With the number of people collecting “mid-century” artifacts, the stuff of middle class American life in the 1950s and early 1960s, it shouldn’t come as a surprise there are folks who collect vintage travel trailers. Actually, if you’ve gone to enough car shows, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all as owners of cars of that vintage sometimes bring along period trailers and make their show displays more eye-catching (though I suspect some of those trailers are indeed trailer queens and are trailered, not towed, recursively, to car shows). In the corner of Cobo Hall’s basement at this year’s Detroit Autorama, someone set up their ’50s car with a period correct travel trailer. Two years ago, the Packard Proving Grounds’ annual summer car show had vintage trailers and RVs as a featured class.
If you have an old Airstream or a vintage Shasta trailer and you’ve been hoping to someday tow it to shows with your ’59 Mercury Colony Park station wagon, but it looks a little shabby, you’re in luck. Self-professed “Camper Man” Tony Secreto’s Ynot Camper Restoration in Jackson, Michigan can make your camper or RV look just as good as it did when it left Elkhart, Indiana.
That’s not a joke. The recreational vehicle industry employs a large number of people in Indiana. As a matter of fact, the RV Museum and Hall of Fame is located in Elkhart. Since RV enthusiasts love the open road, I’m guessing that some even make the RVM&HoF a destination for road trips. I once did a museum tour road trip of western Michigan and northern Indiana, with stops near Kalamazoo (the Gilmore), in South Bend (Studebaker) and Auburn (the ACD and NATMUS museums). Finding myself in a motel in Elkhart waiting for the Studebaker National Museum to open at 10 AM, I checked out the RV museum and definitely found it to be worth a visit if you’re already in the area.
Ynot’s portfolio of completed restorations includes names you might recognize like Airstream, Shasta and Gypsy, along with obscure brands like the 1955 Tiny Home they restored. Secreto is currently working on about 10 campers and also has a small inventory of vintage travel trailers for sale. Perhaps the most interesting is a restored Ultra Van, a self contained RV using a Corvair drivetrain.
The Ultra Van, at 22’x8’x8′ with a 152 inch wheelbase, is called by some “the world’s largest production Corvair” and is even considered a genuine Corvair by the Corvair Society of America (CORSA). The creation was the brainchild of California based aircraft designer David Peterson. Like an airplane, it has a monocoque construction using aluminum spars and a stressed aluminum skin, with fiberglass caps for the front and rear ends of the vehicle. Using the Corvair drivetrain, mounted low at the back of the Ultra Van, meant more usable space inside as well as a flat floor from front to back. The air-cooled Corvair engine also didn’t need a radiator, allowing for simpler construction and a smooth, aero-friendly face. Peterson cleverly used the mobile home’s four aluminum tanks — for fresh water and holding grey water and sewage — as structural members, much as some race cars of the era incorporated fuel tanks into the vehicles’ chassis.
After building 15 Ultra Vans in California, assembly was moved to Kansas, home of Cessna and much of America’s general aviation industry. A Wichita concern bought the rights from Peterson in 1964 and by 1966 two Ultra Vans a month were rolling off an airplane hanger assembly line. Production ended in either 1969 or 1970, at least in part due to General Motors’ discontinuing their own production of the Corvair and it’s unique powertrain. About 330 Ultra Vans with Corvair drivetrains were built. Some sources say ~370, but that includes 46 second-generation Ultra Vans that used V8 Corvette power and a marine drive unit. About 200 still exist and they have their own enthusiast community that dates to the RV’s original production run, the Ultra Van Motor Coach Club.
TTAC’s Curbside Classics reviewed the history of the Ultra Van back in 2011. Paul Niedermeyer said the ultimate death knell for the Ultra Van was the introduction of Winnebago’s first mass produced truck chassis based RV, which was substantially cheaper than the UV, even after considering the Ultra Van’s significantly better fuel economy. For an even more complete look at the Ultra Van, you can check out a dedicated section of the Corvair.org website devoted specifically to the RV.
If you’re a Corvair collector and your family has outgrown your Greenbriar van, Ynot will sell you their Ultra Van for $35,000, thought that price is a bit of any outlier. The Ultra Van website currently shows seven other motor homes for sale ranging in price and condition from $500 to $14,900. This one in Otsego, Michigan at $1,800 looks like a promising project. With aluminum and fiberglass construction, rust shouldn’t be a problem and Corvair parts are easy to find.
If you do buy one, you’ll be welcome at a variety of car, truck and RV & camper shows and gatherings. I spotted the white Ultra Van pictured here at one of the annual Orphan Car Shows held in Ypsilanti’s Riverside Park where it was parked with the fine selection of Corvairs that show always features. Coincidentally, Riverside Park was the same location where I came across Secreto’s restored Ultra Van, though it was at this year’s Vintage Volkswagen show. When I asked him “what’s a Corvair doing at a VW show?” Secreto told me that he simply told the show organizers that it was rear engined and air-cooled. Actually, back in the 1960s when the Ultra Van was in production, swapping in a Corvair engine to give a Vee Dub more power was not uncommon, and it’s still a popular topic with air-cooled VW enthusiasts (here, here, and here).
Photos by the author. The full galleries can be seen here.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS