I have had a minor epiphany. Because when I woke up this morning I started crying the minute I sat down with my first cup of coffee. Not just a single tear dropping onto my keyboard, but a bawling, shaking “I better put down my laptop” experience. My son, daughter-in-law and new grandson are leaving for Italy today – perhaps for good. Their reasons for moving are varied and perfectly justifiable, but it is still crushing.
My relationship with Colin, my son, has finally hit its stride after years of stumbling through my relapses, breaches of trust and disappearances. I am finally joining the party, only to find I got the date wrong. I missed it.
My grandson, Javier, is more beautiful and precious than I dared hope. He is just two months old. From this day forward, he will be Italian first, American second. I fear I will become that funny-sounding guy who drops in from time-to-time with a present and a bony knee he’ll just want to get off of.
I realize this is typical Alcoholic thinking where, even when sober, I have a tendency to catastrophize and make things about me. Of course I didn’t miss the party. It is raging and some really new and interesting guests have just arrived. Of course Javier will speak fluent English and love his grandpa, bony knee and all. But today, I am having a little trouble accepting these truths.
My epiphany? I bought the trailer a month after Javier showed up and it has proved a massive and much-needed distraction. Tom abhors a vacuum and Sparta is here to fill it. This is a good thing. But in addition to consuming my time and attention (thereby lessening my dread as today approached) my trailer project has reminded me vividly about the fragility of our attachment to time and the nature of impermanence. It has, in a way, become a metaphor for me.
To loosely cite Buddha scripture, the pleasure and joy that a man receives in his children is called a ‘soft’ fetter (shackles) that tie individuals to life and suffering, not just through eventual loss and separation of loved ones but more deeply and subtly it may act as a reminder of cyclic existence (samsara).
Life cycles, generations cycle and now a trailer is being recycled – given new life. I know in a day or two or one hundred I will fully accept this reality. But right now, this morning, as I sit attempting to write about my trailer I don’t feel too enlightened. All that comes to mind is, “my son leaves for Italy today. Sparta is a tin-fucking-can!”
Son and DIL on left, daughter to the right. The beer isn’t mine. I am not Stretch Armstrong.
My Spaghetti Western-themed blog entry will continue with “crude camera work, weak dialogue and corny jokes” evocative of that movie genre. But like the Sergio Leone movie which was initially panned by some critics but is now considered a great western, my Spartan will be resurrected from the dust-bin and remade a classic.
So we left off at the Good – specifically, original appointments and artifacts that I was pleased to find intact in my Spartan and which you may want to look for if you ever search to buy one. I found stashed in a closet two perfectly clean and usable propane tanks that appear to have been recently painted a slate grey. Included was the hardware to mount them on the tongue. Also discovered in a drawer were a half-dozen window cranks. These were designed to be removable and fit in keyholes near every window and skylight to open/shut them. I mentioned earlier how pricey original replacement parts are for vintage trailers (see example below), so these little doo-dads are important to have as one proceeds with a budget-sensitive redo like mine.
These original side lights are on Ebay for $60 the pair. Glad that I don’t have to drop $120 for them front and back.
On the subject of parts just let me offer this aside. There is a great dealer of Spartan trailers and parts whose website is http://www.VintageCampers.com It is physically located in Peru, Indiana and the guy I have dealt with, Dan, is knowledgeable and helpful. Whether you’re in the market for a trailer or just parts, you should definitely bookmark that website for future use.
