By Bill Steiden
There’s a good reason Elkhart, Ind., is the epicenter of U.S. unemployment. It’s the capital of recreational vehicle manufacturing at a time when spending on luxury items, such as RVs, is declining fast, and fuel prices are in flux after reaching record levels in 2008.
Yet as the RV industry’s teardrops fall, they’re on the rise, too. Super-lightweight, retro-styled travel trailers known as “teardrops” for their sleek-yet-funky shape are drawing new fans at a time when more traditional designs are sitting unsold on dealers’ lots across the country.
Teardrop designs hark back to the post-World War II-era, when surplus aircraft aluminum and various vehicle components were in abundant supply. Do-it-yourself magazines carried plans for home mechanics to build trailers for getaways to the increasingly popular national parks, which saw visitation soar as the baby boom sent young families in search of inexpensive, child-friendly vacations. The trailers had the jet-age styling that also influenced the era’s car designs, yet were small and light enough to be economically towed behind cars with powerplants that had yet to balloon into the fire-breathing V8s of the latter 1950s.
Those big V-8s, which ruled America’s roads for almost 50 years, are finally falling out of style, and economical vacationing is back in vogue, paving the way for the teardrops’ return. The trailers range in weight, but many can be easily towed behind 4-cylinder economy cars. For instance, a late-model Ford Focus can tow a trailer weighing nearly 1,000 pounds, sufficient for most teardrops, and almost all of them are within the towing capacity of a typical 6-cylinder passenger car or small SUV. No longer is it necessary to own a 20-foot-long, $45,000 Chevrolet Suburban to be a member of the RVing crowd.
Adding to the appeal of the teardrops is that they stand out in that crowd. Even an Airstream looks staid when it’s compared to stylish and colorful designs like the German-made T@B Microlite and the Ohio-made Little Guy Retro.
Naturally, these tiny trailers don’t offer Airstream-level accommodations. A typical teardrop sleeps two in a single full- or queen-size bed. It may have a portable toilet, but a full bath is rare. And kitchen facilities, more often than not, come in the form of a rear compartment accessed from the outside. Its raised lid is the only shelter from the elements unless you rig a dining fly.
But the price isn’t Airstream-level, either. The entry-level Little Guy model, the 4Wide, weighing in at a mere 740 pounds, costs $3,995. Even the most luxurious T@B, the 1600-pund Dutchman TS with fancy woodwork, an inside kitchen and a tiny bathroom compartment, runs less than $24,000. That’s around $10,000 less than, and half the weight of, the most compact Airstream.
It’s difficult to place an average price on teardrop trailers, because there are many manufacturers offering custom products. But list prices for standard mid-range models tend to be around $7,000, with an unloaded weight of slightly less than 1,000 pounds. The average traditional travel trailer costs around $12,000 and weighs 3,500-4,000 pounds.
Most designs offer optional features such as ventilation fans, heaters and even air conditioners. Some are built on a longer trailer base to provide space for carrying dirt bikes and ATVs or other gear, and some offer tougher suspensions for towing to off-road sites – a capability the smaller trailers offer that larger ones can’t match. Many manufacturers also offer attachable tents to increase usable living space.
Before you go shopping for a teardrop, do your research. How much can your car tow safely? Check both the trailer’s gross weight and the weight of the tongue resting on the hitch, as both figures are important. How much will the weight of the trailer increase when it’s loaded? Does you car’s transmission need an extra cooler to handle the strain of towing?
Also, take into consideration the climate where you’ll be camping. Is it so wet that it poses a danger of rot to a trailer design that makes use of particle board and plywood, as many do? Do you need a heater or air conditioner? And think about how much you want to spend. If your goal is economical getaways, you can buy a lot of motel nights for the cost of a deluxe teardrop trailer.
If you can overlook their lack of style, there are also super lightweight tent-style camper trailers that are even lighter and cheaper than teardrops. Some can even be towed behind a touring motorcycle.
But if you are a fan of stylish-yet-functional design; you love the idea of paying $20 for a campsite in the midst of the best scenery while others pay $100 a night for a room and still have to drive to get to the attractions; and you’re willing to rough it just a little – you’ll have the comfort of a roof over your head at night, but you might have to hike to the bathhouse to take a shower in the morning – a super lightweight teardrop trailer may be just the ticket.
Little Guy Teardrop Trailers: www.golittleguy.com/teardrops
T@B Microlite: www.tab-rv.com
Teardrop 72: www.teardrop72.com
So-Cal Teardrops: www.socalteardrops.com
Camp-Inn Trailers: www.tinycamper.com
Cozy Cruiser Manufacturing: www.cozycruiser.com
Big Woody Campers: www.bigwoodycampers.com
However often he gets the chance to camp, it still isn’t often enough for Bill Steiden, a Decatur, Ga.-based journalist. Got a suggestion or a question about a camping destination? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.