The Molded Fiberglass Obsession

We just bought a 2013 Casita Spirit Deluxe 17′ molded fiberglass travel trailer.

I won’t say we had never contemplated camping trailers. But we never had a proper ‘Recreational Vehicle’ (RV) until now. Our first camping trip, before we were married, was in the back of my 1965 Plymouth Belvedere, an underpowered (110 HP slant-6, three-speed manual) station wagon, called The Great White Hope, which I bought used in 1970. With the red seats down and a foam mattress on them, you could barely sit upright; but that is less of a problem when you’re young. From there we graduated c. 1975 to an handsome 1970 Chevrolet pickup, with a cap, called The Golden Vanity. I built in a shelving unit with a horizontal folding door, and my by-then wife Jane sewed hefty zippered netting over the back of the cap (we just came across this netting, which had been stowed in a drawer for four decades). The mattress was suspended above with bungee cords, and released for bedtime. We cooked on a little brass kerosene stove, and extended a tarp from the back of the truck to the nearest trees.  Here’s The Golden Vanity, and Jane in the camper cap (you can see the shelves behind her, and the mattress above—click to enlarge):

Maybe The Golden Vanity qualified as an RV? In any case, the truck met an unhappy fate, so we were reduced to a canvas tent made by Black’s of London I had bought back in 1967, and as it turned out, never used. Unlike modern tents, it was a complicated affair with lots of thin strings holding tent and fly safe from the wind, like the Lilliputians secured Gulliver. We took it along in a hand-me-down 1964 Rambler coupe deep into the North Maine Woods, with our green-painted Browning Marine aluminum canoe (our wedding present, called Tiger Lily) on the roof, and spent a week camped on an island in Eagle Lake, one of the large Allagash Lakes, accessible only by boat. This was low-tech; we smoked meat at our first stop, then lived on what we had brought in the canoe.

After our first child was born, we started looking at ‘tent campers’, now called ‘pop-ups’. Old ones tended to smell of moldy canvas. New ones ran up to $4,000, which was serious money in 1980 (and no laughing matter even now). We elected instead to buy a 12′ by 12′ tent, which was plenty of room for us and our eventual three kids, for an order of magnitude less (as the scientists say): $400. This giant tent used long poles and an aluminum junction at the center of the roof called a ‘spider’, though it had only four legs, not eight.

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The ‘Spider’

The tent is now gone (we broke it out after two decades of storage, and discovered it reeked—of rotten milk?—whereupon it went into a state park dumpster), but I just came across the spider the other day. It’s one of those artifacts just has to go into the box of what my wife calls ‘beautiful junk’, used most often by the grandkids for building large space ships.

So there was no more talk of camping trailers, and for a long while, not much camping either. Family was mostly far away, and time was short: we drove, or took the train, and once or twice even flew. But two years ago daughter Sarah and husband James got a trailer, ‘a vintage’ 1963 Avion, all aluminum, like an Airstream but without the shiny coat, and they set to work on resurrecting and modifying their new project. And I began to get the bug.

This Spring the kids and my wife wanted to have a family camp-out (or is it a ‘camp-in’?) at a state park. Jane and I had gotten to the age where sleeping on the ground was less novel and more uncomfortable than it used to be, and we were less enamored of distant ‘facilities’. I said, “You guys camp out, and we’ll stay in a motel nearby and visit.” Then someone suggested renting a travel trailer; I demurred; I imagined too many hours of folderol, though in retrospect it might have been no worse than renting a box trailer from U-Haul. After all, we have a Ford Expedition, which though used came with the factory trailering package. But then I got to thinking about the kind of trailer I might like. . .

“Most RVs are so full of frills, fabrics, and gizmos,” I wrote to daughter Sarah, “that they become like taking care of a small house.  I wonder if anyone makes one like a basic [Jeep] Wrangler: you can just open the doors and hose it down.”

