If you think that the golden age of antiquing – when collectors could descend from their grandparents’ attics or walk out of a neighborhood garage sale with an undiscovered treasure in hand has long since passed, take heart. Vintage recreational vehicles and old-fashioned camping gear provide abundant opportunities for collectors in search of a new niche. Articles of nostalgia may be found in every part of the country, priced low or even offered “free for the taking.” These RV’s, trailers, camp furniture, and other items may not be around for long, though – not because they’re being snatched up, but, as David Woodworth, of Tehachapi, Calif., says, because “they’re all being thrown away.”
Setting Up Camp
Woodworth, with 30 pre-1937 RV’s in his possession, has the world’s largest collection of antique camping vehicles. His odyssey into the world of “auto camping” began 18 years ago when he first took his two young daughters on short one- and two-day trips in a Model A Ford he owned at the time. “I then started buying some old trailers, a couple campers,” he says. “Nothing significant.” But when a curator from the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C., called him 12 years ago and asked to borrow his gear for an exhibition on American travel and camping called “At Home on the Road,” Woodworth says, “I got a big head and decided to look into my hobby seriously.
“My goal now,” the collector explains, “is to build a collection that will stand alone as a museum of the history of auto camping in the United States.” Ideally, he would like to restore his 30 RV’s (about half are currently restored) and then make them the focal points in a series of permanent re-creations of period campsites – complete with all of the props of the time, from folding chairs to toothbrushes. His ambitious goal: to create showcases that – if you took a black-and-white picture of the setting – would make viewers think they had a period photograph in hand.
Americans Hit the Road
For the museum, Woodworth plans to spotlight models dating to the heyday of early auto camping – which began with the sinking of the Lusitania. When a German submarine torpedoed the British ocean liner in 1915, wealthy Americans began to see overseas travel and the traditional European grand tour as a dangerous venture and chose instead to travel the United States. They took advantage of the freedom offered by the increasingly popular automobile, packing in as many of the comforts of home as they could.
In the years after the First World War, the auto camping phenomenon was further supported by the transformation of municipal wagon yards into auto camps. During the 1800s, many cities and towns had set aside parcels of land outfitted with lean-tos, shelters, outhouses, and fire pits for the benefit of farmers who had to travel from the outlying countryside to do business. The automobile shortened many of these farmers’ trips, making it possible for them to travel in a matter of hours a distance that would have easily taken a day or two by horse-drawn wagon. So just when the wagon yards were being made obsolete by the horseless carriage, the automobile put them to new use. By 1922, The New York Times estimated that more than 15 million auto campers – traveling with trailers, in motor homes, towing “fifth wheels,” or simply packing tents in their cars – were streaming across the nation’s roads, looking for safe places to park for the night.
In 1919, a group formed by those smitten with auto camping – the Tin Can Tourists of America – was founded. Identified by an empty tin can mounted on the exposed radiator cap that graced the hood of their vehicles, members of this nomadic band made their winter camp in Tampa, Fla.’s De Soto Park and their summer camp in Traverse City, Mich. The name “Tin Can” was derived from their hood ornaments as well as the fact that the Tin Canners often lived off canned food and, as RV technology progressed, lived in vehicles that were themselves reminiscent of tin cans. By 1963, the club’s bookkeepers claimed a membership of 100,000.
“The things that drive the RV industry today are the same as in the ’20s,” says Woodworth. “Behind the wheel of their own vehicle, people didn’t have to deal with inflexible train schedules or rude porters – they could go where they wanted to and stop when and where they wanted.” Plus, he adds, they could carry with them many of the comforts of home. “As I travel around the country,” he says, “people look at modern RV’s and say, ‘That’s not camping. It’s too comfortable.'” Yet in 1924, the collector notes, campers would bring along such luxuries as bathtubs (sometimes made of canvas) and “Imperial Toilet Tents” – two-seater outhouses made of canvas. (Such things may seem primitive to us now, but at the time, they were often comparable to what the travelers had at home – many still used outhouses and heated their bathwater on the stove.) They would even cart along their massive radios and fly kites with wires attached to serve as antennas. “People are always trying to be comfortable,” says Woodworth.
As the 1920s drew to a close and the Great Depression took hold across the country, the auto camping industry took on a new role. At first, laid-off workers who had saved up some money before they lost their jobs used the opportunity their time and cash allowed to take a vacation and see the country.
As the Depression deepened, though, trailers were often the only homes many families could afford to maintain. During the Second World War, production dropped off as industry was redirected and travel and metal were restricted, bringing an end to the golden era of auto camping. But by the 1950s, auto camping experienced a boom that echoed the fascination with camping that had occurred after the First World War, 30 years earlier.
“Antique RV’s can be found all over the United States,” says Woodworth. “There’s not a place in the country without them.” In California, Woodworth has found Michigan-made campers, and in Pennsylvania, he bought a California-made Pierce-Arrow motor home. “I know of more units now that are available than I have money for,” he says. “So, I look for eye appeal and interesting history.” One of his more unusual pieces is a 1950s Compact, an all-fiberglass trailer with a detachable boat for a roof.
So how do you find the antique RV’s? Woodworth comes across most of his finds by chance. “I quit looking for things and said, ‘I’ll take whatever I can,'” he says. “At the RV and sports shows, people will tell me about available trailers. They say: ‘It’s a shame to see this thing destroyed. I want to see it have a good home, since we had such a good time in it.'”
Models from the 1950s and ’60s are easier to find than those built before 1940, especially because so many of the early pieces were at least partially fabric-covered, and so deteriorated easily. “You never find them in good condition,” Woodworth warns, adding that while the initial purchase isn’t all that painful, “it’s the restoration that’s a killer.” Woodworth recently purchased a 1921 Lamsteed (a Model T Ford with a special camping body that was built by Anheuser-Busch during Prohibition) for $4,000, then spent nearly $40,000 on restoration. His advice to prospective collectors? “Have a lot of money and a solid marriage, because both will become shaky,” he says, joking. “At least my wife knows that I can’t afford to have an affair!”
Right now there’s almost no market for antique RV’s, so any money you put into one is more than it’s worth on the market. “There’s a market for old cars, but not for old campers,” Woodworth says. “They don’t travel fast, they’re heavy to tow, and compared to modern RV’s, they’re uncomfortable to live in. Models from the ’30s and earlier were not insulated and miserable in hot and cold weather.” Storage of antique RV’s is likewise impractical, as most travel trailers and campers won’t fit into the average garage. (Until he’s ready to build his own museum, Woodworth is solving his storage problems by loaning out pieces to trade shows and exhibitions.) But perhaps as the number of antique RV owners increases, so too will the market. Woodworth estimates that probably a dozen other collectors in the United States each own an antique unit or two. “Nobody has 30!” he laughs.