Hitched for a comeback: Vintage travel trailers are the latest retro craze

vintage trailers are back in style trailer bentley 2

The year was 1967, and I was four years old when my parents loaded me and my baby sister into a full-size Chrysler station wagon in Camden, New Jersey, and trucked us all the way across North America to a new home in San Diego, California. I don’t remember too much about that journey, but behind us the whole way was a small travel trailer where we cooked our meals and slept at night. That trailer stayed with my family until the middle of the 1970s, when it was traded for a motor home, but I can still remember every detail of it.

Maybe that’s why travel trailers are enjoying a renaissance these days. Every middle-aged empty nester, and more than a few young families, are recognizing that trailer camping is actually pretty comfortable and convenient, and you don’t have to buy a whole motor home to use one. With the compact SUV now reigning as America’s most popular vehicle, people now have enough pull in their daily driver to tow a modest trailer and camp in style.

Going vintage

Of course, being modern Americans, we wouldn’t all just go out and get a new travel trailer – especially when prices can easily top $50,000 for even a moderately sized unit. The hottest part of the trailer market is restored vintage trailers, which combine old-school craftsmanship with retro style and a generally affordable price point. Wendy Durighello has been restoring vintage travel trailers since 2004, and her work is documented at The Tin Inn.

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“When I started, I was just going to make something for myself,” Durighello told Digital Trends. “I wanted something affordable I could camp in and tow behind my vehicle. Then I noticed how well they worked, and how every nook and cranny had a purpose. So I started refurbishing old trailers, and I found I could sell a trailer in any month of the year. I’ve sold trailers all over the country.”

One of the best places to shop for a vintage trailer is Sisters on the Fly. Sisters on the Fly is a social group for women who like to camp, and their website offers dozens of classified ads for vintage trailers. Prices range from $3,500 to well over $30,000 for trailers of all different sizes, ages, and configurations.

Vintage trailer enthusiasts can also subscribe to Vintage Camper Trailer magazine, or just browse the associated website. You’ll find information on the budding vintage trailer craze, and plenty of trailers for sale there, too.

Why not rent?

The resurgence in travel trailering has also awakened the entrepreneurial spirit in many enthusiasts. Travel trailers make great temporary housing for guests, and companies like Rhome will deliver a modern travel trailer to your location, set it up, and hand you the keys for as long as you need it. When your guests leave, Rhome returns and picks up the trailer. They’ll deliver a trailer to nearby campgrounds, too.

With the compact SUV now reigning supreme, people now have enough pull in their daily driver to tow a modest trailer and camp in style.

Some enterprising campgrounds have caught the wave and parked both vintage and modern travel trailers in semi-permanent installations with full power and water hookups, and even little patio areas set up for customers interested in vintage trailer camping. The Sou’wester Lodge on Washington’s Long Beach peninsula is one example, and similar campgrounds are popping up fast across the nation.

“Interest in travel trailers is increasing, so we’ve captured the public’s imagination in that way,” Thandi Rosenbaum of the Sou’wester Lodge told Digital Trends. “We’ve engaged the zeitgeist. People are attracted to the vintage trailers, and it fits really well with us. Maybe it’s nostalgia for a bygone era, or the craftsmanship, or the creative expression in general, even communal living.”

One interesting statistic is that many of the people seeking out vintage trailers for camping are young enough to have missed the trailer experience of the mid-20th century.

“A typical guest is an urbanite nature lover who is in their 20s, 30s, or 40s. We have a lot of young families as well as single people,” Rosenbaum said.

The Airstream movement

Airstream trailers are among the most popular on the market, and the distinctive aluminum-skinned campers have been made since the 1920s. Look over the vintage trailer classified ads, and if you’ve got the money, Airstream trailers command respect.

Wally Byam was the man who founded Airstream. He had worked for a man named Hawley Bowlus, who invented the unique silver pill-shaped trailer under his own name. Byam eventually bought the company and named it after his premier model in the mid-1930s. Airstream was the only trailer company to operate continuously through the Great Depression – though World War II put the company on hiatus for a few years.

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Today, there are Airstream-only campgrounds and brand-specific clubs with gatherings and shows specifically for Airstream owners. Airstream has been the trailer of choice for politicians, and even for NASA astronauts returning to Earth.

But that could be about to change.

The return of the Bowlus

As mentioned, Hawley Bowlus more or less invented the aluminum-skinned trailer almost 100 years ago, and his products were known as some of the best of their day. More recently, Geneva Long had the idea to recreate an updated version of the legendary Bowlus Road Chief trailer. She enlisted her parents, John Long and Helena Mitchell in the project. The Longs had previously driven their restored 1947 Tatra across America and restored a vintage Road Chief, so re-inventing the classic trailer was well within their skill set.

“The market for vintage trailers is for do-it-yourselfers,” Mitchell told Digital Trends. “But the reality is that they’re not that comfortable. Our market is people who appreciate fine design and who appreciate craftsmanship.”

The Longs re-created the vintage Road Chief with fully modern technology inside, but kept the 1930s-era streamline art deco exterior design. The Bowlus Road Chief looks like something from a Jules Verne novel, but there’s a purpose behind the style. The Road Chief is both aerodynamic on the surface and spacious behind the skin.

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Inside the new Road Chief you’ll find an attractive blend of craftsmanship, and real wood mixed with high-tech options like Lithium-Iron-Phosphate batteries, and available solar panels. The trailer brakes are wireless, and of course you can get a 4G/LTE data plan for the trailer.

There’s no doubt that the new Bowlus Road Chief is the pinnacle of modern travel trailers, which is why you need to be ready to part with $137,000 for the basic “On the Road” model, or up to $219,000 for the high-tech Limited Edition Lithium+ model. To date, about 25 people have purchased new Bowlus trailers.

“Our customers are people who have traveled the world, but who haven’t seen America yet,” Mitchell said. “And there are people who absolutely cannot put another bathroom or bedroom on their homes, but they can put a casita in their garden. This is beautiful rolling art, so it gives them the ability to travel and have a fun casita for guests.”

By the way, the power system in the Lithium+ edition is optimized to work with your Tesla, and you can control the power through your Model X dash screen. I towed a new Bowlus Road Chief with a Range Rover Evoque, and the lightweight materials and aerodynamic design made towing a breeze.

Into the sunset

The travel trailer phenomenon is getting rolling again, to torture a metaphor. Just as postwar America set out on the road pulling a camper behind innumerable family trucksters, the trailer is coming back because it offers an affordable and comfortable way to go vagabonding for a weekend, or a month. If you like the idea of a vintage trailer, you should probably get one soon. They’re likely to stay collectible for a while, and prices will surely rise. If you’d rather have a new trailer, prices and options are all over the map –just like you’re going to be.