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Vintage Camping - Camping on All Four

Posted in Features on March 9, 2016
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Camping is way older than four-wheeling, mankind having "camped" through much of history. The first time somebody tossed a camper onto a 4x4 for recreational purposes is difficult to pinpoint but was likely right after World War II. That's when truck camper manufacturing began. There were only two factory-new 4x4 pickups available then—the Dodge WDX Power Wagon and the Jeep pickup—but the market grew.

By many reports, the award for the first truck camper is a virtual tie and came in 1945. Howard Cree develop the Cree Truck Coach in Michigan and Walter King developed the Sport King about the same time. King was the first to develop the cabover camper at the end of the ’40s. The market exploded from there, and many others jumped in. By the early 1950s, it was getting to be a very big market. By the ’60s and ’70s, it was a gigantic market, and the ’80s bustled too. The truck-mounted camper began to fade in the ’90s as other alternatives like 5th wheel trailers came into vogue, but the market has been steady since.


Jeep debuted the Trav-L-Aire camper for the FC-170 at the 1959 Chicago Auto Show. Depending on what options you ordered, it weighed between 850 and 1,200 pounds—well within the FC-170 7,000-pound GVW. It slept four and was nicely laid out, though without a built-in toilet. With its six-cylinder 105hp engine, four-wheel drive, and decent clearances, the FC-170 could productively wheel with the camper attached. We can only track this Jeep-authorized option for a couple of years. The company listed as building it, Orbit Manufacturing in Michigan, is also tough to track past this time.


Generally speaking, the slide-in camper offered more off-road capability than towing a trailer. It also allowed the unit to be left in the driveway, leaving the truck available for other duty. In theory, you could also leave it at a campsite as a home base, but with campers being big and heavy, you only did that if you were staying a while. The big, heavy, and tippy aspects made campers more popular with streen-driven 2WDs than off-roader. And that was the rub.

For many years the big question for slide-in camper owners was how to balance trail capability with weight and center of gravity. You could either have a lower center of gravity and reduced interior room, or more room and reduced capability due to weight and height. R.D. Hall partly bridged that gap with the Alaskan Camper, which entered production in 1958. It featured a telescoping hydraulically operated top that raised and lowered. It significantly reduced windage on the highway and lowered the center of gravity, but it was still heavy. Many other pop-tops were developed during this time as well, though the Alaskan is the best known from those early days and remains in business today.

One of the campers to emerge prominent in the wheeling crowd's eyes was the Four-Wheel Camper. After building some hard-sided campers, founder Dave Rowe carried the pop-top idea a little farther in 1972 when he debuted a lightweight camper that featured canvas sides for the part the raised up. That was a boon to the wheelers because it both lowered the center of gravity and dropped a lot of weight. Four-Wheel Campers started building bolt-in campers for the bobtail crowd but eventually developed slide-ins. Pickup campers soon followed, but for many years, the SWB rigs were their bread and butter, and the company made units to fit virtually all of them on the market. And they still do, though Rowes no longer own the company.


In 1963, International offered a permanent camper for the Scout 80. A partially assembled Scout would be sent to Fibertron (a division of Dickson Boats) where the conversions were added. It was a basically good idea that was poorly executed and probably overpriced. Only 88 of these are known to have been built before the plug was pulled, and the completed units had many quality control issues. Only five or six are known to survive intact.


Chassis-mount 4x4 campers played a small part in the thrilling days of camping yesteryear. Beyond some custom jobs, a few RV manufacturers offered motorhome chassis on 1-ton and 1 1/2-ton 4x4 chassis, but they were few and far between. The weight and bulk didn't allow for hardcore wheeling, but you could get a bit farther off the beaten path and find a quieter place to camp. There were a few early attempts to offer a chassis mount on a short-wheelbase 4x4 chassis. As far as we can tell, the ’63 Scout Camper was the first and the Chevrolet Blazer Chalet/GMC Jimmy Casa Grande was the last. At least until the modern era when overlanding became popular and the art of chassis mounts on 4x4s again became popular.

In the past decade, overlanding has become popular and the rig of choice is an elaborate chassis mount on a 4x4 chassis. Many of these are custom or low-production units made of lightweight materials, and everything is built to minimize the impact the camper has on trail performance. That isn't a new concept, but modern materials have allowed more stylish and comfortable camping conversions that leave plenty of trail capability. The old days you have seen here are still celebrated, and you can find a vigorous collector interest in reviving the old trucks and campers as a fun hobby. A quick Google search will show you just how much.

Because of the extra-high center of gravity of the Highboy trucks, manufacturers were usually a little shy to promote them heavily for camper use. This ’65 Chevy K20 Fleetside 4x4 is a rare exception, where a period GM image shows a Wolverine camper mounted. This year came standard with a 292 six-cylinder, but a truck version of the 283ci V-8 was optional. A three-speed Saginaw was standard with an SM420 four-speed optional. The Timken T-221 T-case was divorced. This one also mounts the factory "wheeling" tires, Firestone Town & Country Duplex 12-16.5 eight-ply tires.

