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News Article
Take your vintage style on the road in a trailer
By Katherine PeachWho hasn<’t — for at least a second — considered living “the good life” with a camper? You can enjoy all of the pleasures of spending the night outdoors, such as roasting marshmallows and stargazing, as well as the comfort of a real bed and the protection of a roof over your head.From Mongolian yurts to Romani vardos, to the tipis of the Great Plains, movable homes have provided shelter on the go for centuries. But it wasn<’t until 1915 that the first camping vehicle was driven strictly for pleasure.In August of that year, American financier and real estate mogul Roland Conklin commissioned one of his holdings, the Gas-Electric Motor Bus Co., to build a 25-foot double-decker “Gypsy Van” in which to drive his family from Huntington, N.Y., to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.Weighing in at eight tons, the van was equipped with an electrical generator, a full kitchen and a rooftop “garden.” Over the course of two months, the family drove the Gypsy Van westward. The Conklins made headlines and introduced Americans across the country to the idea of camping with many of the conveniences of home.Another pioneer of the RV was a uniquely eccentric Californian named Charles Kellogg, who in 1917 hollowed out a giant fallen redwood tree and stuck it on wheels. Kellogg, who had grown up in the High Sierras in the 1870s, was a naturalist and a vaudeville performer who performed bird songs and claimed to be able to extinguish fires with his voice. He was also a visionary, and he invented the Travel Log to be a tool to teach Americans the value of appreciating the great outdoors.The Travel Log, which was mounted on a Nash Quad chassis, featured a kitchenette, bathroom facilities, a guest bedroom and a dining table. Kellogg drove it around the country until his retirement in 1921 (at which time it became a sewing room used by his sisters). It<’s now on display at the Humboldt Redwoods State Park Visitor Center.During the 1920s, the idea of recreational vehicles caught on as American car culture took off and long-distance paved highways stretched across the country. Many of the earliest campers were custom-made by their owners. Without the know-how to build an entire motorized vehicle, such as the Gypsy Van or the Tree Log, many camping enthusiasts constructed separate trailers that could be towed by cars or trucks.The travel trailer also had two other notable benefits: They could be detached from the vehicles that pulled them, allowing users to drive off for an excursion without having to break camp; and they could more easily maneuver country roads.Many of the first commercially available camping trailers of the 1920s featured roofs made of tent canvas. However, as popular as these trailers were, they certainly had their drawbacks. The main problem with the tent trailers was that, despite what the advertising said, they were not completely waterproof.After a soggy weekend in the wilderness in 1928, Detroit businessman Arthur G. Sherman was so annoyed with his tent trailer that he built what his kids dubbed the “Covered Wagon”—a Masonite trailer that featured four windows, a stove and built-in furniture. Sherman took his Covered Wagon to the Detroit Auto Show in January 1930 and sold 118 units for the then-expensive price of $400. To accommodate the orders, Sherman founded the Covered Wagon Co. By 1936, Sherman<’s company was producing 1,000 trailers a month, and the company remained the largest travel trailer manufacturer in the U.S. until it shut down in 1945.Despite the Great Depression, the travel trailer industry thrived in the 1930s. Mass-produced models could be bought for as little as $300, and the popular press praised trailer camping as a wholesome family activity.In 1936, the most iconic American trailer, the Airstream Clipper, was introduced. Named after the first trans-Atlantic flying boat, the silver aluminum Clipper resembled an airplane, carried its own water supply and boasted electric lights. The Clipper cost $1,200—a princely sum back then—but was an instant hit.By 1940, the market for trailers was saturated, and World War II all but killed the industry. In fact, of the more than 400 travel trailer manufacturers in business in 1936, Airstream was the only one that survived the war.After the war, the industry revived, and camping trailers continued to be popular, but during the mid-century decades, recreational vehicles, which could themselves be driven rather than pulled, eclipsed them in popularity.However, classic travel trailers have not been forgotten. In fact, Airstream still manufactures its classic sausage-shaped vehicles. But there are legions of fans who are eagerly purchasing old trailers, restoring them and furnishing them with vintage décor. Many trailer aficionados are members of an organization called Tin Can Tourists, which was founded in 1919. There<’s a misconception that the nearly 100-year-old club derives its name from the gleaming aluminum bodies of many classic trailers. However, “tin can tourists” was the nickname given to the first generation of hardy trailer campers because they cooked their food in tin cans.Today, their can-do spirit lives on, and vintage trailers have become a hot collectible. Currently, a 1936 Clipper in even poor condition can fetch around $50,000. If you wish to purchase a fully restored 1930s aluminum trailer, be prepared to spend upwards of $125,000. However, you can still find post-war teardrop trailers made by manufacturers such as Metzendorf and Rod & Reel for less than $10,000.Michelle Wade is a vintage trailer enthusiast and Tin Can Tourist member who lucked out big-time—she inherited a 1973 Airstream Land Yacht Sovereign from her grandparents. Named the Ray-Ann in loving tribute to both of them, Michelle loves taking the trailer on adventures with her husband and twin daughters. “I grew up camping in it, and now my babies get to have some of the same experiences,” she says. “We are trying our best to keep it as original as possible!”Ashley Hawley of Newaygo, Mich., is another Tin Can Tourist who cherishes a 1964 FAN Coach Co. trailer that she has dubbed the “Flamingo Lounge.” She has decorated the trailer with mid-century vintage items, and has started a business, Sweet Pea Flamingos (, to sell vintage décor and accessories for campers. You<’ll find anything from folding chairs to melamine dishes, to campfire cooking utensils.Unfortunately, a lot of vintage trailers haven<’t been very well maintained. If you decide to purchase a model that hasn<’t been completely restored, you can expect to spend good money—and a lot of time—on turning your camper into a period-correct showstopper.All vintage trailer enthusiasts agree that the Number 1 thing to look for when considering a purchase is water damage. Even the smallest leak can cause a great deal of damage over time. Carefully check not only all vents and window frames, but also the insides of cabinets.Another important consideration is the condition of the trailer<’s tires. Tires for vintage trailers can be pricey—and you can<’t just head over to Pep Boys to buy them! You<’ll need to purchase reproduction tires from a specialty store. The Rubber Manufacturers Association recommends that you replace your trailer<’s tires every three to five years, so it<’s likely this will be a big purchase at the outset.However, despite the hassle and cost of restoring a vintage trailer, owners feel immense affection for and pride in their vehicles. The lure of a gleaming Airstream or a quaint teardrop trailer is immense, and it<’s one vintage purchase that can change your life for good.For more information, check out the Tin Can Tourists at

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