Well, no one does, to my knowledge. But a quick Internet search told me that one type of travel trailer comes close: those made of fiberglass. Why? Because when they mold the body of the trailer (usually in two halves, top and bottom), much of the internal configuration is molded along with it. The first one I found on the Internet was quite something: the Oliver, made by a Tennessee company. It had not one but two bodies, one inside the other, sandwiched together with insulation, and the shape of the cabinets, cupboards, etc. was molded into the inner shell. That made for a shiny, clean, white interior, simple and elegant. Here’s a picture:

Oliver interior

Promotional image from the Oliver website.

No prices on the website, so I dashed off an email to the company. Turned out I had picked out the Rolls-Royce of molded fiberglass trailers, with prices starting (depending on model) between $40k and $50k. They are not huge (18.5 and 23.5 feet overall) by travel-trailer standards, but there is a considerable emphasis on fit-‘n’-finish. You can see a lot of photos by a fellow named Ron Merrit, who blogs as ‘Wincrasher’, and who owns Oliver’s Legacy Elite II model, HERE.

From the unattainable Oliver, it was off to molded fiberglass (MFG) trailers for the rest of us. The most numerous, if any of this tiny RV market segment can be called ‘numerous’, are the Scamps and Casitas, which have also been around the longest. Then there are the Escapes and the Bigfoots, and newer additions to the market, the ParkLiners and the aforementioned Olivers. Almost none of the MFGs are sold by RV dealers (some Bigfoots may be); they are produced in small quantities and sold factory-direct. But MFGs have been made since at least the 1950s. There seems to have been an efflorescence of them in the ’70s and ’80s, especially in Canada, with the Boler and the Trillium companies; but even U-Haul rented small, MFG campers for a few years, then sold them off. In North America, the obvious advantages of building a camping trailer the same way you make a boat, by molding a fiberglass hull, and not cutting any more holes into it than necessary, seem to have been obviated by the need to make large production-line trailers that can bring with them all the comforts of home, all the “frills, fabrics, and gizmos” I complained about.

Well, it turns out that even the smallest (the 13-footers) of the MFG ‘eggs’ (as their devotees call them) have their share of gizmos, and even frills and fabrics. These aren’t tents. They have beds, usually ones that convert from tables or sometimes couches (‘gauchos’), and cookstoves (two or three burners, using propane), sinks with water from ‘city’ hookups or a water tank accessed by an on-demand 12V pump, water heaters, furnaces, three-way (120V AC, 12V DC, propane) refrigerators (sometimes only ice-boxes, for the frugal), air-conditioners, and even bathrooms (usually ‘wet’, meaning the shower and toilet share a common enclosure). The waterworks means attaching up to three tanks, one for fresh water and one for ‘grey water’ (from sinks, shower), and one for ‘black water’ (the toilet, unless it’s a cassette type, which has its own tank). All of the these appurtenances and much more are familiar to owners of traditional ‘stick-built’ travel trailers and motor homes (generically ‘RVs’), and in fact the MFG industry uses many of the same devices and appliances as the rest of the RV industry—Dometic refrigerators, Suburban propane furnaces, etc., as well as the same running gear, like Dexter rubber torsion-bar axles.

What distinguishes the MFG ‘eggs’ is their undeniable simplicity of construction—basically a fiberglass shell sitting on a metal frame. The mainstream stickbuilt trailers are usually built with straight sides built of wooden or metal framework, on which is layered insulation and a cover of aluminum or fiberglass. Then a roof, often made of rubber, is laid on joists across the top. This means there are seams along both top edges, which increases the potential for leaks, which in turn can ‘delaminate’ the sides. Molded fiberglass trailers of course have AC units, vents, and fans on the roof, and windows and doors on the sides, all of which can leak, but they do not have structural seams and rubber roofs that need constant attention, and sides that can come apart.

The advantages were immediately obvious to me. The disadvantages quickly became so as well: scarcity, high demand, hence high prices. We weren’t prepared to buy anything new, but even well-used (10-15 years old) fiberglass ‘eggs’ were not cheap. ‘Stickies’, as the MFG afficianados call the traditional trailers, depreciate quickly: they are made in quantity, the quality is often indifferent or worse, and without constant attention suffer the slings and arrows of leakage, mold, rot, and delamination. Which is not to say that stickie bargains can’t be found, especially if you’re willing to do serious restoration work. Our daughter and husband found their Avion, with its aluminum shell and frame like an Airstream, for short money, and after major renovation have got it on the road. ‘Vintage’ trailers are a whole ‘nother subcategory of RV, with their own community of fans.

