A Vintage Mobile Sportsman Trailer

Information about my vintage 1948 Mobile Sportsman trailer.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

1948 Sportsman

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Rear View

This is the first picture I saw, and all it took to convince me that I had to have it!

It is a 1948 Mobile Sportsman house trailer, yes, house trailer, it is not a "camper".
I had for years wanted to redo an old trailer, but didn't have the time or money.
When I got a little time, I didn't have much money, and so built a teardrop as a substitute using both new and salvaged material to make it look "old".
Click here to see
After enjoying the teardrop, money and time came together, and when I found the Sportsman for sale, I didn't waste much time getting it home!

As an interesting side note, I had actually found another Mobile Sportsman trailer only a mile from home a year earlier, but it was too far gone to use for anything but parts, so when the other one came up for sale, the decision was easy!

This trailer had been purchased used by an older couple for camping trips, and in recent years had been rather neglected.
My plan was to clean it up a bit, do some retro fitting, and go camping, but before I even got it home, trouble started.

Front View

In all its years, I don't think it had ever been polished, but overall, the aluminum siding was in pretty fair condition.
The funny looking "window" at the rear is actually an emergency exit, since there was only one door, and the heater was next to it, this was the other way out.

Exterior, Streetside

Something I found interesting was the mixed use of stainless steel, and regular steel screws.

Why if they had stainless available, did they also use rust prone regular screws?
I'll probably never know, but all were replaced with stainless!

The rusty round thing high up on the side is the electrical hookup.
The trim strip down the middle once held a bright red insert!

Exterior, Curbside

The cute, but dull little bumperettes needed rechroming...or so I thought, turns out they're solid aluminum!
All the running lights, tail lights, and porch light were there, and unbroken!

Took me a while to realize the original tail lights were not original at all...they came new on a 56 T bird, but they look good, so I kept them.

Dual Closets

At left is the asbestos heat shield for the heater (missing).
The original Marvel fridge still works.
The two opposing closets, opened together, created an 18" "dressing room" in front of the bed.

The Master Bedroom!

Not much to say about this, other than cramped!

A Little Worse For Wear

It was nice how the fridge was mounted up high, easy to access.

The dinette cushions were thick, but far from soft.

The Original Dining/Living Area

Hard to imagine today, but common in its time, this small trailer (14-1/2' body length) served as home to some lucky couple!

This view is from the bed looking forward, not an ounce of spare room.

Lighting was provided by a fluorescent bulb at each end, and a tube light over the counter.

The table was removeable, and the dinette could be converted into another bed.

The Very Small Kitchen

Imagine trying to prepare three meals a day in this space!

Just A Little Water Damage

This area held the only visible water damage to the interior.

It is common to find these old trailers advertised as having only "minor" water damage...BEWARE!

What The Damage REALLY Looks Like!

This is the other side of the wall, what do you think...Would you call it "minor damage"?

This is, unfortunately what a lot of trailer walls look like inside.
When looking at minor interior water stains, one must remember that the water came from outside, soaking everything in its path.

Bad News! The Frame Is Rusted Through

This is the part of the story that started, and probably should have ended my quest to rebuild/retrofit this particular trailer...

Going against my usual rule of never buying a car, etc, from a dealer, I did.
After much negotiation, we agreed on a fair price (yeah, I know I probably could have found one cheaper...But I knew where there was a parts trailer, pretty important for my retrofit plans).

I drove a 150 miles on a very cold, snowy Sunday morning to pick up my prize, arrived in time for fresh coffee and a tour of the dealers lot.
The owner was at church, but his employee helped me get everything hooked up and saw me off.
The ride home was great, lots of time to dream about how neat this old trailer was going to be...Well, the ride was great for the first 50 miles or so, until I noticed the front of the trailer bouncing up and down.
At first I didn't pay much mind to it, I was using our dump truck since my truck was in the shop, and the road was bumpy.
A little while later, the sickening realization that the truck wasn't bouncing brought my pleasant thoughts to an abrupt end!

I pulled over and discovered that the tongue was bent upwards, uh oh.
So, on a cold desolate road I peeled back the aluminum underbelly to find that the frame was rusted through, and cracked on two of the three supports that held the tongue to the frame...

My dreams were definitely shattered, I'd purchased the trailer "as is", so much for doing my homework!

The last hundred miles were spent driving 10-15 miles an hour, with visions of an old trailer merrily crashing into the ditch, and a few prayers that no one was passing me when it let loose!.

