It’s become a popular daydream for fans of ’50s-era design: You see an old travel trailer sitting forgotten in a field somewhere and wonder what it would be like to fix it up and have your own mobile vacation home.
That’s the dream, anyway.
In reality, that vintage coach could turn into a money-sucking nightmare once you realize it needs to be gutted, stripped, rewired, rebuilt, re-skinned and repainted before it’s ready to hit the road. Throw in new tires, propane, cabinetry, any number of hardware fixes and you might be thinking a motel sounds pretty good.
Not to 39-year-old Justin Scribner of Bend, Ore., who was undaunted by such challenges.
Scribner has turned an expensive hobby — fixing up mid-century travel trailers — into a lucrative and internationally recognized business called Flyte Camp. And while ’50s and ’60s Airstreams have gotten a lot of attention in the vintage RV world, Scribner and his crew at Flyte Camp have a penchant for the lesser-known travel trailers from the ’30s through the ’50s.
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Even on a cold, dank day, it gleams and shimmers, this 1957 Airstream Flying Cloud travel trailer. But, according to a report in the Sacramento Bee, that’s nothing compared to the glint in Kevin O’Connell’s eye as he stands back and admires a classic example of Americana.
“Look at that,” he says, with a curt nod. “It’s got great sex appeal. You could line up 1,000 trailers on the street, and they’ll flock to this here Airstream.”
O’Connell stands in the expansive workshop of his second-career business and first-rank labor of love, Russian River Vintage Travel Trailers, just off the main drag of Guerneville, Calif.
Around him are examples of a bygone period, those carefree Eisenhower years when people hit the open road in souped-up trailers and campers that catered to their every need as they traveled from state park to KOA sites to see America with the family.
Some trailers, such as the Airstream and a 1955 Aljoa Sportsman, he has refurbished piece-by-piece, inside and out, more for his own pride of accomplishment than monetary rewards. (Though both are for sale, for $16,000 and $13,500, respectively.) Others he repairs and restores for people who share his nostalgic bent.
Those folks had better not be in a hurry, though: O’Connell, 65, cannot be rushed.
“I can be a detail freak,” he says. “I’m very peculiar – no, that’s not the right word – particular about the history of these units. I’d like to get these from the original owner. And I need to have all the original parts.”
O’Connell opens the showroom and workshop to the public on most Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Sometimes, during the height of tourist season in summer, he draws 200 visitors.
“It’s not really a museum or anything,” he says. “I’m actually working on restoring (the trailers). I’ve got clients as far away as New Zealand.”
But so enamored of trailers is O’Connell that he’ll take time to show visitors the inner workings and details. In the sexy Airstream, he points with pride to the toilet – “original porcelain,” he says – and the white-oak cabinetry polished to a luster. Then he steps out and runs his hand along the Airstream’s body, pausing at the curves and purrs, “That’s pure aircraft aluminum.”
Business is not exactly booming because of the economy, O’Connell says. But he does detect a rise in interest among collectors.
“It’s a whole subculture,” he says. “It’s catching up with the vintage car folks. People appreciate the craftsmanship. These trailers here, restored right down to the frame? They’re better than when they left the factory 60 years ago. People appreciate that.”