The Avion Story

I saw my first Tumbleweed Tiny House about 5 years ago and it was love at first sight. A couple of things called to me: the minimalist space, a modernist vibe, the mobility of a tiny house on wheels. Still it took me several years to really figure out what I was looking for in a tiny house. I considered something like the classic Tumbleweed tiny house on wheels, a vintage trailer, a shipping container, a prefab modular home – there are so many possibilities for living tiny these days!

In the spring of 2016, as I was driving home from a research trip to IdeaBox in Salem, Oregon, I realized that there was one fundamental thing I was looking for in a tiny living space: super-mobility.

I wanted a vintage camper.

So, back in Nevada City, I googled “vintage camper” – and up popped an ad for a 1965 Avion camper. For sale in Nevada City! I checked it out and fell promptly in love. I then brought my gearhead buddy John Everson out for a second opinion. He told me it looked solid but advised me to wait. So, of course, I dug in my heels. Next I brought my father out. This was critical: without his buy-in – and willingness to help me with the restoration – I wasn’t going to be able to do this.

Two men examine the exterior of 1965 Avion camper.

He didn’t see quite the possibilities I did, but he realized I’d set my heart on the Avion and eventually came around. So did my two pugs, Frank and Fiona, though they had their doubts in the beginning.

Two pug dogs inside camper, looking confused and unenthused..

Luckily, the team came together because there was a lot of work to be done!

The first step was getting the camper off Scott’s truck and onto patch of land it would live on while we worked. Who knew this would be so complicated? Or that the “stilts” would feel so precarious….

Thanks to the bark beetle epidemic, we’d had to cut a lot of trees and had plenty of tree stumps just waiting to be put to work stabilizing the camper. (Notice, on the left, the lack of cover for the hot water heater. The fabulous fix for that is below).

Vintage Avion camper propped up with tree stumps.

The first, and perhaps biggest, challenges were the plumbing and electrical.

Here I’m installing a new water pump in the very small space beneath the gaucho couch-pullout bed. We also ended up installing new plumbing to the kitchen sink – many thanks, Bruce Warner!

Woman in pink shirt installing a water pump in 1965 camper.

The original toilet had been replaced with a modern port-a-potty, but the base needed some restabilizing. That’s when I learned that my dad is a stickler for details. We spent a lot of time brainstorming and problem-solving (my favorite part) but even more time measuring and measuring again, and documenting documenting documenting. He also believes that there’s no such thing as too much security. As in, why use four bolts when you can use ten….  Thanks, Dad. I learned a lot from you! xoxo

 

Figuring out the Electrical

The Avion’s batteries live in a compartment beneath the gaucho bed, which is a fancy mid-century modern camping term for a couch that pulls out into a bed. To access the batteries, you lift up the mattress and then open a hinged cover to reveal the battery box below. Looking into that abyss for the first time, seeing that tangled mess of wires coiled crazily around each other like a snake pit, my dad and I gave each other an “oh, shit” look. Indeed, the two of us spent countless hours trying to trace the crazy wiring from the battery. We would start with a single wire, wrapping little pieces of blue painter’s tape labeled A (or B or C or D) and then follow the wire out of the battery box, through a hole in the wood into, say, the vault containing the water tank, where it then led into the cabinetry under the kitchen counter and then disappeared into a wall. WTF. Once in the wall, it was gone. No way of finding it again without taking down either the interior or exterior aluminum sheeting. And that was more time and money than either of us was willing to invest.

We brought in my dad’s friend John Everson, who will always be the Real McGyver to me, who helped us figure out which wires were hot or not. Though we through in the towel on any of the overhead lighting, with his help, we were able to get the 120 system working in all three electrical plugs, which was a huge step forward. That meant being able to plug in and charge my laptop, for example, and run my Cuisinart. That probably sounds decadent but I eat a lot of raw slaw, and honestly, who has the patience to shred cabbage and carrots by hand?

We also were able to get the 12 volt to work on the light and fan above the stove, and installed new wiring to the battery to run two Fan-tastic vent fans.

Figuring out the wiring without removing either the interior or exterior aluminum sheeting proved daunting. Here’s a before and after of the wiring around the two 12 volt batteries stored below the couch-bed.

 

And here’s the crazy wiring coming out of the overhead light. Even John Everson, aka The Real McGyver, couldn’t crack that nut. We ended up shoving that whole mess back into the ceiling and capping it with an aluminum bowl.

Man works on crazy tangle of wires emerging from ceiling light of vintage camper.

One of the biggest triumphs was figuring out the wiring in the umbilical cord that would attach the camper to the truck. That took an incredible amount of research and trial and error but we finally got the running lights and turn signals to work. Fiat lux!

Vintage Avion camper with orange running lights on cabover and sides lighted.

 

Using salvaged or repurposed materials was one of our priorities throughout the project.

We ended up installing a new back up light, a project that really showcased my dad’s creativity. He picked out a bad-ass light, the kind usually mounted atop a truck cab by hardcore 4 Wheelers. And when we needed a stronger seat than the original aluminum, he improvised with a dog food bowl, $5 at the local grocery store. Brilliant!

Man's hands installing a back up light

Here is the new exterior cover my dad constructed for the hot water heater (the original was a ragged piece of window screen) using bits of angle iron and an aluminum cover recycled from his shop. The pull tab, a washer attached by a twist of wire, is surprisingly elegant.

Jennifer demonstrates the new aluminum cover for the exterior access to the hot water heater on her 1965 Avion camper.

Here we’ve used scrap wood, angle iron, and repurposed the hinge from the original bathroom door to create a cupboard with a drop-down door in the space over the refrigerator (created when the original unit was replaced with a smaller Dometic fridge). Purists might be horrified that I sacrificed an original bathroom door (and the privacy that came with it) but the door was warped and no longer closed properly. Besides which, opening and closing a door is just too much busy-ness in such a small space. I replaced it with a clear shower curtain which gives easy access and just feels better. This little cupboard – now painted with whiteboard paint – is one of my favorite features.

 

Coming soon: two of the biggest – and coolest – upgrades: a new set of steps and a pair of modern vent fans.

Stay tuned!