And community is where you need to go in pursuit of molded fiberglass, too. Headquarters are the ‘Molded Lightweight Fiberglass RV’ website, or FiberglassRV.com. There on the home page you are confronted with a long, alphabetical list of MFGs, old and new, starting with Amerigo (“The Amerigo travel trailer was produced in Bristol, IN by Amerigo-Gardner. Production ended in the early 1990s.”) and ending with Willerby (“This 14 ft. caravan [the British term for travel trailer] was manufactured in Great Britain, as far back as 1957”). The 1957 Willerby Vogue, with its large eyes, stern eyebrow, and art nouveau look is almost certainly the most stylish camper ever made, here as found and restored by the aptly-named Peter Jolly of Little Plumstead, UK:

Willerby

1957 Willerby Vogue (Copyright © Peter Jolly, used by permission)

I digress, but this is the most striking example of the undeniable appeal of the little fiberglass ‘eggs’, which their devoted owners call the ‘cute factor’. It is remarkable how many renovation projects (‘renos’ to devotees) are documented on pages of the FiberglassRV.com forums, and how many vintage fiberglass trailers, dating decades back, are still in regular service. This also explains in part why they hold their value, as we found out once I thought about actually buying one. You can actually strip out practically everything from inside a 30-year-old egg, and still have a useable shell ready for new wiring, plumbing, cabinets, and appliances. And usually, nothing so drastic is necessary. Fifteen-year-old Casitas and Scamps easily sell for half of what a new one would cost, and more like 60% in constant dollars. Few ‘stickies’ would be so fortunate.

We started looking at new trailers, the stick-built ones, to see what we were getting involved with. None of the dealers were local; they were scattered around Eastern Massachusetts, so it required special trips. We looked at a the Keystone Bullet in West Boylston, the Starcraft AR-ONE in Berkley, and the Forest River R-Pod in Plainville, as well whatever else in the ‘light’ category was on the lots. We even drove way out past Springfield to Southwick to see a Travel Lite Idea 18′ trailer, about the size of many MFGs. It was left over from a dealership a long-timer in the business named Dave had; his specialty was truck campers (that slide into the beds of pickups), but that market had dried up with the rise of family crew-cab/short-bed trucks and SUVs, so he had closed and gone to work for a large RV dealership in town. The Idea 18 he was willing to unload for invoice cost ($12,000). He was refreshingly honest. How about leaks? we asked. “They all leak,” he said. The Idea had been sitting a year and smelled musty. The construction seemed rickity. We decided to pass.

Some of the stickies had layouts we liked. We wanted basics, no slide-outs (reputedly prone to leaking and mechanical problems), no gee-gaws like motorized awnings and entertainment centers. We thought it would be nice to have a permanent bed and dinette, not just one you had to convert, and most did. But oddly, the RV industry seemed to have gone in for dark trim and ugly grey-greenish paint inside. And we were told that we’d have to get up on the rubber roofs every year and treat them with some kind of goop, and reseal the seams. Not so, I remembered, on the MFGs.

Back to community. I perused the Classifieds on the FiberglassRV Forum, and also on a site called ‘Molded Fiberglass RV’s For Sale‘, and as I became more interested in Casitas, on the two Casita specialty forums, the Casita Club and the Casita Forum.

Why are there two, you ask? Apparently because, as is not uncommon in such communities, there was a falling out and a Club member decided to start a competing Forum. Such is human nature. But actually they have specialized, so the Club is now known more for rallies and social matters, while the Forum concentrates on technical questions. The more the merrier. The other brands have theirs, too: Scamp, Escape, Bigfoot, etc.

