Part 2: Advice For Buying Your First Vintage Camper - "She has good bones!"

"She has good bones!"

That's what I said when I bought my first vintage camper. She did have good bones, but I think if I had known the tidbits of information I'm about to divulge to you, I would have had a better idea of what I was really in for! So, let's get to it!

This is Part 2 of a post about what to look for and what to avoid when checking out potential camper projects. See Part 1 for advice on how to find your own vintage camper project!

*Disclaimer! I am most familiar with 1950's and 1960's camper construction. This guide will be particularly helpful to people looking at camper trailers from that era. I'm sure these tips can be applied to most campers, but my experience is largely with 1950's + 1960's ones (which means you'll see wooden frames, gas lights, and non-standard wiring...yay!)

Because I have yet to tear open (with care and love of course) The COMET, some of these pictures will be from other campers I've done. however, most of them will be of The COMET, because she's a good example of what you might encounter when you go check out a potential camper. You can guess what is happening behind the scenes (seams?) by what the camper looks like on the outside. I hope these tips help to diminish the surprise of opening up a wall you thought had a little bit of water damage to find that entire half of the frame is rotted! There are ways you can begin to tell what's happening within the camper from the outside surface, without removing the walls.

First, let's talk about things you should look FOR in your potential camper. I'm talking about things of value and things that can be salvaged. Even if you don't like the look of, say for example, the original gas lamp, you can still probably sell it and use the money for lumber! I'm also talking about things that should be in good shape because they are a pain in the butt to fix, unless you have lots of time and skill.

Original gas lamp in the Avalon (before it was The COMET)
Original gas lamp in the Avalon (before it was The COMET)

*PS - Know the towing capacity of your vehicle and ask the seller what kind of hitch the vintage camper has...these weren't all standardized back then. Make sure your car can tow the camper...if the seller doesn't know the exact weight, that information is pretty widely available online for certain makes and models.*

Good things you might find in the camper you're looking at to convert/fix:

Good window in The COMET, all intact and works like a charm
Good window in The COMET, all intact and works like a charm

Original windows/window hardware: Vintage camper windows can be hard to come by because most of them are no longer made and the ones that exist are few and far between. You can get replacement windows by contacting vintage trailer restoration places and asking them to remove some from their "parts" trailers that they keep around for that purpose (. However, they will likely charge you a "pulling" fee on top of the cost of the rare window. If you're lucky you might be able to find a local junkyard with old trailers to part out for windows. But your best bet is having all of the window frames and hardware in the camper when you find it. Broken glass is easy to replace, so don't worry if glass is broken, just make sure the frames and bits are there.

Vintage light fixtures, all matching
Vintage light fixtures, all matching

Light fixtures: From a vintage enthusiasts standpoint, original light fixtures are awesome. They look great and can usually be re-wired easily if for some reason they aren't working. If you decide to replace them with something new, you can usually sell the originals.

Hydro-Flame heater
Hydro-Flame heater
pink sink
pink sink

Original appliances: If you're going to do a green/off-the-grid overhaul, it isn't necessary to have the original appliances. But if it does, it's a plus because you can either sell them as a set (especially if they're teal or pink!) or convert them or just use propane to use them. I have an early 1950's camper and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the stove works great! They were made to last in those days...if you end up with a newer model camper, I'm not sure how well those appliances will do on full-time use.

Things to watch out for:

Rotted out framing
Rotted out framing
Water damage at the ceiling vent
Water damage at the ceiling vent
Dry rot
Dry rot

Water damage: For the most part, older campers from the 1940's-1970's have wooden frames, with aluminum exteriors, some thin insulation, and 1/4 inch ply interiors. When you see signs of water damage on a wall, it can mean water damage, dry rot or mold in the wooden framing underneath. So most likely you will have to replace not only the wall with the visual water damage but also anything below the highest point of water damage in the frame. The most common place to find water damage is underneath a window or around the ceiling vent openings. This isn't impossible to fix, but just know that the framing will need to be replaced if the wood under the wall panel is soft, or you'll have nothing to nail the new wall panel into. It's usually a process of removing anything soft or rotten, chiseling it down to solid wood, and putting in a new piece.

Bargman tail lights
Bargman tail lights
New 7-pring tow hook-up versus the original 5-prong
New 7-pring tow hook-up versus the original 5-prong

Electrical: It isn't that electrical is hard to fix, it's just that you have to remove all of the walls to get to the wiring. Remember, these things were built from the ground up, so in order to get to the wiring, you have to take everything apart. If you're planning on doing this anyway, it's no big deal. But if the interior wood in your vintage camper is in good condition, you probably don't want to remove the walls just for fun (those original wall panels will crack and break when you try to pry them off...they're OLD!).