We made it home safely, my dream and I, but with new focus.
I contacted the dealer, not in anger, for he had no idea the frame was rusted, the belly pan had been intact until I opened it.
I explained what had happened so that he might add this area to his pre sale checklist, and was ready to say goodbye when he said he'd take care of it...huh, was I dreaming?? No, he offered to pay whatever it cost to have a new frame made!
I'm not prone to fainting, but if I were, I would have!
My faith in the old trailer, and dealers, was instantly restored.

I don't want this to sound like a commercial, but Dan, the owner of Vintage Campers.com made good for every last penny I spent on having a new frame made.

So, the plans for the trailer had changed a bit, but I was up for the challenge!

Getting Under The Skin

Well, in order to replace the frame, the body had to come off, first order of business was to expose the wood framing underneath the skin.

What I found wasn't good.

Old Frame Being Removed

Once the siding was removed, the extent of years and years of water damage was very clear, not only did it need a new steel frame, but 80% of the body frame wood was rotten.

Oh well, I was in this to the end, besides, I knew I'd never be happy with the results unless I took the thing completely apart.

Removing The Body For Frame Replacement

Removing the body really wasn't very hard...There were only 4 nails on each side holding it to the floor (thank goodness for all the screws in the siding!).

After removing all the interior cabinetry (which I donated to a friend who was rebuilding a similar trailer) I punched a few holes in the interior paneling and ran 2 x 4 braces through the trailer (Firmly attached to the bottom plate, and studs).

Then, using a floor jack, I raised first one end, then the other, in even amounts shimming under the projecting 2 x 4's until the body would clear the wheel wells.
After it was high enough, it was a simple matter of pulling the old frame out.

The New Steel Frame

Here it is, the brand new custom made frame!

I redesigned the new frame to save a future owner the same troubles the original had caused, and added enough length to the tongue to prevent those nasty dents caused by turning too sharply.

The old frame was made from two "c" sections of steel spot welded together, okay for strength, but a poor design that held moisture.

The new frame was wire wheeled,cleaned well with solvent, and received 4 coats of paint.

I had a friend who is a certified welder build the frame, taking much care in leaving no openings for moisture to get in.

The old frame also relied on a 2 x 4 for the outside support, we went with the same plan, but added an 1/8" plate around the outside for extra rigidity, then bolted a treated, and well painted 2 x 4 to the plate.

New Floor And Frame Detail

This is a closer shot of the new frame, and floor.
The old plywood floor was 1/2", I would have preferred to use a thicker plywood, but since everything had to fit together exactly as before, using a different thickness would have meant the skin would be too short.

After the initial fitting, the underside of the floor was treated to 3 coats of a good oil based paint, the first coat thinned 50% for good penetration.
After all the construction was complete, the underside received 4 coats of rubber based undercoating (wood included) as I chose not to install an underbelly.

Based on the same thought, I used an asphalt/rubber based roofing sealer (the material the young folks use to keep their cars from rattling when they crank up the stereo!) The material is actually a roofing product, in my case, used to isolate the wood floor from the steel frame, to seal the fasteners, and act as a drip edge for the inevitable spray produced from driving in the rain (it never rains when you're on vacation...Right?)

The thickness of the material was accounted for by the frame being just a slight bit shorter than the original.

Stripping The Frame

After completing the new frame and floor, the body was lowered on the new foundation.

Then came the fun part, stripping it clean!

What a mess! A good respirator is a must.

If you look closely at the wall to roof joint, the extent of the rotten wood is clear.

Hidden Water Damage Revealed

The plywood panel tells the story! (The dark spots aren't from age)

Using The Skin As A Template

Before removing what was left of the roof framing, I carefully leveled and blocked the frame, then installed "X" braces to hold the walls true.

The next step was to re-install the siding in preparation to replace all the bad wood, being careful to use the same screw holes both in the siding, and framework

As I discovered during the steel frame reconstruction, the workers who built the trailer either didn't know how to use a tape measure, were drunk, or perhaps both...The streetside wall was 1.5" longer than the curbside wall, the windows and door were not square, and a few other hints that it may have been built late on a Friday afternoon were present.

New Interior Paneling

After replacing 80%+ of the old framing, the new paneling was installed on the walls.

