Vintage campers perfect for summer road trips in style

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

What's hotter than Belle Isle on late July afternoon? Vintage and vintage-inspired campers.

Driven in part by the tiny house movement and interest in modular living, small-scale vintage campers are surging in popularity these days, from flea markets with vendors selling their goods in old campers to camper-inspired home decor. There's even a social club for women, Sisters on the Fly, that's all about vintage campers, travel and being outdoors (their website has a photo gallery with pictures and names for their trailers).

Happier Camper, which makes a lightweight travel trailer, made a special Tigers-themed trailer. The California-based company will open the doors to its Corktown  showroom for tours during Sunday's Corktown Neighborhood Tour.

Rina Ballenger, who owns an antiques and salvage company in Metro Detroit called Backroad Divas, said she loves retro campers, not because they're vintage but "they are fun to restyle to fit your personality," she said.

Several times a year, she and her partner host vintage markets with vendors from all over the region. Many set up shop in their retro campers. They have a show June 10 with more than 100 vendors at the Monroe County Fairgrounds, 3775 S. Custer Road.

Dozens of vendors at Vintage Markets LLC, which organizes several markets a year in southeast Michigan, sell their goods out of vintage campers.

Vintage campers "draw people in," Ballenger said. "They are adorable, so everyone flocks to see what's inside. We use ours to showcase all of our clothing. Ours features a cute little dressing room, too. Our markets always showcase vintage camper boutiques." 

Stacy Latimer, owner of the Motor City Antique Mall in Flat Rock, scours the country -- and Craigslist -- looking for retro campers and selling them to new owners. And if she sees a good one in someone's driveway, such as a Shasta or Scotty's brand, she has no qualms about knocking on a door, asking if someone wants to sell it.

"They usually do," said Latimer, who remembers asking her husband early in their relationship to pull over when she spotted a retro camper in a driveway so she could knock on the door.

She says popularity has definitely surged over the last five years, especially among young people. She said an old camper in good condition can run $3,000 to $5,000.

"I think that's why they're popular, too," Latimer said. "You can have fun with one, but you don't have to finance it."

Happier Camper opened its Corktown showroom last year.

Happier Camper is a California-based company that makes vintage-inspired lightweight travel trailers or campers. Of all the places to set up shop for the brand's East Coast showroom and distribution center last year, they chose Detroit's Corktown neighborhood. On Beech,  off Michigan, it will be open for tours as part of Sunday's Corktown Neighborhood Tour, which runs from noon to 5 p.m. and starts at the Gaelic League of Detroit.

Owner Derek Michael, who grew up in Windsor, said Detroit made sense for an East Coast showroom. It's close enough to many major cities so customers can drive and check out their travel trailers and pick them up. 

"It makes a lot of sense," he said. "Detroit is strategically placed for the auto industry."

Happier Camper's travel trailers span just 72 square feet, but its modular design means that space can be customized in all sorts of ways. 

And since it's under 1,100 pounds, "you can pull it with pretty much any car on the road," Michael said.

Michael's love of vintage campers started early. His dad got him the first one and eventually, he started restoring other old trailers.

"I was amazed at how comfortable, easy and efficient the trailer was, and that there were so many places where I could just pull it in, set up camp, and wake up to a beautiful sunrise," he said.

By the time Michael started Happier Camper, he had a good sense of what customers liked and what worked and what didn't.

This vintage campers can be styled to suit your personality, said Rina Ballenger of Backroad Divas and Vintage Markets LLC.

He said he believes the reason vintage and vintage-inspired travel trailers are so popular these days is because of the tiny house movement. People want to live more with less space.

"It's not just about travel trailers," he said. "It’s about modular living."

Blake Almstead, one of the Corktown Tour organizers, said having Happier Camper on this weekend's neighborhood tour reflects the area's diversity. He said Corktown has a long history of manufacturing (Carhartt started there, he said).

"We wanted to reflect the past and future of what makes Corktown so unique," Almstead said.

But the Happier Camper isn't cheap. The base price for its HC1 travel trailer is $18,950.

Nifty Things, which has locations in Elk Rapids and Traverse City in northern Michigan, sells vintage camper birdhouses.

Luckily, there are other ways to pay homage to life on the road with your decor. Retailers are latching onto the vintage-camper trend with everything from camper-shaped cookie jars, wall art, even birdhouses.

Vintage Trailer Supply, an online retailer, offers legitimate parts and supplies for those fixing up old RVs to vintage-inspired housewares such as pictures frames, string lights and linens.

(313) 223-4686

Twitter: @mfeighan

Happier Camper 

1244 Beech, Detroit 

1 (844) 755-2267