Vintage Trailer Restoration – Not For The Faint Of Heart!

RV Decor & Unusual RVs

If you’ve ever seen The Long, Long, Trailer with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez, you know the appeal of the vintage trailer. There’s something about seeing a fully restored piece of the past that resonates with people all over the world.

Of course, there’s a big difference between admiring a renovated vintage trailer, and doing the actual renovation. You have to strip the coach from 60 years of wear and tear, rewire, re-skin and rebuild. Suddenly that dream trailer has become a money sucking machine. To restore a vintage trailer you have to have passion otherwise your chance of sticking it out through the hard work is slim.

Luckily some people have the passion and drive that it takes to get the job done. Enter Justin Scribner of Flyte Camp Vintage Trailer Renovations. Scribner has embraced his passion and turned what was once an expensive hobby into a highly respected business. Flyte Camp, located in Bend, Oregon focuses on restoring travel trailers from the 1930s through the ’50s.

So far, he’s doing a great job and loving every minute of it.

Justin Scribner understands the frustration of the average retro trailer purchase. “We have a lot of trailer owners who buy something out in the field or online,” he told the Orgeonian in a June 2012 interview.  They “literally get halfway through tearing the thing apart and panic.” Scribner himself knows the pain. He lost a truck load of money in the early days. Restoring these antiques takes a lot of tenacity.

Flyte Camp is in high demand as one of the only companies in the US that professionally restores vintage RVs. People all over the world ship their vintage gems to Flyte Camp for a renovation. They have a tremendous eye for detail, and have been featured on various television series for their work. If that’s not enough, it appears that Flyte Camp will soon be the subject of their own reality TV show. Audiences will follow Justin and he hunts for the right restoration projects.

One of the things that makes Flyte Camp stand out from the pack is their level of research. Each trailer is studied using the original documents. They aim to know the original trailer before restoring it to its former glory. Anther thing that Flyte Camp focuses on is details such as woodwork. Unlike the RVs of today, most classic trailers feature beautiful wood interiors. This, of course, adds to the work. It takes a lot of time to restore antique and often mistreated wood.

With the passion for vintage trailers going viral, Flyte Camp sees no end in sight. In the office they answer 50-100 calls and emails every day. So what does a restored trailer cost?

Here’s one example. The Scribners purchased vintage trailer for a mere $2,400 – a deal right? Over the course of several months, the team spent $23,000 on materials and put in hundreds of hours in labor. They sold that unit for $42,000. When you add up all the time and energy, you need to love the work or it’s hardly worth it. I guess that’s what makes Flyte Camp so great. They DO love it. Scribner started as a flooring contractor. Over time he developed a passion for mid century trailers and bought one to give restoring a whirl. That was 15 years ago. Today he has clients ranging from Oscar winners to hotel barons.

Justin’s first project was a 1958 Shasta Airflyte that he bought for $600. The trailer became a regular fixture in the Scribner’s driveway. Justin worked on it when he had time. He had to replace the rotting wood and rebuild the furniture. It was a huge project. In time, he conquered his first restoration, and his wife Anna joined him in his new found passion. The couple began to camp with their trailer taking short weekends away. They played old time records and learned to swing dance. There was something magical about stepping back in time.

By the time they sold the Shasta they were all in. Vintage trailers began to clutter their yard. One pulled from an old field and another bought online. The passion had taken hold.

Ironically, as the recession closed the flooring business, the retro business was about to take flyte! Today, Flyte Camp has six employees and a 7,000 square foot shop. They work on multiple units at a time and tackle everything from interior design to plumbing. Whether they are working on a Westwood, Westcraft, Anderson or Curtis Wright, each project is a labor of love.

While Airstream get’s a lot of press, Flyte Camp is all about the early era trailers from 1935-1945. This was the height of the industrial design in the US and many believe these trailers are truly a work of art.

Despite the economic depression that swept the nation around this time period, many families retained enough cash to purchase luxuries in life. One of those luxuries was the 1930’s travel trailer. These trailers were usually designed in the shape of a bread loaf and offered a tin roof with masonite siding. High style was king and the interior designs were constructed with stylish interiors like you might find on a first class train. Many of the trailers featured dark walnut or cherry wood with hand carved moldings and artful tile work. Most of the Art Deco furnishings used in these trailers are considered highly collectible.

In the 1940s the outbreak of World War II stopped travel trailer production. The war effort was the top priority. When the war was over, travel trailers were hotter than ever. Designed with a metal fuselage, many of the units were riveted just like an aircraft. The kitchen cabinets and countertops were also created with aircraft stainless steel and while these units were more mass produced, they still used quality materials. Colors in the 40s made a shift from the dark woods to lighter golden hues with beautiful grains and curved ceilings.