I was going for the look of Birch, but couldn't find any locally, however, I did have a friend with an old lumberyard/millwork shop (the place had been shut down for 20 years, but it was his "hangout").
He had unused stock from the 50's (and likely before) that he provided. The paneling is 3/16ths thick, and so closely resembled Birch that it was an easy choice.

He also provided much NOS polished aluminum trim that was perfect for the new interior!

New Wall Framing

Southern Yellow Pine was also used in the reframing, chosen for its strength and straight grain.

The original roof to wall framing method was abandoned as it had proven to be too weak, but the new supports were installed in the same location.

Installing The Ceiling

For the new roof framing, I used Southern Yellow Pine, and chose pieces that had a bow to give the roof a slight pitch.

Insulation, then a vapor barrier was installed

The plastic barrier was placed inside (toward the living space) but about a foot above the floor on each end, it was turned and run to the outside to deposit any accumulated water (future leaks?) harmlessly on the ground.

Deciding Which Color Stain

With the framing completed, and interior paneling installed, attention was turned toward staining, and varnishing.

I wanted the interior to have a "golden glow", of course there is no stain by that name, so I mixed my own, it took a few tries, but I got exactly what I wanted.

I chose a Danish oil finish for ease of application, and because it penetrates well.

Danish oil dries to an almost varnish like surface, giving more protection than stain alone.

After the three coats of stain were dry, I applied a 75/25 mix of oil varnish (thinned to give good penetration) after which I applied 4 coats of full strength varnish, with a light sanding between coats.

As the final top coat, I chose two coats of spar varnish, it is very thick and difficult to apply, but gives a glass like appearance to the wood.

Polishing Started

After spending a full day polishing the area shown in the picture, I pulled it outside to have a look.
It looked different, but still a long way from the mirror finish I was after.

Remains Of The Original Logo

I was fortunate to have the outline of the original logo, with small bits of the original red color remaining.

Since this record would be destroyed by polishing, I took a high resolution digital photo (This is the photo, though reduced in size) and recorded the exact width, height, etc.

I sent the photo and info to a friend who owns a sign shop, soon after, my new logo's arrived!

The New Logo

The new logo's were just what the old girl needed!

Skin After A Bit Of Polishing

The old oxidized aluminum is starting to look pretty shiny.

It took a couple hundred hours to get this far, and I spent at least 50 more before deciding it was good enough.

Next time I might just buy some paint...

What She Looks Like Now

Once polished, aluminum shows every little ripple and defect.

The skin I thought was so straight, really wasn't, but you can't beat the look!

Designing The New Kitchen

I enjoyed this phase very much!

I had of course spent many hours creating the layout before I ever got this far, but things change...

It was a challenge to fit all the "modern" items in without ruining the "vintage" look.

Included are; a microwave, hot water heater, A/C,new fridge with original door and face frame, and a power converter.

Believe it or not, there is still room for food and cooking supplies.

The New Kitchen

What it looks like now.

New Interior Rear

This view is of the folding bed/couch.

I used a good quality futon mattress with inner springs, very comfortable!

The fresh and waste water tanks, along with the water pump and storage space are located under the bed.

My favorite "modern" addition is a vibrator unit from a chair.

It is attached to the back of the couch, perfect for relaxing after a long day of hiking or touring.

The adjustable vent at the base of the bed hides a circulating fan, mounted in ductwork.
It is designed to pull the cool air from the floor, and push back up the curved end wall.

New Interior Front

This is a view from the bed looking forward, not a lot of room in a 14-1/2' box, but enough to be very comfortable!

New Dresser

I wanted an open floor plan, but needed a place for clothing, since I had to hide the wheel well, this was the perfect spot.

New Table

While a dinette is handy for the extra bed it provides, I chose to have a real table, one that is sturdy, stable, and large enough to be of use.

The top measures 3' x 3', is covered with vintage linoleum, and the chairs are straight from the 50's.

First Camping Trip

Pictured is the completed trailer, now retrofitted to be a camper.

It took far more effort and money to bring it back than it will ever be worth, but it was an enjoyable challenge, and makes for a great camper!

Enjoying Labor Day

I took my youngest daughter (and Mickey) on a special Labor day camping trip, having a vintage trailer makes camping twice as much fun!

The End

If you're interested in old trailers and have questions, you'll find many Websites devoted to them.

One of the best for general knowledge is the Vintage Vacations discussion board.

You might also like to visit Repairing Yesterdays Trailers a board I've just recently created, aimed at answering "how to" questions.