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Camping, Old Style

Vintage Trailers are becoming trendy, but it takes a special breed to love them
Renee Newman and Derek Theil
Renee Newman and Derek Theil in the doorway of “Felix,” the 1964 Airstream trailer they lovingly restored.

Next time you see a shined-up vintage camper parked at a campsite, gas station or roadside diner and you get the urge to steal a closer look, go ahead and ask the owner — chances are, that person is expecting it.

“Almost any vintage trailer owner is going to throw open the door and say, ‘Go ahead and take a look,’” says Renee Newman, a local owner of a 1964 Airstream. “We always tell people to go in, open the cupboards, look around. Just don’t take our beer out of the fridge.”

Newman, who works at Discover Kalamazoo as the vice president of marketing and communication, says that since she and her husband, Derek Theil, a craftsman at Sign Center, purchased their Airstream eight years ago, they’ve opened their door to plenty of curious onlookers who remember the Airstream their grandparents owned, who recognize the iconic “silver twinkie” look or who are curious to see just how big it is on the inside.

“We’ve met the nicest people having this trailer,” Newman says. “Anywhere we go, people come up to us, and we’ve noticed that we make a beeline for other people’s campers now too.”

Newman and Theil are a part of a growing population buying vintage campers (usually older than 20 years, though the definition of “vintage” is fluid) and fixing them up or buying new campers that harken back to an older time, such as Airstream, Serro Scotty or teardrop campers — trailer campers that are compact, sleek and built simply.

The growing popularity of these campers led to a 26 percent increase in sales for Airstream in 2014 alone, according to the company’s annual report, as well as a consistent rise in sales over the last four years. A company board member announced in April that Volkswagen will make an electric-powered concept of its iconic Westfalia Camper (whether it will go into production is not certain), and this year Shasta, a travel trailer company, released a reissue of its 1961 Airflyte, a favorite among vintage trailer buffs.

Pinterest, eBay and Craigslist are full of vintage campers as well as parts and accessories for those restoring old campers and ideas for decorating a retro camper. There’s even a growing subculture of people who do what is called “glamping,” which combines the rustic nature of camping with the glamour of chic interior and exterior decorating.

“Vintage trailers are just huge right now, and it seems like a lot of the appeal is people in my age group reverting back,” says local vintage Serro Scotty camper owner Nancy Kroes, who works in Western’s University Computing Center. “It’s either because your parents had an old travel trailer when you were a kid, or your kids are gone and it’s you or you and your spouse or you and your dogs — and it’s just more personal. You show up at a campground with a vintage trailer and no one asks to tour the shiny new big beast parked nearby, because they all want to tour your little vintage trailer.”

She’s also seen the market change since she bought her Serro Scotty 11 years ago. “You could pick up a Serro Scotty for $200, and now you can’t find one for less than $2,000, and I see them going for over $10,000,” she says. “The whole vintage trailer thing is definitely growing.”

‘Fell in love

Newman and Theil say they didn’t set out to become part of a trend. The couple, avid mountain biking and kayaking weekend warriors who had been camping for years, were looking for an alternative to a tent.

“I really wanted a place to rinse off after biking,” Theil says. “Yes, I’m that guy who needs a bathroom and shower.”

“And I just knew I wanted an Airstream,” Newman adds. “I wasn’t trying to be a snob. I just liked the way they look.”

The couple knew they couldn’t afford a new Airstream so they started researching the idea of buying an older Airstream and revamping it. Finding the right Airstream took longer than they thought it would — close to a year.

“We’d see listings that would say the camper was ready to roll and then show up to find out it really wasn’t,” says Newman, recalling one occasion when she and Theil went to look at an Airstream that turned out to have a charcoal grill in the center of the interior and was in terrible shape.

“We gave up for a while after that,” she says. “It wasn’t until a trip up to Traverse City when I saw a gorgeous Airstream on the side of the road that I got a second wind and thought, ‘The hunt is still on.’”

After reading advice in an online forum that they should search in unexpected places and not give up, Newman spotted a camper on the Detroit-area Craigslist that had been posted only five minutes earlier. Newman called the poster and told him she was interested but could not come see it until the weekend. The poster agreed to hold it for her.

“We went down, looked at it and fell in love,” she says. “We put a deposit down right away.”

