’50s Little Gem camper is almost ready to shine

Little Gem Vintage Camper restoration exterior insulation packing
Austin Turnes

The deadline is closing fast, but Austin Turnes isn’t worried. He’s put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears—literally—into making sure his once-dilapidated 1956 Little Gem camper trailer is finished in time for Barrett-Jackson’s Scottsdale Auction in January.

“We’re moving along on schedule,” says Turnes, who we originally featured in September. “I’ve sent preliminary information, title, VIN, and other information to Barrett-Jackson. They’ve encouraged me to finish sooner rather than later, since last year they filled up by the end of December. I think we may just pull this off in time.”

Turnes has experienced a couple of minor bumps and bruises since his last update video at the end of October.

Little Gem Vintage Camper restoration battle scars
Austin Turnes

“I’ve insulated, hung the (aluminum) skins, and begun buffing the exterior,” he says. “Word to the wise: Make sure exterior light wires are tucked in before you do that. I caught one of them with my buffer and proceeded to whip the hell out of my left arm. That being said, you curse a little—or a lot—and get back to work. Restorations typically demand a little blood sacrifice to go with the sweat and tears. Just another day at the office.”

The restoration is going so well that Turnes’ latest update video already needs an update, since it doesn’t include installation of the skins and the beginning of buffing process.

Turnes, who runs Mr. Vintage Restoration out of his garage in Middleville, Michigan, says he accomplished a lot in November. That included finishing the cabinets, installing the Marmoleum flooring and appliances, and working on the cushions and curtains—with the help of his wife, Elisha—using a 1949 Singer sewing machine that Austin also restored. “I’m not normally an upholsterer, but hey, you do what ya gotta do,” he says, then adds, “Mrs. Vintage is definitely a better sewer than I am.”

The curtains are made of a material called bark cloth, which was ordered from a company in Hawaii. “It has a very unique texture and weave to it,” Austin says. “Very similar to what you would have found in many living rooms and trailers in the 1940s and ’50s.”

Little Gem Vintage Camper restoration singer sewing machine
Austin Turnes

Turnes says he wasn’t the only one to suffer an injury along the way; the Little Gem received a gunshot at some point during the last 66 years.

“A huge part of planning for this has been the placement of the appliances so that we can remove defects in the skin, like the original hole for the furnace … or here, on the other side, a gunshot hole,” he says. “It seems that every trailer I’ve ever owned has a bullet hole in it. Just my luck, I guess.”

Little Gem camper trailer restoration
Austin Turnes

Among the special touches was adding chrome decal edging to the refrigerator door “to give it more of a vintage appeal,” and creating a beautiful tile inlay at the entrance featuring the Little Gem logo.

“The floor wasn’t easy, but I think it was well worth the effort,” Turnes says. “I found a picture of similar floors in vintage homes and decided I had to have it. The inlay (trim) and entry inlay aren’t original, but I thought it added a certain classy touch. I’d seen a similar touch that a restorer named David Winick had done on an Airstream for the lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. His said “Welcome.” I decided to take it further.”

The Little Gem cutout was created by Impact Fab, located in Holland, Michigan.

Little Gem Vintage Camper restoration interior vacuum
Austin Turnes

Turnes says 98 percent of the electrical work is done, as well as 90 percent of the plumbing and interior. He still has to make the cabinet doors, install the windows, install the camper door, and, of course, buff (and buff and buff) the aluminum exterior.

As if the Little Gem itself isn’t enough of a project, Turnes plans to trailer the camper 2000 miles from Michigan to Arizona behind a 1954 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight … possibly in inclement weather. That means the Olds is also going to need some TLC before the road trip.

Little Gem Vintage Camper restoration leaf springs
Austin Turnes

“I have a little work to do on the Oldsmobile, and parts are coming in,” Turnes says. “I went to Detroit on Monday to get the new springs from Eaton Spring. They’re outstanding, and I can’t recommend them enough.”

Turnes hopes that others will soon be saying the same about him and his work.

“Fingers crossed,” he says at the close of his update video. “Let’s hope we can pull this off.”

We have no doubt.

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    I am loving this! When I upgraded from my pop-up tent trailer in 2019 this was just what I was looking for, but couldn’t find. I ended up going with a Riverside Retro that looks the part, but is new. I love it, but its not the real thing.

    Sometimes the best things don’t come easy😉 it’s the beauty and art of the restoration process. You have to love it, otherwise you can’t do it.

    After WWII my Dad bought a Higgins camper. It was olive drab, all aluminum except the thick canvas top and the hitch assembly. It was in constant use for vacations until 1996. Amenities consisted of a dual compartment ice box and a zippered screen door. Great fun!

    The satisfaction of doing a restoration the right way is so rewarding that it can not be described , but the peace that comes with it priceless .No regrets or what ifs. Attention to detail + workmanship makes for an amazing restoration , I want to see the finished project. Take care , Geo


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