Restored ’50s Little Gem camper doesn’t strike gold at auction, but there’s a silver lining
The Little Gem didn’t strike gold at auction, but owner Austin Turnes believes “there’s a silver lining in everything,” and he’s excited for what may come. After months of meticulous work to bring the dilapidated 1956 Little Gem travel trailer back from the dead, Turnes finally reached the finish line when the camper was bid to $16,000 at Barrett-Jackson’s Scottsdale Auction. Including the buyers premium, that’s $17,600.
“I didn’t get what I was hoping to,” Turnes says, “but I’m whole, I met a lot of people, and hopefully I’ll get some future business out of it.”
We originally featured Turnes’ Little Gem project in September 2022 and periodically followed its journey to completion, which included a 2000-mile tow from Michigan to Arizona behind a barn-find 1954 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight. Once the Little Gem hit the block, it was quickly bid to $15,000, lingered at that figure for 15 seconds, and finally received one last bid.
Turnes expected the camper to go for more and couldn’t hide his disappointment, but he tried not to dwell on it. Early in the restoration process he acknowledged that he was taking “a huge gamble” by offering the Little Gem in a no-reserve auction format. And considering what happened during the long drive to Arizona, he was happy to get what he did.
Turnes and his co-pilot, childhood friend Nick Wake, dealt with mechanical issues both big and small while on the road. The biggest problem reared its ugly head in Texas.
“We burned the rings out of the car,” Turnes says. “We made it, but I’m going to leave the Olds with my relatives here. We rented a car to get home; we’ll have to come back in a couple of months and work on [the Oldsmobile]. The motor was more tired than I anticipated. It runs and drives well, but it needs to warm up for about a half-hour before it will run while in gear. Frankly, I don’t know how in the hell it’s still running at all. It’s a testament to GM engineering, I guess.
“Outside of that, we really enjoyed the drive. We got a lot of attention. People seemed to like it. I enjoyed the drive much more than the Barrett-Jackson experience, but you don’t know until you try.”
While the Little Gem is considered a 14-foot camper from ball to back bumper, the body is actually 11 feet long and 7 feet wide. That space provided more than enough work for Turnes, who spent the better part of four months bringing the camper back to life. He built or rebuilt most of it and added a number of modern conveniences—like a 24-inch TV, microwave, and 6000-BTU GE air conditioner—which he subtly concealed to keep the camper looking as authentic as possible.
Other updates include a new 4-cubic-foot refrigerator, which Turnes custom-painted to make it appear vintage; new plumbing, gas lines, and propane heater; new electrical system with modern circuit-breaker protection; new LED interior and exterior lighting; new upholstery, floor, and curtains. The interior paneling is birch, and the exterior siding is polished aluminum.
Turnes was frustrated that Barrett-Jackson didn’t allow the Little Gem to be towed behind his Oldsmobile, which went against auction policy but would have presented the travel trailer in a better light. Instead it rode behind a modern truck, one with a trailer hitch so high that the camper wasn’t level when it rolled onto the auction stage.
“I’m a little disappointed in the Barrett-Jackson experience for a lot of reasons—[including] it didn’t look right being towed behind a 3/4-quarter ton truck,” Turnes says. “That was pretty disappointing. But you know what? It was a cool experience overall. I definitely learned a lot.”
One of the learned lessons was that he’ll never again restore a vintage trailer with the intent to auction it off. Too many unknowns in that process. On the other hand, “I would be happy do the work for someone else,” which is exactly what he plans to do on a regular basis through his Mr. Vintage Restoration business in Middleville, Michigan. The Little Gem’s resurrection was a test run of sorts, and in Turnes’ mind the camper passed with flying colors.
“You have to love it. You have to want it,” he says. “I’m happy with how it turned out. It’s been rewarding. I showed what I can do, and we’re looking forward to being in business for years to come.”
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