Travel Industries, of Oswego, Kansas, builder of the Dreamer line of campers, had been in business since about 1957 and building campers since 1959 using the Dreamer name. They partnered with the OE manufacturers to offer authorized specials. By the mid-’60s, Land Rover had a tiny foothold in the American market and teamed up with Travel Industries to offer the Land Rover Explorer camper to fit the Land Rover 109-inch-wheelbase pickup. The base Explorer weighed 600 pounds and cost $1,395 in 1965. With the factory 77 hp four-cylinder, you weren't going anywhere very quickly. It isn't clear how many, if any, were sold and there are no known survivors. The Land Rover 109 pickups sold in North America during the mid-’60s era number only in the low hundreds.

Dreamer also made a camper to fit the first-generation Bronco. The full details are unclear, but it was one of a few campers the Bronco pickup could carry. A prudent ’66 Bronco buyer ordered the GVW package, which upped capacity from 3,900 to 4,700 pounds and included the 3,300-pound (versus 2,870-pound) rear axle and 1,200-pound springs (versus 930-pound). Another prudent option was the 289ci 200hp V-8 and optional 4.11:1 axle ratio.

In Land Rover circles, the Dormobile camper conversion is legendary. Built by Martin Walter Ltd., whose camper conversions started in 1954, Land Rover conversions were first offered in 1961. It's shown here on a mid-’60s, North American Market Series IIA 109 station wagon. The typical conversion added about 800 pounds to the truck, so it didn't impede off-road capability much. In 1962, this rig would cost about $5,280, some $1,355 more than the base price of the Rover. Most of these were be powered by 77hp four-cylinders, but in 1967, a 2.6L 86hp F-head six was optional.

After International's failure with the chassis-mount Scout camper, it almost immediately planned for a slide-in. Those came to fruition about the time the Scout 800 debuted for 1966. This red ’67 800 pickup got a lot of advertising face-time showing off a Dreamer Camper from Travel Industries. Dreamer was one of two brands of camper offered by International, both rebranded "Campermobile". This Scout is a V-8 model, and the 266ci 150hp engine had the suds to haul around 800 pounds of camper.

The Alaskan popup camper is one of the earliest and best known of the type. It had been around more than 10 years when GMC shot this image for the ’71 model year. It shows a GMC K2500 Wideside 4x4 with an 8,000-pound Koenig King PTO winch and vintage Wyoming license plates. Most likely it's a V-8 KS model that came standard with 307ci and had a 350ci option.

Look at the ’63 IH Scout Camper nearby and you will see some similarities with this ’70 Chevrolet concept rig. Called the Blazer Sports Camper, it was a lightweight camper with bunk that folded out of the side like the Scout. That wasn't a new idea, having been seen as early as the Ford Model-T era. This rig was built out of fiberglass and plastic, and it was designed to be light and sleep two. It had a propane stove, fridge, and light, in addition to 12V lights, a sofa bed, some storage, and a skylight. It made the rounds of car and RV shows in 1970 but didn't have any direct production progeny. Too bad! It was most likely the inspiration for the ’76 Blazer Chalet.

Rigging a camper for the super-short low-capacity Jeep CJ was a challenge, but it was achieved for Jeep's ’69 model year. It was designed by Kentuckian Chuck Prater and built by El Dorado. Designed to sleep four, the extra weight was carried on the Jeep's drawbar and a tag axle that had electric brakes. No, you probably didn't want to wheel hard with this rig, but it was designed to be easily and quickly released to leave the camper behind. It was only offered in 1969 and part of 1970, and just a few hundred were sold. AMC killed it immediately upon buying Jeep from Kaiser. It was a $2,198 option with about $600 of available upgrades. It was recommended only for Jeeps with the 225ci V-6 and 4.88:1 axle ratio.

When Dave Rowe developed the Four-Wheel pop-top Campers in 1972, the first was a Scout application. Shown here is one of the later (late ’70s) Scout Four-Wheel campers on a 1973 Scout II. Each of the Four-Wheel Campers for the bobtail rigs was specially designed to fit the particular vehicle. They could be built to accommodate a half-cab or replace the top entirely, as is shown here, offering a walk-thru from the cab to the camper.

Probably the most successful and sophisticated permanently mounted camper for the SWB fullsized rigs was the ’76-’77 Blazer Chalet, shown here in the camping position with top raised. It was concurrently offered for the GMC Jimmy as the Casa Grande, though many fewer of those were made. It was co-designed by GM and Chinook to be manufactured and installed by Chinook in Washington. It was permanently mounted. Base price for the whole rig was a bit less than $10,000, but few left the factory at that price. Most were installed on high-end Blazers, so depending on what you ordered extra, you could be out the door for $12,000-$13,000. Some 1,800 were built from about April 1976 to January 1977. Reputedly, they were popular but discontinued due to issues with the DOT about overloading.