I could go on and on about Sparta but, lest you think she is perfect in every way, let me quickly jump to the Bad. Let’s start with the kitchen. Although the cabinets and woodwork are all salvageable (and I will refinish them to a beautiful luster), the rest of the kitchen is a bust. The formica (or what ever it is) laminate counter is rather drab, excessively stained and, although original, probably never looked all that great in the first place. It’s gotta go. The sink too. It is stained, pitted and beyond salvage. Worse yet are the appliances. They are not original, appear to be from the 1970’s and are neither old enough to be interesting nor new enough to be reliable. Worse yet, is their size. I cannot figure out how they came to be in Sparta. Although it is only a half size, the office-style ‘fridge is a boxy, massive block. Same for the gas range. Neither could fit through the doors. Like the hobbyist’s ship in the bottle, they appear to have been assembled inside my trailer. I don’t yet now how I will remove them, but I may have to remove one of the large side windows to perform the extraction or just take a sledge to them.
Speaking of appliances, I may have to rethink my position on authentic and old. Perhaps they are not cost-prohibitive. To wit, my daughter, Leslie, the aforementioned Airstream enthusiast who infected me with this bug, scored the most amazing deal on a beautiful, perfectly functional old refrigerator. Check it out. $50 in Reno off Craigslist…where else.
As fine an example of rust-belt Americana as one could hope to find.
Probably has old, aluminum crank ice-cube trays in freezer. Sweet.
Now, let’s get Ugly. While beauty is only skin deep, uglyis to the bone. Or, in Sparta’s case, the floor. Apparently and for a long time, Sparta had a leak – perhaps several. Water definitely came through one skylight and I’m guessing through the seals of several windows as Sparta’s wood floor is spongy and, in places, frightfully soft. Perhaps that will be one way to remove my kitchen appliances. She will just give birth to them right out the bottom. But seriously, as soon as I’ve finished clearing her out, I am going to have to remove the floor, likely all of it. While this is to be expected with an old trailer, tearing out and re-decking the entire trailer with 3/4″ plywood will be a chore.
The floor is most compromised right in the middle, right under a skylight that I’m guessing leaked for years. The gentleman I bought the trailer from had an unusual, but effective solution to the bad seal and ongoing leak which resulted. He employed Newton’s law to great effect by hanging a 30 lb cinder block from the port, stemming the tide but creating an obvious headroom issue. I’ve nearly clipped my skull on multiple occasions.
Perhaps an interesting chandelier?…the first apartment look?
The second major blemish on Sparta’s otherwise lasting beauty is the loo. The toilet, sink and shower basin all appear original but are totally uninspiring in design or condition. Moreover, the condition of the floor suggests years of sloppy toilet etiquette and porous shower curtains. I shudder to think what I will find when I tear this bathroom apart.
Finally, though not a huge or unexpected problem, these multiple window leaks damaged many of Sparta’s birch interior panels. The previous owner, who was rehabbing this trailer until his wife took ill, removed half of the wall and ceiling panels and rotting insulation. He gave me a head start on the demolition job but, in so doing, put me on a path of removing all the paneling and replacing it with new birch. A big job that will require the time, money and the itching associated with peeling wood veneers and pulling out disintegrating fiberglass. Mask please…
Now that I’ve had my stroll down memory lane, it’s time to roll up my sleeves and get some work done. Up to now all this BS I’ve been boring you with has been a stall tactic – a means of delaying my public humiliation resulting from a decision made in haste four weeks ago in Fresno. What have I actually bought here and was I taken? Will I have a major case of buyer’s remorse? Beats the hell outta me. How would I know.? It’s not like there’s a Kelly Blue Book for 60 year old trailers or a Carfax history offering explicit detail of service records, accidents, flood damage or tainted titles. Any assessment of the wisdom of this investment will be of the “seat of the pants” variety and largely subjective.
But since one objective of this blog is to help you, the reader and a potential trailer owner, along in your dream to acquire and renovate one, I will herewith offer my assessment:
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (insert Ennio Morricone soundtrack)
There is, in my humble opinion, a hell of a lot to like about Sparta. The low purchase price of $4,000 is among them. But let’s examine her other virtues from the ground up. Where the rubber meets the road, I made a sound decision. The tires are good, brand new and, though only 6-ply, will offer enough tread life and traction to make my 3 or 4 (at most) anticipated journeys. Remember, at 45′ Sparta is not a travel trailer. She’s a movable house. I have successfully made one of these trips already so I feel pretty confident about moving her around a bit.
