Submitted by Chris Billings
I just joined as a new member and thought that I would share our story about the rescue and restoration of Cujo.
You may be wondering who and why in the heck someone would name their 13ft.1968 Avalon travel trailer Cujo. I (my wife was not on board at this point) had been looking at campers for a few years and being a collector of old things, set out to find an old camper to rehab and camp with for my wife and I to have another fun way to enjoy the outdoors. I had looked at a few options that just all seemed too expensive for something that may not even enjoy after starting.
My father-in-law (who had been on board since the beginning) had been keeping his eye out for me as well happened to locate a camper that met my requirements and was just a few miles away from home, so he stopped and asked. The poor old thing was just sitting next to a pole barn, sinking into the mud and looked pretty rough, but still had possibilities. He just stopped and asked if the owner would be willing to sell it and his wife said that he would. Enter – myself. I then stopped by the residence and asked to speak with the owner, letting them know that my father-in-law had been the guy who asked a few days earlier about it. The owner came out and said “Sure! I’ll sell the camper, but I’ll just have to find somewhere else for the dog to live!” This was the point at which I knew that I might have started something that I wasn’t sure if I could finish or not.
The owner preceded to unlock and open the door when out came one of the largest and most terrifying dogs that I had ever seen. Its bark shook the camper (as well as my soul, possibly causing me to pee a little). I backed up and the owner staked the dog in the yard out of harm’s way. At $200, I couldn’t pass up the deal after seeing that the wheels would turn, tires held air, and there was not rotting or damage visible from the outside. I pulled the old girl slowly home and parked her wavy in the back out of the neighbor’s (and my wife’s) line of sight. I fessed up to what I had done and promised that I could do justice to this old beast.
The clean out began with a coal shovel, Sawzall, gloves, and mask. This camper was total feces filled dump.
Score: Camper-1, Me-0.
The slight water damage to the ceiling and walls turned out to be much worse than originally though, so I methodically removed the entire interior of the trailer piece by piece. To my surprise, I was able to save all of the solid wood cabinetry which I unscrewed and gently removed. The next step of clean out involved more gloves, vinegar, simple green cleaner, and a heavy-duty scrub brush. All of the windows, save one, were in good shape, but were filthy also, as was the forward 2/3 of the floor. These were all scrubbed until even my wife’s sensitive nose no longer sensed the presence of anything canine or poop related.
Score! Camper-1, Me-1.
After all the remaining demo had been finished, I was now left with a 13ft metal box that I was not sure how it’s weight was actually being supported. The rear 2/3 of the floor as well as ceiling and walls had completely disintegrated and the only thing holding shape was the metal siding, windows, and metal frame. Using a combination of jacks, jack stands, and chunks of 4x4s, I was able to level, square, and straighten the entire box and replace all of the rotted studs and joists. I went the extra mile and used 2x4s instead of 2x2s to give extra strength to the structure and instead of the old 2×4 supporting the entire rear wall/floor area, I used a heavy yellow pine 2×10 instead. After removing all of the supports and feeling confident at my repairs, I went on to replace all of the electrical throughout with 12 instead of 14 gauge and an updated breaker box and twist lock 30amp exterior service plug.
At this point I had decided that the camper had structurally been saved and was now worth thinking about what the end product may someday look like. I decided that it was time to bring out Tori, my wife, talk up all of my accomplishments so far, and let her pick out what exterior colors she would like. She was actually impressed, told me she was now on board with this project, and decided on a minty seafoamish green/blue color stripe over white. Excellent choice dear, excellent choice!
Score! Camper-1, Me-2, I’m finally in the lead!
I had my fears about screwing up the new paneling and wasting a lot of money because of poor cuts or measurements, but it actually went flawlessly and I was impressed with the results. By the way, a tip for those restoring on a budget. I had researched what type of paneling to use to duplicate the original color and look and came up with a cheap solution. Home Depot has birch ply underlayment with one finished side and one rougher looking side. It is not the 1/8″ originally used, but it is relatively thin and flexible, perfect if you don’t have to do the extreme bends of the front or rear ceiling curves. $10/sheet instead of $35/sheet seemed like the way to go since this camper isn’t some highly sought-after model. I used the amber colored Bullseye Shellac which turned out very nicely. It is just a hair darker than the sun darkened original cabinetry and was about as good of a match as I could’ve gotten with the materials I had to use.
As far as the appliances go, I found the mint green retro mini fridge at Lowes. I deleted the stove since I never had the original. I found a piece of stainless banded counter top that was the exact size and period correct and cut a hole for the sink as well as using the cutout to make the sink cover. Where the stove had been, I inserted a typical window unit air conditioner. I know many of you are thinking that this is bound to overheat and not work, but it actually works wonderfully after some creative duct work. I used the existing vent on the side from the original MIA propane heater to let the hot air escape using a square piece of duct taken directly off the back of the A/C unit. I also ran a 4ft long section of 8×12″ duct from the end of the kitchen cabinet, underneath the couch/bed area and out the back of the trailer to pull in cool fresh air. This way the hot air going out and the air coming in don’t mix and end up pulling hot air back into the unit. At our first rally in Spring Mill State Park in Indiana I had a number of other people ask how on earth I was able to get the camper so cool inside and after showing them how the duct work was they were convinced to try something similar in their own trailers!
The exterior was probably the most difficult part of the entire process. Some previous owner had decided to use some sort of awful sealant on every single screw around every window, door, etc. that needed to be scraped off. I found out very quickly that a metal scraper would scratch the aluminum window frames, but a plastic scraper wasn’t sharp enough to cut through the gummed-up sealant that had been smeared everywhere. With a combination of adhesive remover spray, the plastic scraper, aluminum polish, a Scotchbrite pad, and hundreds of layers of skin, I was able to get all the crud off and get back to some decent looking windows. For paint I read many different accounts of what was the right or wrong way to paint these aluminum shells. Some said that you would have to get down to bare metal, others said just spray it on, it’ll be ok. . . I chose the middle road. I used some 400-grit wet sand paper and hand sanded all of the aluminum siding, then washed it all off. I used oil based farm implement paint found at the local tractor supply store for $20/gallon + hardener and thinner with no primer. For the stripe I used Marina color for milk glass rattle can paint found at Lowes followed up with a clear coat. After having been out in the elements since June and being pulled to multiple campgrounds, the paint has held up great and has a really nice gloss. Time will tell how long this paint job will hold up, but so far it is doing great!
I used all new LED teardrop marker lights and located a couple of the original Bargman taillights. Both the entry door and rear storage door had to be completely rebuilt inside as well. After repacked bearings and new tires, Cujo is ready to roll. I am continuing to add new improvements as we go along. We are having a lot of fun camping and attending local rallies and I am already looking for another project to save and find a new home for!