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Vintage Campers – Reimagining a Great American Pastime

The world has always been divided into two distinct factions; those who love to camp and those who would rather spend an entire afternoon at the dentist. For some, sleeping in tents, cooking meals over the campfire and communing with mother nature is the pinnacle of the human experience. For others, if there’s not a clean bed, air conditioning and access to a sparkling pool in the mix, it cannot be credibly called a vacation. These two groups, it seemed, would forever be separated by an uncrossable divide.

When all hope seemed lost, a solution to this impasse arrived on the scene and those who swore never to set foot in a campsite began to think again. Glamping, short for glamorous camping, has become all the rage in the United States (and beyond) in the last few years as people sought to combine their love of creature comforts with a desire to experience the natural world. One of the most interesting approaches to this reimagining of camping has been the trend towards rehabbing vintage campers to make them more appealing and functional for the modern family.

Sondra Phillips, owner of SKP Designs, was on vacation one summer when she saw a Shasta reissue of the Airflyte vintage camper. It was brand new but had a distinctly retro vibe. Sondra was convinced that rehabbing an actual antique camper would be more cost effective, as well as more authentic. Even better, doing it herself would allow her to personalize it in a way that would be impossible were she to buy new. Thus, began her hunt to find the perfect candidate for her exciting new project.

Her search soon brought her to Craigslist where, in the fall of 2015, she found a thirteen foot, 1960 “Go Tag Along,” (pictured above), that had been gutted. It boasted a new Masonite interior and had a new plywood floor already installed but was otherwise an empty canvas for an artist like Sondra. She dove in headfirst, with the planning and execution of this remodeling project taking a mere three months from start to finish. She chose to hire out the cabinetry work to The Woodsmiths and have the cushions fabricated in Indiana, moves that saved her a good amount of work and had her camping in style in no time.

The project was a labor of love. There were a few unexpected challenges, including the fact that painting in such a small space proved to be quite difficult. “It was almost impossible to get into the proper position to have paint make contact with the walls,” Sondra shares. “It was like Twister. I got a lot of paint in my hair.”

The “Go Tag Along” turned out beautifully, with a vibrant color palette and whimsical patterns throughout. The retro vibe is unmistakable, imparting a sense of nostalgia that’s hard to resist. The kitchen, while only five feet wide, is functional and fabulous, outfitted with a mix of antiques and more modern finds from Target. Sondra loves to take it on the road, with weekends spent at Wilderness State Park, camping in Alpena at “Tow Jam” and visiting a cousin in South Haven.

This little camper is also a hard worker. It doubles as SKP Designs’ trade show booth at the Michigan Restaurant Show and has been the perfect marketing tool at venues like The Gilmore Car Barns Spectacular Car Show and The Vicksburg Car Show. It’s even made an appearance at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts Annual Art Fair.

FOR THOSE CONSIDERING TAKING ON A VINTAGE CAMPER REMODEL THEMSELVES, Sondra offers nothing but encouragement. Her best advice? “Jump right in! It is VERY fun. It’s a great distraction from the everyday things that consume our lives.” Just beware, though. This is a hobby that can be a little addicting. Not only is Sondra putting the finishing touches on a 1956 “Spartan Imperial Mansion,” pictured above, that will serve as SKP’s lakeshore office this summer, she’s working on a “Little Gem” vintage camper for her daughter. Affectionately dubbed “The Thrifty Kitty,” it will boast two twin beds for sleeping comfort. She’s also slowly working on a 1940s “Vagabond” camper that her boyfriend gifted her and a “catering” or “bistro” camper for the Michigan restaurant show. There are another four in the works as well, proving that vintage camper fever is definitely in Sondra’s blood.

If you’re in the market for a vintage camper but haven’t a handy bone in your body, there may be good news on the horizon for you. Once Sondra has completed a decent number of campers and feels she has perfected the process, she is open to rehabbing campers for her clients. She wants to be able to do enough of these projects that she can nail down the time frame, costs, methods and options before she offers the service. Considering how many campers she is currently working on, that happy day may not be too far off.

Erica Shier is a married mother of four who loves reading, scrapbooking & thrift stores. When she’s not driving her small pack of children around, she spends her time volunteering, writing & trying to keep on top of the laundry.

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