As mentioned earlier, the electric brakes did not work as expected, but with a large enough truck, that was minor and my tremendous driver, Gus, seemed unconcerned. The axle is fine and the wheels turn which about covers my expertise on that subject. The steel frame supporting the perimeter of the trailer is rust free as is the tongue and hitch. As I discussed in my first blog, rust is a genuine concern for these old trailers, especially if they have been parked for any length of time near the ocean. I saw one on the California coast that was so badly rusted, a steel cross member had disintegrated and the weight of its collapse had brought the belly pan to the ground.
Speaking of belly pan, as you can see from the picture below, Sparta’s undercarriage is clean, seamless and puncture-free.
This prevents me from actually examining the cross beams for rust, but because the steel perimeter is free of rust, I am going to assume that I am in good shape around and across. This unbroken belly pan is a great sign for several reasons. It would indicate that there has been no major trauma to the trailer like an accident, that it was stored/parked in a mild environment, that the past owners were conscientious and, perhaps best of all, that vermin infestation has been minimal. Also, note unbroken and well-affixed propane line running to the kitchen.
Continuing up Sparta’s exterior, the aluminum skin is in great shape. Though oxidized and dull, it is relatively free of dings, dents and punctures. If, at the end of this extensive renovation I should decide to buff her, Sparta will shine up very nicely.
Another area of difficulty encountered with these old relics is the windows. Frequently they have been removed, broken or sealed shut for a variety of reasons. Worse, I saw some Spartans during my search with white vinyl window replacements, a truly unfortunate upgrade. Though I have not attempted to open any of them and cannot yet verify their function, I am pretty confident I won’t have to spend a ton on glass or new frames. As an aside, she came with removable clear and tinted plexi-glass curved windows for the aerodynamic bow. Also, as new as I can tell, all of the screens are stored inside.
As you will note in the photo, the tail lights and cool side airplane-style side lights front and rear (pictured top right side) are all original and unbroken. Further, the door latches, electrical plug-in port and screens all are as original. The piece de resistance is that BOTH door step-ups are present and work. If you have checked out any vintage Spartans you know this is a rare bonus.
I cannot yet comment on the condition of the roof because I have yet to venture up top. More on that later.
Stepping inside there is more good news. First, there is quite a bit of original wood, some as nice as the day Sparta rolled off the factory floor.
The bedroom closet and drawer combo above is incredible. It speaks to the craftsmanship and attention to detail that Spartan Aircraft Company put into these beauties. You may be aware that Spartan endeavored to build the best trailers that money could buy. At a retail price of $6,000+, the 1957 Imperial Mansion, which I am now proud to call my own, was double the price of the nearest trailer competitor and cost as much as many single-family houses back in the day. Spartan took a big gamble on this quality/pricing strategy and, while it resulted in the creation of enduring classics, it did not ensure them a long corporate existence. Spartan ceased production in 1961. Their loss is our gain. We will never see their like again.
Many of the other built-ins are present and totally salvageable. Although I am handy, I am nothing near a finish carpenter. I did not want to start over with cabinets, doors and other finish work, nor did I want to pay handsomely for someone else to build out my kitchen and bedroom. Though I may have to pull some of this woodwork to get at the floors (read on under Ugly), I will be able to refinish and restore much of the cabinetry before re-installation, resulting in a big cost saving and semi-faithful restoration.
Another plus is that many or the original fixtures and doohickeys are still usable, intact or repairable.
There are many funky touches that anywhere else might be considered kitsch but within this context rise to a level of beauty and authenticity. With the possible exception of the, admittedly, cheesy kitchen dome light, The light fixtures and parquet trim pieces are all destined to retake their position in my restoration.
Even a really cool ceramic drop light, which was broken in transit, can be brought back to life.