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The Trailers of Our Youth Are on the Road Again

Vintage campers are back in vogue, restored by boomers eager to revisit family vacations from childhood

By Matthew Solan | June 24, 2013
Contributor Photo

Matthew Solan is a health and fitness writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla. His website is www.matthewsolan.com.

Candy Heintz's love of trailers started at an early age. She was born and raised in a pink and white 1958 Skyline Deluxe. Her mother and father, a boilermaker for power plants, bought it brand new and raised the family in it as they moved from job to job.
 
Today, Heintz, 53, is still hooked to her past. She is a member of a growing group of boomers who are seeking, restoring and using these vintage gems to relive a second childhood. 

“It takes you back to a peaceful time when things were not so busy and hectic, when we were kids and there were no worries about paying the light bill,” says Heintz, who travels from her home in Panama City, Fla., and camps in either her restored 1968 Serro Scotty or chic and shiny, 23-foot-long 1950 Spartanette. "In those days, you'd just go out and play. My vintage trailer makes me feel that way again.”

(MORE: "Women RVers Take the Driver's Seat")

Many boomers can remember summer road trips to campgrounds and national parks, the family station wagon pulling an aluminum trailer. Mom boiled water over a mini gas stove. Swimsuits dried in the trees. There were marathon games of Rook around the kitchen table. At night, everyone stuffed inside to sleep, the kids on fold-down beds, sometimes head-to-feet, with small windows left open to listen to the chirping night.
 
Today's vintage trailer lifestyle fits perfectly into the new boomer approach to small living and downsizing. “The kids are gone, they have more time on hand and they don’t need as much space,” says Forrest Bone, who manages Tin Can Tourists, an association with more than 1,500 members. “So more couples take off with their trailers for weeks at a time, or rent out a space where they can camp out for the summer or winter.”

Shake, Rattle and Roll: How It All Began  
 
The traveling trailer culture can be traced back to the original Tin Can Tourists in the early 20th century. In 1919, when highways began reaching deep into Florida, legions of northern drivers poured into the Sunshine State on camping excursions to explore its adventurous, rural interiors. The first visitors arrived in Model Ts with tinned food packs on board that clanked and rattled over every bump, dip and turn — hence the nickname. By the early 1930s, the tents they camped in evolved into tiny metallic trailers that they hitched to their cars, and the movement stretched nationwide.
 
The heyday for these new auto-campers was the late 1950s and early 1960s, when new interstate highways and dirt-cheap gas opened the country to more suburban families. You could camp without exactly roughing it. Most trailers had many of the conveniences of home, albeit of the mini variety: kitchen, bathroom, shower, living room, electricity and running water. You could sleep free of bugs and dirt, enjoy the wilderness and feel safe from pesky bears.

Finding Beautiful Older Models
 
For today’s Tin Can Tourists, revisiting those endless summers begins with finding the particular make and model they enjoyed as a kid — or something close to it. Vintage trailer shopping is similar to a garage sale hunt. Buyers find them listed in the local paper, on Craigslist, in someone’s backyard and, more often than not, by word of mouth. “When people know you are looking, you’ll be amazed at how often friends will know about one for sale somewhere,” says Bone, whose friend hooked him up with his first purchase, a 1964 Airstream Bambi II.   
 
There are all kinds of manufacturers out there, but Bone says the most popular brands include Silver Streak, Curtis Wright, Spartan, Avion and the silver, sausage-shaped Airstreams. Then there are the cramped-yet-charming “tear drops” and “canned ham” Shasta models (typically 14-feet long), complete with trademark metal wings, which were staples throughout California.

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Since trailers are homes on wheels, you have to attend to the same basic needs: roof, framing and electrical and water system as well as axles and brakes. The upside is the relatively low labor and expenses. “You can often get many vintage trailers up and running for $3,000, give or take, but often for much less,” Bone says. “If you have some carpenter skills you can do much of it yourself.”
 
It is a small price to pay for the inexpensive travel you can enjoy compared with the lofty price tags of round-trip airfare, taxis and four-star hotels. You can usually roll into a KOA (Kampground of America) for $35 per night, which gives you access to power hook-ups and showers. Often you can park at local fairgrounds for $15 to $25 and many Wal-Marts allow you to stay overnight in the parking lot for free. If you plan your trips well, you might be able to stay for free in a family member’s yard or driveway. In comparison, even a no-frills budget motel can cost anywhere from $80 to $120 per night. 
 
Making Your Trailer Retro-Active

And then there is the real fun part: decorating. So many boomer owners go out of their way to recreate the furnishings and décor they remember. It’s no surprise that many interiors are snatched right from the set of I Love Lucy.
 
Refurbishing vintage trailers can be a true husband-wife activity, Bone says. “The fix-it-up aspect and basic maintenance often appeals to the man, while the wife can enjoy decorating the interior — or vice versa.”
 
If you do hitch up to vintage trailers, don’t be surprised if your second childhood turns into your retirement home. “My parents are 86 and 88 and still live in that Skyline Deluxe," Heintz says. "It has become a part of who they are.”
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