Back in the day, craftsmanship counted. Every piece of the trailer was done by hand without a pressing schedule. They took the time to make things right. They tried new things. They tested their limits. Road travel was still in its infancy and making people happy was these builder’s primary concerns. Early trailer companies hired skilled woodworkers and building craftsman. They wanted the quality to set them above their competition.

At Flyte Camp they make every piece of the restoration by hand. Each detail is important and the only thing they outsource is the upholstery and exterior paint.

A restoration usually involves removing the trailer shell, stripping out the electrical and determining the condition of the frame and interior panels. If there is water damage, they may have to strip the entire project down to the frame and start from the ground up.  Obviously, this process can take months. When Flyte Camp agrees to a project they do their best to bring the trailer back to its original glory.

There’s something magical about saving bringing an old trailer back to life. As families invest in restoration, they are preserving the past. That’s something that Justin loves.

Of course, you don’t have to take your trailer to Flyte Camp. You can restore it yourself. The Sande family in Redmond, Oregon decided to do just that. They purchased a 1950’s Traveleze for $1,500. They couldn’t believe their luck. Then they started the project. They discovered rot everywhere. From frame to the roof, the trailer needed serious help. Within a few weeks they know that they were out of their league. They couldn’t give this trailer the help in needed.

Eric Sande found out the hard way that restoring a vintage trailer is not a weekend project.

Eric called Flyte Camp to ask for help. $25,000 later the “canned ham” style trailer was done. “I originally thought, ‘Gee, if I spend $8,000 to $10,000 maybe it will be worth something,'” recalls Sande.  “But the damage was worse than we thought.” Had he known it would cost $25,000 to restore, the family would have avoided the purchase.

Yet, over time Eric fell in love with the project and decided to make it the family’s official guest house in their backyard. This one time vintage find has become a living museum piece. Flyte Camp restored it from the ground up and made sure that everything that had to be remade was created using the original process from the factory.

Vintage trailers are available everyday on Craigslist and Etsy at great prices. The trick is knowing what to buy and what to avoid. Most vintage rigs can cost a pretty penny to restore. So what do you need to know in order to buy a solid retro trailer?

According the site Little Vintage Trailer, here are the top 10 things you should look for when choosing a vintage RV.

  1. Water Damage: Water damage is the worst thing that can happen to an old trailer. It can ruin a whole lot of good potential. Look around the windows, down the wood and vent corners. Be aware that most trailers will have some form of water damage.
  2. Floor: Look for soft spots. Be sure to check around and under the furniture. Water and rot can soften a floor. Take the time to know what you are getting into.
  3.  Electrical Issues: Test the electrical system inside and out. Make sure the tail lights work as well as the turn signals.  In most cases, the electrical will have to be updated. If it’s working now it will make the update a whole lot easier.
  4. Axel: Replacing an axel is expensive. Save yourself a lot of money by examining its condition prior to pulling the trailer. You do not want this to snap in transit. Axels can become rusty when a trailer is left out in a field. If you need help, ask a trailer expert to take a peak and tell you what they think.
  5. Appliance, Propane and Plumbing: Do the appliances work? Are the propane lines safe or do they need professional repair? How’s the plumbing? These are items that should be tested professionally. Spend the money now to avoid feeling the pain later.
  6. Tires: Old tires shouldn’t be a deal breaker, but you want to know what you are getting into. Check the tread. Also, consider when the wheels were last repacked. How easy will it be to get new tires of this same size? Shop around. This is not always an easy process and you want to know what you are getting into.
  7. Broken Glass and Windows: Open and close all the windows and make sure they are glass and not plexi glass. New glass will be expensive and if glass has been replaced there may have been water damage. 
  8. Bad Smells: Find the source of any bad smell. Was it mice or mold? Figure out where the problem is coming from. You do not want a last minute surprise.
  9. Title: Make sure the owner has a free and clear title. Vintage trailers can be a nightmare to get titled in certain states. Don’t find out too late! (California is the worst)
  10. Coupler & Tongue: Check the shape of the ball, tongue and chain. You need a solid connection with limited rust. If you don’t know what you are looking for have a trailer expert give you their opinion.

Following these 10 guidelines will help you choose a better rig. If you want to avoid the personal pain of restoration, contact Flyte Camp to see what they can do for you.

What do you think? Would you still want to remodel your own vintage trailer? Do you think it’s worth the money to have it professionally done? Place your comments in the box below and tell us what you think.

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