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campinmalet.jpg (42447 bytes)Camping Goes Retro

Article by MIKE SCHWARTZ / The Press-Enterprise On the Net
Saturday, September 11, 2004

Mike Pari thinks he knows a potential goldmine when he sees one. 

In this case, it's in the form of a tiny, towable, airfoil-shaped trailer that was the rage back in the 1940s and '50s. Pari, an Ontario general/electrical contractor, wants to start a factory dedicated to these miniature bed-and-breakfasts on wheels called teardrop trailers. Eclipsed nearly a half-century ago by hefty RVs and motor homes, the streamlined tow-alongs are making a big comeback among the camping crowd, says Pari, who already has built two prototypes in his home workshop.

It was love at first sight when he first glimpsed a teardrop only two years ago while camping at Mount Shasta.

"I thought, 'Whoaaa!' when I saw it. Everyone who walked by wanted to buy it," he recalls. "So we decided to get into it."

These little blasts from the past at first tend to perplex motorists who spot them. How, some may ask, can anyone stand up or move around in one or carry enough gear to bivouac in style? Others may wonder if it's really a rolling kennel for the family dog.

Hardly, insist aficionados. Teardropping, as owners fondly call the pastime, dispenses with the hassle of towing a ponderous RV or setting up a tent.

"When we go to a campground, no one comes and talks to you in a big old motor home. When you've got a teardrop, everyone comes to see you," says Julian resident Jackie Long, a co-founder of Southern California Touring Tears, a loose-knit group of teardrop owners - about 300 strong - who hold spring campout gatherings.

Warm, Cozy Nest

Basically, a teardrop is a compact camper trailer that provides a comfortable bed for two, sheltered from the elements and hard ground. A cushy mattress typically covers the entire inside floor. Some have surprising touches of luxury such as wood-paneling, drawers, window curtains, lights and built-in CD players.

"Why do we do it? It's a great way of camping. And it's all about the good people we camp with," says Jackie's companion, Brad Romaine.

Although the cabin lacks room for stand-up dressing or hygiene, many campgrounds have bathrooms with toilets and showers.

The chuck wagon-like galley can be used for quick rest-stop snacks, camping picnics, breakfast eggs or tailgate parties.

A typical teardrop is about 4 feet wide, 4 feet high and 8-10 feet long, says Romaine. Some "stretch" models, however, may measure 6 feet wide, 5 feet high and nearly 12 feet long.

The Art Deco teardrop shape goes back 50 or 60 years. New trailers built from original plans feature that same retro style.

Some owners relish hitching them behind a classic car, a hot-rod, a Corvette, a Chrysler PT Cruiser or some other nostalgia-evoking vehicle.

Long and Romaine own a vintage '56 Benroy teardrop, towed by a 1956 Ford F-100 pickup.

The beauty of teardrops is that owners don't need huge, gas-guzzling trucks or SUVs to tow them, she says. Just about any small vehicle will do - from VW Bugs and family mini-vans to Geo Metros, Jeeps and even "trike" motorcycles.

Post-war Diversion

The origin of teardrops is somewhat obscure. But the first ones likely were built in the early 1930s in Southern California. Their popularity soared after World War II, fueled by returning vets restless to travel on shoestring budgets, plus better roads and affordable towing cars.

Post-war builders often used war surplus steel for the chassis, and covered plywood frames with aluminum from scrapped combat aircraft. Outfits like Norwalk-based Kit Manufacturing Co. sold more than 4,500 finished Kit Kampers between 1946 and 1947. Flush with success, the company soon stopped making the $595 trailers in favor of pricier 8-by-14 "standup" coaches.

By some estimates, about 35 manufacturers built teardrops until 1961 - either complete or as kits. Then, in the 1960s, the trailers seemed to disappear as the RV and motor home craze kicked in.

A few intrepid enthusiasts never gave up and home-builts remained a popular option. In the September 1947 Mechanix Illustrated magazine, Riverside resident Howard Warren published a do-it-yourself plan for a teardrop very much like the Kit Kamper.

It's hard to say how many of the lovable little trailers were based on that plan and others over the decades. But that basic design remains popular even today.

Modern Revival Under Way

The trailers' resurgence in Southern California began in the mid-'90s, inspired mainly by an active band of teardrop builders and campers in Northern California, and a need for light campers that could be towed by smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles, says Dave Locke, a Yucca Valley owner/builder.

"We've had a 37-foot motor home for many years," said Locke, who retired from the California Department of Forestry in 1996. "Nowadays we spend maybe two weeks a year out in the motor home and up to 60 days with teardrops."

Locke has assembled 18 trailers from scratch and restored 5 others since he and his wife, Deane, were bitten by the bug in the early '90s.

Nowadays, teardrop buffs can buy from RV makers such as Oregon-based Cozy Cruiser Manufacturing, Inc., which touts the trailer as "the new old fashioned way to camp." Cozy sells its Standard Classic teardrop for $8,495 and it's Classic Deluxe for $9,495.

Or buyers can seek out a growing list of do-it-yourself plan providers such as Kuffel Creek Press in Hemet, or builders like Locke. His $6,200 base price for a 4-by-8 can put a family economically into a teardrop. Options such as roof vents; an aluminum storage box; leveling jacks and tail lights can boost the cost to $8,500.

Teardropping newcomers Mike Pari and his son, Gabe, plan to display their prototypes at the LA County Fair in Pomona this month. At $9,500 it's pricier than many.

"But we're building the best one on the market," he boasts.

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