Metropolis / Fixations
Vintage Collectors Are Circling the Wagons
July 18, 2004|MARGARET ASTON
This just in: "Trailers are so hot right now, guys are fighting each other over them."
The above bulletin comes from someone in a position to know, vintage trailer collector John Agnew, 42, who, along with his best friend and fellow collector Steven Butcher, 46, finances his passion through Funky Junk Farms, their vintage-trailer prop rental and restoration company with locations in Altadena and Ventura.
Teamsters who work on film sets, Butcher and Agnew founded Funky Junk as a sideline to indulge their passion for what connoisseurs consider the "golden era" of the trailer, typically from the 1930s to the late 1940s, when Westcraft, Pierce-Arrow, Travel Coach, Curtiss Aerocar and others were designing roadworthy American dream houses. By 1936 there were hundreds of trailer manufacturers in the U.S. alone, where the fierce competition propelled innovative design and craftsmanship. Classic trailers are cherished today for such decorative details as Art Deco light fixtures and superb woodworking in birch, Douglas fir, maple and even mahogany.
Agnew and Butcher also own models from the '20s and '50s, such as a rare 1920s "pop-up," a precursor to the first mass-produced trailers, which appeared in 1932 and were called "Covered Wagons." Some 1950s-era makes and models in their collections include the 1954 fin-tailed Ranger pop-up, the quaint 1951 Dixie Enterprise, a 1954 Spartan Mansion and, they concede, a pair of Airstreams. "You can look in the paper and buy an Airstream. We call them 'Mainstreams,' " says Butcher, who prefers rarer pieces such as a 1935 Golden Palace, his favorite.
Agnew's love of trailers blossomed on family camping trips in a 1959 Ford pickup with a camper and a 1972 Open Road motor home. He got his first trailer, a tiny Teardrop, when he was 14. Butcher tinkered with and restored cars growing up. He and Agnew became best friends in the early '90s. While on a film shoot in Arizona, they discovered Lost Highways, a club for vintage-trailer aficionados, and the collecting began. Agnew bought a gold Airfloat, Butcher a 1959 Shasta. At that time, Agnew says, "People were begging me to come and take an old, decrepit trailer out of their yard." Now, he says, prices have soared as more people come to appreciate the retro romance of the trailer, not to mention its pragmatic potential as an office space or guest house.
The Funky Junk Farms fleet currently consists of about 55 trailers, some stashed in secret locations around the country. "We don't want our girlfriends to find them!" Agnew says. It's hard to let go of a classic trailer, and only about a half-dozen are for sale at any given time, as the pair prefer to rent them out as props or for parties. They will, however, locate trailers for clients and walk them through a meticulous restoration process that often hews to original blueprints, and can run in the six digits. Butcher can even tailor trailer electronics for the 21st century, artfully concealing plasma TVs and surround-sound stereo systems behind original cabinetry to preserve the vintage ambience.
The two regularly take their trailers out for weekend camping, sometimes with close friends and their girlfriends. Other times they just camp at their respective homes. "A trailer is like a pair of shoes," Agnew says. "One is not going to satisfy all your needs."