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Teardrops of Joy for Campers Who Don't Mind Small Spaces


MICHAEL CADY is 6 foot 8, but he learned long ago to tolerate small spaces. After he and his wife, Madeline, were married 22 years ago, they lived in a 525-square-foot efficiency apartment. Now they vacation in 32 square feet - the living space in their teardrop trailer. And, he says, he loves it. 

Teardrops, tiny, round-backed and light enough to be towed by the family car or even a motorcycle, liberated Americans in the 1930's and 40's, making the summer vacation egalitarian. They were succeeded by ever-larger campers, recreational vehicles and, finally, giant motor homes - the sort of conveyance that would seem more likely to attract someone like Mr. Cady. But the Cadys are among a band of 21st-century connoisseurs who are bringing the teardrop back. 

"I love the simplicity and style," said Mr. Cady, 50, an engineer from Middletown, Conn. And, practicalities aside, it's easy to understand his enthusiasm. Teardrops are functional and cheap, a triumph of miniaturization. Perhaps most important, they are cute. 

In essence, teardrops are shiny, hard-shelled tents with Art Deco style. The prototypical teardrop has an aluminum skin covering a plywood frame, weighs 750 pounds and is 4 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet. (The Cadys' is a little longer, 10 feet, but even at that, Mr. Cady had to cut into the back of the kitchen cabinets for more leg room.) The usual features are a mattress for two inside and a chuck-wagon kitchen under a lid out back, usually with a propane stove, stainless-steel sink, water tank and icebox. "The kitchen has unlimited space," Mr. Cady said with a laugh, "because it's all outdoors." Bathrooms, however, are beyond the teardrop's scope. 

From 1945 to 1961, there were about 35 teardrop manufacturers, according to George Wilkerson, 54, of the Teardrop Fix-It-Shop in Glendale, Calif. The trailers were sold as complete units or in kits, and the do-it-yourselfer could buy plans to make one from scratch. Production peaked in the 1950's, and teardrops virtually disappeared in the 60's. Now there is a revival, and owners restore vintage teardrops or buy new ones. The lowest price for a new teardrop is about $5,000, and a number of manufacturers are listed on the Internet. 

At the high end is a replica of the 1946 Kenskill model, which Mr. Wilkerson will build by hand for $10,500 ( and he has a waiting list). The replica is faithful to the original, he said, although "we improved the frame for modern highway speeds."

  A teardrop lover can buy a low-end kit for $2,500 and build a teardrop in 120 hours, according to Philip Ennis of www.desertteardrops.com in Glendale, Ariz., who sells plans for $60. 

The mattress fills the floor in a teardrop, and you sleep with your head toward the front and your feet toward the kitchen. The Cadys use a seven-foot futon; Len and Donna Daddona of Ridley, Pa., have a four-inch-thick foam mattress. One obvious teardrop advantage, Mr. Daddona said, is that "you can never fall out of bed." 

Mr. Daddona, 51, a recreational vehicle technician, explains his teardrop addiction not by his interest in R.V.'s, but by describing himself as "an old hippie trying to get to my midlife crisis." The Daddonas have camped continuously in their teardrop for as long as six days, but usually they stay for two or three days on the road in national parks, then one night in a motel. It's not for everyone, they cautioned. "Remember," Mr. Daddona said, "this is camping." 

The Daddonas are teardropper purists, using the cast-iron skillet and stove made by Griswold Manufacturing of Erie, Pa., from the 1930's to the 1950's that are considered the most authentic. Also packed away in their kitchen are a Boy Scout mess kit, silverware, kerosene lanterns, canned food and materials for erecting a tentlike shelter over the kitchen when it rains. 

Their trailer is cozy and dry on a rainy night. The trailer is watertight, Mr. Daddona said, and the sound of the rain beating on the roof is "the ultimate white noise." 

Teardroppers like to get together. A camp-out in March at Sweetwater Summit Park in Bonita, Calif., drew 109 teardrops, according to Brad Romaine, who runs the Southern California Touring Tears club. And sometimes they drive in caravans, which never fail to slow traffic in the opposite lane. The attention is not unwelcome. 

"We spend more time in our teardrop than in our 36-foot Country Club motor home," Mr. Romaine said. "Pull into a campground with a $200,000 motor home, and nobody talks to you. With a teardrop, you'd better like people, because they gather around five deep."

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