At any rate, while there were a fair number of Casitas and Scamps for sale, almost all of them were at least a day’s travel from us, and more commonly two or three or four days. New England, as I complained on the FiberglassRV Forum, was ‘A Fiberglass Desert’:

We’re getting to the age where tent camping is more trouble than we want, so we’re thinking of a small camper. I’m enamored of the molded fiberglass ones I see on line, everything from Scamps to the double-hulled (and too expensive) Olivers. But looking on the Web, I see practically nothing new or used here in Eastern Massachusetts, or even within a couple of hundred miles. No RV dealers carry them, not even used.

I got sympathetic responses; suggestions started turning up. There was a Casita for sale in NY State, maybe six hours away. And another in Richmond, VA, not far from daughter and son-in-law. This was in April; helpful daughter wrote, “Well, you could come down here in May and pick up the Richmond one!” I temporized—as it turned out, a cardinal sin of MFG shopping: “Hard to buy something you haven’t seen. Especially as we’re just starting to think about these.” A day later, I summoned a bit of courage and ventured: “Would you have any interest in checking out that Casita?  And maybe buying it and keeping it in your yard for us to pick up later?” So then we began discussing the layout:

Sarah: “Been looking at it in more detail. We think you can’t actually sleep more than 2 in this model. . .There is no separate bed or bunks for children. Some other campers of similar size do have a side couch that can become a single bed or bunks.” (The Richmond one was Casita’s Liberty model, which elminates the side dinette in favor of two twin beds, or a larger ‘king’-sized bed.) Then she added: “On the other hand, you could put kids in a separate tent, as long as they were old enough to do that. There are some advantages to that anyway. Most RV sites allow one tent in addition to a camper, I think.”

At which point my clever wife chimed in: “My sentiments exactly—put them in a tent.   Go for it.” Remember, she had never set foot in one of these fiberglass eggs, either. But we have a passel of grandkids, and even stickbuilts would have to be pretty large to carry more than one or two of them. Besides, we were just dipping our toes in the RV waters. We weren’t going to plunge into something 37 feet long with bunks and slideout rooms, and compartments for ‘toys’ (usually motorized vehicles). It was to be just a tent on wheels; no “Long, Long Trailer” misadventures for us, as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez experienced in 1953:

So Sarah contacted the owner of the Casita Liberty Deluxe 17 in Richmond and in a frenzy of nervous anticipation I hurriedly made lists of inspection reminders and documents to have ready. But then, the letdown: The seller, a nice fellow named Greg, wrote, “I have one person coming Sat morning from out of state, so their timing may change.  I also have another local person coming Sat @ 9AM.  I’ll let you know if the Casita is still available after they take a look.” That’s when I began to realize that these little eggs were in such high demand that you couldn’t wait, not a minute.

This was brought home a few days later when I returned from my radio show (“Hillbilly at Harvard,” WHRB.org, Saturdays 9 AM – 1 PM) to find a message from a gentleman in New Hampshire. He was selling a Casita! Apparently he had seen my ‘Fiberglass Desert’ complaint on the FiberglassRV Forum. But when I called back, the trailer was already gone: he had put it on Craig’s List, and within hours a buyer had shown up with cash in hand.

I began scouring the ads, on the forums, on RVs-for-sale sites, and on the local and regional Craig’s Lists. Almost all were too far from here, though we began seriously thinking of driving four or five hours to NY State to check one out. But then, to my surprise, there turned up on the New Hampshire Craig’s List another Casita, a Spirit Deluxe 17-foot model, and this one had not been advertised on the specialty sites. I quickly emailed the owner, whose name it turned out was Janet; it was for real (there are lots of scams on Craig’s List, phony ads designed to trap the unwary into parting with thousands of dollars), and we had a shot. But then, Janet said, her husband John had just fallen off a ladder, had to be treated at the hospital, and they could not show the trailer—for days, as it turned out. We fretted, not knowing if this opportunity was vanishing into the wind, as the others had. We thought again of driving across the Hudson, or having our daughter check out one, this time in North Carolina. . .

