Travel trailers turn into collectibles

Cheap lodging, nostalgia are among reasons for popularity

On the Road

August 08, 2004|By Jack Broom | Jack Broom,Seattle Times

Sitting by a campfire in Northern California last fall, Patty Dobbs of Snohomish, Wash., made a rather frank admission to two men she had just met.

"My husband is a really sick man," she told them. "He has eight travel trailers."

For a moment, the two men just looked at one another, then one of them spoke sheepishly. "Well," he said. "I have 30."

Softly, the other man joined in: "I have 22."

Dobbs, 48, responded with the first thought that popped into her head: "Man, a shrink could sure make a killing around here."

Some call it "silver fever." Some call it nostalgia. Some say it mixes a simple desire for inexpensive lodging on the road with the satisfaction of maintaining a piece of American history.

Boomers remember

However diagnosed, love of vintage travel trailers -- whether an owner has one or 30 of them -- is spreading from coast to coast.

"In the last 10 years, interest in vintage RVs has gone from a handful of collectors and -- in those days, kooks -- to something that involves thousands of people," said Al Hesselbart, a consultant to the RV / Motor Home Heritage Foundation Museum in Elkhart, Ind.

In that same decade, Hesselbart said, rallies of vintage-trailer owners "went from being very rare events to the point that now there's about one a week all summer long someplace in the country."

About 50 restored vintage trailers, up from 35 last year, are expected next month at the fourth annual Majestic Mount Baker Vintage Trailer Rally east of Bellingham, Wash.

Organizer Pat Ewing, who owns seven trailers, said nostalgia is a key factor, particularly for baby boomers like himself

"My earliest memories are of trailer trips we took when I was a kid ... to Mexico, Florida, Washington, D.C., and a lot of places in between," said Ewing, 52.

As soon as automobiles were within the average person's reach in the early 20th century, Americans started looking for ways to stay overnight in or alongside them.

The motor-home museum in Indiana has what it believes to be the oldest non-tent trailer made in America, a wood-framed, 10-foot 1913 "Earl" made in the Los Angeles area. Inside, two benches flanking a fold-up table convert into beds.

National rally

People who enjoy vintage trailers -- a trailer has to be at least 25 years old to qualify -- are a smaller and separate breed from those hitting the highway in today's mega-RV's.

In fact, the two groups are almost impossible to compare. While 50 rigs make a decent-sized vintage-trailer event, rallies of current-day RVs regularly draw hundreds. The Grand National Rally of Winnebago owners at Forest City, Iowa, draws more than 1,500.

Ewing has no interest in modern RVs. "It's gone from camping to bringing along a deluxe condominium on wheels," he said. "We just want to go camping."

Vintage trailers, with their shiny metal on the outside and warm tones of birch or mahogany on the inside, carry a coziness irresistible to their admirers. Trailer-travel in Ewing's youth was different from today, he said. "We'd just park alongside a road or by a fishing lake." If a storm was brewing, his father would seek permission to park behind a building for shelter.

Ewing got his first trailer when he moved to Florida to attend college in the mid-1970s. "I hated dorm life; I went down there to learn, not party ... so I bought a 24-foot, 1966 Fan and put it in a park near the college so I'd have someplace quiet."

He's had trailers all through his adult life. He and his wife, Joanne, also in her early 50s, live on 1.3 acres outside the town of Everson, Wash., where their small fleet, in various stages of restoration, sits under tall carports amid stately cedars.

Although he has trailers up to 31 feet long, Ewing's sentimental favorite is his shiny, 16-foot 1961 Airstream Bambi. "When I go camping, I go way up into the outback, and this will fit in a little tent site."

His Bambi is also a pin-up girl of sorts. Posed next to Ewing's 1931 Ford Model A, it's the July photo in a 2004 calendar of vintage trailers by photographer Douglas Keister, whose work also includes photos for the book Ready to Roll: A Celebration of the Classic American Travel Trailer (Viking Studio $32.95). Also in the calendar is a 1962 Shasta -- a classic "canned ham"-shaped trailer -- owned and renovated by Luke Hinman, 44, of Deming, Wash.

Hinman, who is also rebuilding a 1958 Serro Scotty Sportsman trailer, is drawn to the refurbishing because of the detailed, technical work combined with the down-home charm of vintage trailers. "It's part Spaceship One and part Jethro Bodine," he said.

Value hard to find

Figuring out what a vintage trailer is worth is an inexact science; there's no Blue Book listing their value. Even for a particular model, prices can vary widely depending on its condition, not to mention how badly someone wants it -- or wants to get rid of it.

Take that 16-foot Bambi of Ewing's, for example. According to a price guide on www.vintage airstream.com, one of those would be worth $800 to $1,900 in an "as-found" condition, meaning it would likely have numerous dents and miscellaneous damage inside and out.

But, boost it up to "average" condition and the price range jumps to $4,500 to $8,500. Take the painstaking steps to bring it to "restored" condition, faithful to its original style and materials, and the price range leaps to $11,000 to $19,000.

Eric Dobbs, 54, the Snohomish man whose wife tattled on him for having eight trailers, has paid as little as $150 and as much as $5,000 for his trailers, which he started collecting about three years ago. "When you get one home and you see how much work it needs, you get a little buyer's remorse. But then they kind of grow on you," said Dobbs, who calls the bullet holes in one of his trailers "beauty marks."

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