The GMC Jimmy Casa Grande was virtually identical to the Chalet, except in minor cosmetic details, and is shown here in the travel position. The normal chassis GVW of the Blazer Jimmy was 6,200 pounds but with a few tweaks, GM raised it to 6,700 pounds for the Chalet/Case Grande. The camper used up about 6,000 pounds of that GVW, dry. It was listed as a separate model and was only offered with a base 350 but had an optional 400ci small-block V-8. Though it was supposedly optional with a four-speed and NP205, virtually all the known survivors are TH350 automatics with the NP203 full-time system. Even with the camper, the period testers found a surprising 13.3-second 0-60 mph time with a 400-equipped truck and a high of about 11 mpg. The camper slept four and came in four trim levels.

Of course, Four-Wheel Campers also developed a Bronco model for the Classic ’66-’77 Ford bobtail and a vintage unit is shown here on a ’77. It extended out to the end of the lowered tailgate but didn't hurt the departure angle hugely—at least not for the places most people would take a camper-equipped Bronco.

This ’81 K30 with a Class-C motorhome conversion is a little big and ungainly for hardcore wheeling, but with a big-block and four-wheel drive, at least it won't get stuck in a parking lot like other motorhomes. The 20-foot Rancho El Rae motorhome was done Rancho Trailer Manufacturing in Nephi, Utah. This K30 chassis is a fairly low-end Custom Deluxe model, a trim level more commonly seen on commercial rigs than motorhomes, which usually had the Cheyenne or Scottsdale trim at least, or even the top end Silverado. The K30 base engine for 1981 was a 292ci six, with the High Torque 350 V-8 up next and the 454 big-block as the top dog. Most K30 motorhome chassis were ordered with the TH475 automatic trans, 4.56:1 axle ratios, Dana 70 DRW rear axle, and a Dana 60 front.

When the Bronco grew to fullsize status, Four-Wheel Campers developed a slide-in for it. This camper-equipped ’86 Bronco looks ready to rumble with a tire upgrade a winch visible and presumably some other accompanying modifications. In this era, Broncos had an available 351ci V-8 and an optional 6,300-pound GVW, so a camper wasn't much of an issue.

Gary and Monika Wescott helped put overlanding on the map, and if you've been a loyal Four Wheeler reader for any length of time, you've seen some of their worldwide exploits in the outback. This is Turtle III, one of five overlanding rigs the couple has used. A Navistar IDI diesel-powered ‘89 Ford F-250, it was modified for long distance travel and mounted a highly modified Four-Wheel Camper.

We spotted this Land Rover 130 crew cab (this was before "Defender" was in the name) with a chassis mount camper in England in 1989. We know nothing about it other than it was very cool and we wanted one. Note the Superwinch Husky winch. We don't recall if it had a 3.5L V-8 or the 2.5L turbodiesel four, but it wouldn't have been a hot rod with either engine.

Another in the Highboy category was the ’66 W200 Power Wagon, this one with a 10-foot Vista Cruiser camper. According to the ‘66 Dodge Data Book, Camper Special and Camper Custom packages were available, and it was rated for a max of 10 1/2-foot campers weighing 3,100 pounds or less. Check out the 7.50-16 Goodyear All-Service non-directionals. The tire size is an indicator it may have the Camper Special package, but the non-directionals were on the options list, though an odd choice. The base engine and transmission for this truck was a 225ci six with a three-speed. In the middle was a two-barrel Poly-Head 318 V-8 and a 383 two-barrel big block as the top-dog option. The only transmission option listed was the NP435 four-speed.

For 1970, Jeep finally freshened up the J-Series trucks with the grill from the 1965.5-on Wagoneer. The big engine option for a J4000 like this was the Buick 350ci V-8, the last year it was available in the Big Jeeps, with a beefy TH400 behind it. A special Camper Truck was offered that included a lot of desirable features, including the 350 with HD cooling, a four-speed manual with a HD clutch (TH400 with cooler optional), a reinforced frame, 7.50-16 10-ply tires, oversized brakes, 4.09:1 ratios, and front sway bar. This Jeep also has the Custom Cab, Custom Accessory Group, and two-tone paint. This truck was nearing $5,000 (about $31,300 in 2016 bucks) before the camper was installed. The camper appears to be a 10.5 footer but we aren't sure of the brand.

Sources

GM Heritage Center
http://www.gmheritagecenter.com
Four Wheel Campers
800-242-1442
www.fourwheelcampers.com
Phoenix Campers
303-286-3921
http://www.phoenixpopup.com/

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