Back to the future: While retro appeals to some RV’ers, others want all the latest gadgets

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SPOKANE, Wash. — Some RV enthusiasts prefer to hit the road in a refurbished vintage trailer. They’re cute, simple and nostalgic. Other travelers seek out higher-end, technology-loaded motorcoaches. Many consumers choose something in between.

At area RV shows this past and current week, a range of options were and will be on display. They include a retrofitted 1959 Aloha trailer for sale. Alongside some $450,000-plus models with more amenities than home, it’s a glimpse into how far RVs have come in 60 years.

“Most of the trailers back then were all pretty much the same, very basic, but they were simply a way for people to get out and go camping and not have to sleep on the ground or in a tent,” said Doug Johnson, who refurbished that 1959 Aloha.

“In the ’50s, about the only variations are they might be short or long, and that was to accommodate how many people they were sleeping. They all had a stove, a sink, a bed, and that’s about it. The luxury ones had bathrooms, but they were few and far between. They were so much smaller.”

Wayde Foster, sales manager at RnR RV in Liberty Lake, also describes a humble start to motorized camping. A trailer 60 years ago had just the basics. “It was a mobile camper with nothing more than an icebox and a bed,” Foster said.

Other than the similarity of being a house on wheels, most of what’s on a modern RV has changed from the overall construction to how much technology is on board.

“It used to be a wood-framed coach. It’s trended to aluminum framing that’s made it a lot lighter and easier to tow,” Foster said. “It has shed 20% to 25% of the normal weight that we dealt with before. They’ve gone to weather-resistant flooring.”

Even the insulation in modern RVs is installed in a way that better withstands bumps in the road with a vacuum-bonded process, he said. However, some vintage trailers get upgraded with today’s modern comforts while keeping the original appearance.

Johnson, a Mead resident, has hidden microwaves and TVs inside cabinets. He’s added at least a port-a-potty option in some. Johnson works on the trailers with his wife, Teresa, who does interior design work. The restored 1959 Aloha at the RV show was listed at $16,000.

Vintage trailer owners attend rallies across the U.S., Johnson said. In recent years, Johnson and his wife have hosted Eastern Washington vintage rally events, called Camp Runamuck, that draw as many as 60 campers with trailers from the 1950s to 1970s.

The couple plan a rally in Prosser, Wash., for May 15-17 and another one in St. Regis, Mont., from Sept. 18-20. “Because there wasn’t anything on the East Side of the state of Washington, my wife and I decided let’s step up and host rallies over here,” said Johnson, 62. “They were instantly successful.”

Johnson said he enjoys seeing young families with children using retro trailers. After a partial trailer restoration he did for a Liberty Lake family, a mother shared a photograph of two little girls on each side of a dinette table. They were leaning up with elbows on the table over a board game.

“That’s what I did when I was a kid,” Johnson said. “We didn’t have smartphones, computers and electronics. We went camping.”

People seek retro for different reasons, from nostalgia and friendships with other owners to the simplicity. “They’re easy to tow, easy to park in a campground. They’re easy to store at home,” Johnson said.

Lately, a vintage look also is popular among modern RVs designed in that style and lighter to tow, but they offer amenities and technology, Foster said. The teardrop shape is in demand.

“What’s popular in those teardrops is called a clamshell, so the back opens like a trunk,” he said. “Then in the back you have refrigerator, burner and all that. You stand under that lid.

“It allows a really small, light trailer that you can pull with an SUV or even a car depending on the tow vehicle, but you gain that cooking and fridge that’s in the back basically in a hatch. It is popular because they didn’t have that until the last few years.”

For consumers who want the latest gadgets in larger RVs, Foster said Bluetooth options are a big trend now to pair with smartphone apps and control factors such as automatic leveling, extension of awnings and movement for slide-outs.

RVs today offer multiple ways to extend living spaces and enjoy amenities, he added. “Now, we have slide-outs inside of slide-outs and as many as six depending on the RV. That’s changed the living arrangement with a press of the button,” he said.

Other technology, like in cars, includes backup cameras. Some RVs feature electric fireplaces, LED lights and high-definition TVs with auto-seeking satellite. “In fact, you can go with in-motion satellite on motorhomes, so literally if people want to watch TV going down the road, they can,” Foster said.

In the past few years, another popular feature that’s available in certain models places a TV, refrigerator and barbecue on the outside of an RV for entertaining. Foster said there are also RVs that give you the option to live off the grid because of solar energy.

“You’re seeing a big change where there are solar panels on the roof with deep-cycle batteries, even lithium batteries if people want to pay that price,” he said. “It’s allowing people to literally function off grid and power up appliances and all the uses supplied by solar panels.

“They even make solar panels now that are flat and flexible. They just wrap on the roof and, from a depth standpoint, they are a quarter-inch thick. That’s a trend in the past couple of years.”

That’s a long way from 110 years ago, when the first motorized campers were built in 1910, Foster added. “The industry has really escalated the last 10 years.”

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