year-old son, Collen, as he runs through the woods with a posse of other children. Comfortable that he is safe, she steps back onto the pink linoleum floor of her aluminum and birch-wood trailer, with its Tiki-theme curtains, and pours herself a cup of coffee.


            But the year is not 1953, of course; it's 2003. Ms. Collins, an actress on the Fox program ''Mad TV,'' and her husband, Jimi Englund, 38, a musician, are among a growing number of vintage-camper fans who are finding their way onto America's roads in rolling stock built back when Studebakers and Packards plied the highways.


            While lovers of 1950's modernism have made the Airstream into a well-known design icon, other trailers, with names like Silver Streak, Vagabond and Spartanette, are much less well known. Sometimes far less expensive than their modern counterparts, and in many cases surprisingly easy to restore, they often have stunning, handcrafted birch interiors, miniature Philco and Marvel refrigerators with pull-down handles, and porcelain-enameled Dixie stoves and ovens. With a little money and ingenuity, they can also have nearly every modern convenience you could want. That is, if you want them.


            The trailers' appeal, said John Anderson, a television producer whose 1948 Westcraft trolley top looks as if it could have just rolled off the lot, is that ''you're living the way people lived in the 40's and 50's.'' But, in fact, everything from the wiring to the paneling has been replaced and hidden behind the vintage touches -- like a porcelain bathroom sink, antique ice-box door and gleaming varnished cabinets -- are a modern refrigerator, a 12- to 120-volt power system, a six-gallon hot water tank and a fully modernized water-holding system. The camper, which Mr. Anderson found on a Canadian roadside for sale for $600, is also wired for solar power, though he has not yet installed the panels. (He drew the line at television: the trailer has only a historically correct AM radio.)


            To share their passion for vintage trailers, owners come together in weekend campouts like the one last month that Mr. Anderson and Ms. Collins were attending in an Anaheim, Calif., RV park. At many of the rallies, families will show up not only with an old camping trailer, but with a vintage automobile to pull it, like the 1957 Chevrolet Bel-Air, the 1959 Mercury Voyager wagon and the 1938 REO fire truck parked near these campers at the Canyon RV Park. The old-style trailers and cars, occupying 40 or so spaces, are a startling contrast to the modern R.V. behemoths that take up most of the rest of the vast, oak-shaded campground.


            The rally's organizer, Craig Dorsey, who runs a trailer restoration company called Vintage Vacations, was there in his own two-bedroom, two-bath 1949 Vagabond Liberty coach, which he found on eBay and bought for just $463. ''I wasn't setting out to make it perfect,'' Mr. Dorsey said. ''The sole purpose was to set it down in Julian,'' a town in the San Diego mountains that has a 90-acre, 120-site vintage travel trailer retreat, ''so that we could go down there on weekends and have our little cabin in the mountains.''


            Mr. Dorsey, a former art director for television commercials, didn't start out restoring trailers for a living. He bought his first trailer, a tiny 1956 Mercury ''canned ham'' model (so named because the shell resembles the time-honored Hormel tin), in 1996 for a few hundred dollars and restored it in his spare time. He said he never used the trailer, and ended up taking it to a swap meet where he was astonished to get $3,500 for it.


            Then one day he was ''working with the director from hell,'' he said. ''It was one of those situations where I just came unglued. I walked over to the producer, shook his hand and said, 'I'm done.' I called my wife and said, 'Honey, I'm going to restore trailers.' ''


            Though his wife was less than pleased about the idea, Mr. Dorsey said, his business has grown in the four and a half years since he opened up shop in Anaheim. To date, he said, he has partially or fully restored more than 40 trailers and is nearing the point where he has more work than he can handle by himself.


            And while many old trailers can be found moldering in backyards and barns -- or, increasingly, for sale on the Internet, where they can be picked up for between $1,000 and $5,000 -- restoring one to its pre-World War II or Atomic Age glory can cost $100,000 or more.


            A typical, unrestored vintage camper may have a hand-pump sink with a small water storage tank, a kerosene or propane heater, a gas stove and a 110-volt refrigerator that must be plugged in to an external power source, and possibly even a propane-powered lighting system. Most of the smaller models built before 1960 tend to lack a shower or toilet. But by the time restorers like Mr. Dorsey are finished with them, they are just as loaded with conveniences as the latest motor home from Winnebago.


            A stunning Silver Streak that Mr. Dorsey is restoring at a cost of nearly $200,000 has a $9,000 Bose flat-television surround-sound system; freshwater and sewage tanks; a stainless steel shower and toilet; a modern refrigerator (though it has a retro-looking door); a full inverter that powers 120-volt appliances; and heat and air-conditioning. ''You'll get the same things on this you would in a Prevost'' motor home, he said.


            Among the trailers Steven Butcher, a partner in a Ventura, Calif., restoration company called Funky Junk Farms, has recently restored is a 1948 Westcraft for a fly fisherman. It has a DVD system and all the components run off a 2,000-watt, battery-powered inverter. ''I like mixing new technology with something old,'' he said. ''You can even add solar panels to run your inverter. It looks like the 1940's until you open up the cabinets.''


            IN the trailer Ms. Collins and Mr. Englund share, Mr. Butcher pulled up the worn linoleum flooring, confirming that the baseboard wood underneath was in good shape, and then laid a new coat of pink-colored linoleum that he said was very close to an original pattern. To add to the authenticity, he carefully aged it with a power sander.


            Not everyone goes to such lengths, of course. Matt and Genevieve Buffington bought their 12-foot 1965 Aristocrat Low-Liner for $1,000 and put about $1,200 more into it in paint and replacement of worn woodwork, doing the work themselves. ''We didn't have the big, beautiful wood interiors,'' Mr. Buffington said. ''We've instead gone totally atomic.''


            Now even their two children are fans of midcentury design. At one point, Mrs. Buffington said, the family drove to an exhibition on modernism in San Diego and ''our kids would stand outside and say, 'Would you like to see our trailer?' It was a huge hit.''


            For many vintage-trailer owners, the biggest problem is stopping at just one. Parked a few campers over from Mr. Dorsey, Toni Miltenberger, 60, was enjoying a cup of coffee in a brilliantly shiny 1958 Streamline 27. She and her husband, Chuck, restored the trailer themselves after paying $4,000 for it on eBay. Now they're restoring two more trailers -- a 1950 Westcraft Coronado and a 25-foot Silver Streak. Before they were bitten by the vintage bug, Ms. Miltenberger said, they owned a 1989 32-foot Suncrest motor home, the biggest model available when they bought it. ''It had all the modern conveniences.''


            But she said that they preferred their rolling museum. ''We've been there and done that with the modern toys and conveniences. Plus, there's just the history of it. We do like antiques.''


            In fact, the couple towed their trailer 60 miles, from their home in Saugus to Anaheim, behind that 1938 fire truck, which Mr. Miltenberger found at a Rose Bowl swap meet. ''We can drive into a trailer park pulling this old trailer,'' he said, ''and the park can be filled with $500,000 Monacos. Within 10 minutes those drivers are over talking to us.''


            On a weekend campout like this, people walk from one old-fashioned trailer to another, marveling at the perfectly functioning 50-year-old refrigerators, matched sets of original curtains and old copies of Life magazine, as well as the home theater systems run by solar power inverters hidden in the cabinets.


            But the real appeal of the trailers is much simpler, Ms. Collins said. ''You can just feel the fun that has happened in there,'' she said. ''The birch wood smells like 50 years of campfires.''