There are two separate electrical systems involved in the vintage camper: the tow wiring and the interior electric. The tow wiring controls the running lights, the directionals, and the break lights. It may also control your camper trailer's brakes IF the vintage camper has electric brakes. Most likely, your modern vehicle doesn't have the same tow hook up that your vintage camper does (the wiring was not standard back then, and the tow wiring has changed). If possible (and this is assuming you are really interested in this camper and aren't sure whether or not the tow wiring works), I would suggest bringing a modern 7-prong female plug (or whichever plug will complement/match your male socket on your vehicle) and cutting off the original 4-prong socket in order to re-wire those towing wires into the modern female plug. This is a "best-case scenario". It is likely that the colors of the wires on the original tow wiring kit are random - like I said, not standard colors like modern wiring kits. It might take some trial and error, but you may be able to test and see if the tow wiring works (also, this will only work if there are bulbs in the rear lights and the running lights - and that also assumes that the fixtures aren't rusted out completely and totally trashed.) If the tow wiring DOES work, it will save you a lot of time and headache and you hopefully won't have to remove any walls to replace the wiring. But if you DO have to replace the tow wiring kit, it isn't the end of the world.

Interior electrical work
Interior electrical work

The interior electricity is usually supplied by a 120V plug accessible from the exterior of the trailer. If you have access to electricity and an extension cord, plug in the camper and try plugging something (cell phone, lamp, anything) into the interior power outlets (like you have in your house). There's a good chance these will work if the camper is in decent shape. If a light works, even better! If not, you're going to have to test the wiring throughout the interior of the trailer, which might mean removing walls. Or if you're planning on replacing the electrical system anyways, this won't matter either because those walls are coming off one way or another!

Siding separation
Siding separation
Corners come apart
Corners come apart

Separating aluminum siding: This is a really common problem found in older vintage campers. Oftentimes old age and general use (weight) will mean that the aluminum sheathing in the rear two corners of the camper, towards the bumper, will have separated. The trim that covers the seam between the two aluminum sheets will most likely be pulling up and away from the corner. It is very unlikely that you will be able to get those two pieces of aluminum to line up in a nice seam again: The structure and the frame of the camper has warped and settled over time, and likely won't get small enough for you to force those aluminum sides together without some serious frame work. Fortunately, I had yet to deal with this common issue, until now. The COMET has this problem and so I will have to experiment with the best ways to repair the corners and cover the exposed wooden framing from the elements. Most likely it will mean adding on more aluminum - patching up the gaps. I will have lots of tips on how to do this when I get to it!

hole close up
hole close up

Holes in the exterior sheet metal: Hopefully the exterior metal siding of the camper won't have gaping holes in it. Dings and dents can be filled and sanded and painted over...but large holes are a little harder to fix. Like with the separated aluminum at the corners, these will have to be patched. Depending on your skill and the hole, it will be more difficult to make this look good. The COMET has one hole on the outside where it looks like something sharp snagged on her side. Hopefully I'll be able to rivet on a patch and smooth it out with filler. Same as above, I'll have a tutorial for this when I do it.

Undercarriage cross-section
Undercarriage cross-section

Undercarriage issues: Oh, the mysterious undercarriage. You probably don't even want to get down there and look around, but you definitely should. If the undercarriage, (which is usually laid down in this order: steel trailer, roofing tar material, wooden frame, insulation, subfloor, floor) seems to be in rough shape, it can be VERY difficult to repair. It can be a pain in the butt mainly because the campers were built from the frame up, and so going back in and retroactively trying to repair and replace something that is now under 3000 lbs.  of wood and metal is not easy. If you get under the trailer and see that the black tar paper (roofing underlayment) is sagging, that can be repaired. It isn't fun but you can use large washers and screw into the wooden frame, pulling the sagging tar paper under the carriage back up into place. If there are holes, the roofing tar paper will need to be replaced. You don't want more critters making nests up there or water getting into the insulation and subfloor area. Depending on where the holes, tears, or cuts are in the original tar paper under there, they can either be patched and re-sealed or just sealed up. In my first vintage camper I had to replace half of the tar paper on the undercarriage because it had sagged so much it was completely falling apart in the rear of the camper. This meant jacking up the camper just enough so that I could slide new tar paper under the frame but above the steel trailer frame/chassis. It was a b*tch to do, and a 3 person job, but nothing is impossible.

Rats/mice: There's a good chance, depending on where your camper was stored, that there will be some evidence of "mice activity". If it's not out in the open, you may find pockets of mouse nests in the insulation under the floor or in the walls. It's not the end of the world, just be careful and make sure it all gets cleaned up. Replace any and all insulation that has mice or rat feces in it.

This list will probably become longer and more comprehensive as I encounter new problems in each camper I work on. But please feel free to contact me with questions! I really want this blog to serve as a resource for people looking to get into alternative, mobile lifestyles. I want it to be helpful! So if there's anything you'd like to see on here, please don't hesitate to let me know. AND DON'T LET THIS LIST DISCOURAGE YOU! Vintage campers are a pleasure to work on. We'll be able to appreciate it more when I list my Top 5 favorite things about The COMET, tomorrow!

Stay Tuned!

XO