I forgot to mention that at some point in this brief but fitful odyssey we had inspected a 16-foot Scamp, at the invitation of the owner. This was a 2000 model with a side wet bath and a tiny dinette at the front, that even we found hard to get into. It just seemed too small. Then we looked at a Casita 17, referred by the factory to a local owner. That was small, too, but the layout (with bath at front and two-seat dinette on the side (in addition to the four-seat dinette at the back, which became a bed that we assumed we’d leave in bed mode) seemed more forgiving.  If that sounds complicated, well we were becoming inadvertent experts.  Here’s the layout of the Casita Spirit Deluxe 17:

Spirit_Sch_2015_ED-1030x452

Maybe it wasn’t as spacious as our ancient 12 x 12 tent, but we could stand up everywhere in it, and almost pass each other in the aisle. So Scamps were out: we wanted a Casita. Of course, there are bigger MFGs, e.g. the Escape 19-foot one with a permanent bed plus a four-seat dinette.

Escape19

Promotional photo from the Escape website.

But Escape 19s, made in British Columbia, are (1) expensive ($30k Canadian new), (2) back-ordered for a year, (3) almost impossible to find used; so they were out. If we wanted a full dinette and permanent bed, we’d have to go stickie. But by now, that wasn’t what I wanted—the obsession had taken over: I wanted Molded FiberGlass. And if my wife had reservations, she kept them quiet. “Let’s just get something,” she said.

At last, after almost a week of silence, Janet announced that John had recovered from his fall, and we could make a trip up to NH see their 2013 Casita. We did, we liked what we saw, and paid them what they asked. For the price, we could have bought a brand-new AR-ONE or other stickie, with a larger floorplan, but obsessions have a price, even momentary ones. We drove it home, parked it in the side yard—and then I started thinking about modifications. They are called ‘mods’ by those in the cult. Nothing like a new hobby.

Here it is:

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And we took the Casita out camping, which was, lest I forget, the point. /LEJ

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At a campsite in Lake Dennison State Park, Winchendon, MA

UPDATE: I posted a brief note on how our trailer got its name, “Close By,” on the Hillbilly at Harvard blog, HERE.  The country and bluegrass folks will appreciate it.

UPDATE 2 (4Oct16): Another Willerby Vogue has been beautifully restored by a fellow in the UK named Stuart (posting on the FiberglassRV forum as ‘Russell Willerby’).  He’s towing it with a classic Land Rover, too.  See HERE, and scroll down for photos.

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10 thoughts on “The Molded Fiberglass Obsession

  1. My wife and I returned to camping in 2013 with the purchase of a teardrop trailer. Loved it and made a long trip from NC to NM. Decided that a small camper complete with bathroom was preferred. Started looking and found a 2007 Casita 17′ SD for sale by owner. Since we had researched Casitas, we jumped on the opportunity to buy. Made the trip to buy and also to visit a granddaughter and wife’s cousin. Brought our SD home and love it.
    The only warning I offer, be prepared to do some maintenance and upgrades on an older model. I replaced brakes, new tires, cleaned out hot water heater, replaced tank valves, and replaced propane tanks (10 to 12 yr life), added a sway control for extra safety plus some other minor items.
    Plan to use for years. We like it as our “get away” (8 grandkids are close by) and have taken one grandchild at a time. Special bonding time in the great outdoors!
    By the way, sold the teardrop for same amount when purchased. If I traveled by myself, I would have also kept the teardrop.

    • Thanks for the warning. I had the brakes and bearings checked (repacked) after I brought Close By home. The tires are three years old and in good shape. Everything else seems to be working all right. But it’s a little like taking on a second, but much smaller, home.

      I wonder if your teardrop had more room than our 1965 Plymouth, or the cap on our 1970 Chevy pickup. . . /LEJ

  2. Great essay. I like your ability to weave together real quotations, tidbits of history, detailed information, and tangential asides into a narrative that is interesting and readable. Now… where’s Part Two?

  3. I enjoyed your story, similar to ours, except we bought a new 16′ scamp SD. Prices for used were so high , I thought I just as well buy new. Not to mention they were several states down or up or over. Soooo we made a vacation out of going from PA to MN to buy it and take home. And the fun began. Hope to run into you someplace. Regards, Carl

    • Maybe in PA someday? Our daughter and family like to stop at the Promised Land State Park on their way to and from MA, and if we’re down that way, we might too! /LEJ

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