Kroes didn’t set out to be part of the trend either. In fact, her story starts much like Newman and Theil’s Airstream affair. In 2003, Kroes decided she wanted to get back into camping, but she didn’t feel comfortable in a tent anymore. Knowing she wanted a trailer and couldn’t afford a brand new one, she started hitting the listings to find a vintage trailer she could fix up. Her search, unlike Newman and Theil’s, yielded immediate results.

“I found a trailer online and it was a 10-hour drive just one way — more than halfway through Pennsylvania,” she says. “I went to look at it, liked it and brought it home. I really didn’t know what I was doing, and, looking back, it was really kind of stupid.”

Turns out, getting the campers wasn’t the hardest part for Kroes and Newman and Theil, as they found out when they got their vintage trailers home.

Dollar signs

“When Renee first said she wanted an Airstream, all I could see was dollar signs,” Theil admits.

When they first brought the camper home and he started working on it, he learned that just to remove the trailer’s pink shag carpeting would require taking out half of the Airstream’s kitchen.

“I was driving home from work, and when I saw our Airstream lying in pieces on our lawn, I didn’t stop. I just drove right past,” says Newman, who was worried the couple had bitten off more than they could chew. Both Theil and Newman now joke that their Airstream had to be gutted twice — once to replace water-rotted pieces and another time to put in linoleum. Even though they say the journey might never have started if they had known what they were getting into, they don’t regret anything.

“Working side by side, sometimes with gas masks, to get everything done, we’ve had some really good times. And we couldn’t trade the fun we’ve had making it usable,” Newman says.

For Kroes, the rebuilding of her first Serro Scotty trailer, a 1958, was a total overhaul, from the frame up. After buying some Woolrich plaid for friends, Kroes was inspired to paint the trailer’s sides in the iconic Woolrich red and black plaid, so she contacted the woolen garment company to get permission.

“Three weeks later I got an email from the marketing director, who gave me some ideas and suggested that I do it as a wrap, which you can think of as heavy-duty contact paper,” Kroes says. “They sent me all of their official images, and my niece is a graphic designer so she helped me fit the image for printing.”

After the trailer was finished, complete with vintage black and red Woolrich accessories, including a duvet cover, pillows and curtains, Kroes drove it to Woolrich, Pa., to show it off to the company’s staff.

“They loved it,” she says. “That’s the trailer that gets all the attention — even if I stop at McDonald’s, people come up to see. His name is Ted.”

Naming vintage trailers isn’t something only Kroes does.

“Ours is named Felix, after the original owner of the camper,” says Newman, who explains that lots of people choose names for their redone vintage campers. It’s just a part of the culture.

Camper culture

“There is definitely a certain culture for campers,” Newman says. “You sit around campfires with a million different people from different places and backgrounds and bond over the same thing.”

Newman and Theil say they use their camper almost every weekend in nice weather and park it in a special spot, so they can bike, hike and kayak. They also occasionally attend camper rallies and shows and are part of a national group called the Tin Can Tourists. The group started in Tampa, Fla., in 1919 as a “way to unite all autocampers,” according to the club’s website. Today the group has more than 2,000 dues-paying members (any camper/RV owner can become a member; the group is not exclusive to vintage models), the site says, and it hosts rallies, events and an online space for classifieds.

Kroes took the camper culture a step further by creating a group specifically for Serro Scotty owners called the National Serro Scotty Organization (NSSO). She started it in 2005 as a means to network with other Scotty owners.

“It’s a great organization, and I could see myself doing this for a while,” Kroes says. “I have events planned into 2017.”

Kroes has rebuilt and owns three Scottys: Ted, the Woolrich trailer, which is a 1958 Serro Scotty Sportsman Junior; a 1969 Serro Scotty 13-foot Guacho; and a 1978 Serro Scotty Boler, which is the trailer she currently uses. She says she thinks the popularity of vintage “tin can” camping probably won’t wane anytime soon.

“You fix them up, you set them up with an awning and a couple vintage camp chairs, and it’s really fun and cute,” she says. “It’s just a different thing to do, and everybody loves it.”

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Allure of vintage trailers

"You show up at a campground with a vintage trailer and no one asks to tour the shiny new big beast parked nearby, because they all want to tour your little vintage trailer.”
-- Nancy Kroes, vintage camper owner