Restored ’50s Little Gem camper is ready to “rock and roll” at Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale

Courtesy Austin Turnes

With its amazing transformation complete, Austin Turnes’ 1956 Little Gem travel trailer is ready to head west and claim its moment in the automotive spotlight.

“By and large, we’re pretty much ready to rock and roll,” says Turnes, whose restoration project was originally featured here in September 2022. “I’m extremely happy with the result. We’ve managed to clear every hurdle. There are always things you’d do differently the next time, but honestly nothing immediately jumps to mind—except starting with a better trailer to begin with. This is my largest and most ambitious restoration yet, and I’m pretty excited to see what happens next.”

Cameron Neveu

What happens next, in the literal sense, is towing the Little Gem 2000 miles from Michigan to Barrett-Jackson’s annual Arizona auction behind a 1954 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight. Turnes says he’s had to focus on the Olds in recent days to ensure that it will make the journey without any major hiccups. He built a trailer hitch and installed that on Monday; the to-do list also includes working on the A/C, replacing some hoses, and adjusting the transmission.

1956 Little Gem camper trailer whitewall wheel tire
Courtesy Austin Turnes

Turnes and his childhood friend Nick Wake plan to leave the Grand Rapids area on January 15 and reach Scottsdale on January 19 or 20. While they hope to take in some historical sites and tourist attractions along the way, their exact route will depend on the weather.

“The mild winter we’ve had definitely helps,” Turnes says. “But this time of year you never know. We want to cross the Continental Divide, but my relatives who live out there say I’d better watch for snow in the higher elevations. We definitely don’t want to deal with ice and snow coming down a mountain with a car and trailer that are almost 70 years old.”

1956 Little Gem camper trailer windows
Courtesy Austin Turnes

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.

Little Gem Camper Restoration floor script entryway
Courtesy Austin Turnes

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.

1956 Little Gem camper trailer trim detail
Courtesy Austin Turnes

In Turnes’ latest update video update, he shows the final hurdle he had to clear to get the travel trailer out of his garage: he had to remove the axle, put the camper on rollers, push it into the driveway, and then reattach the axle. Why? The Gem is about 8.5 feet tall and his garage door is 8 feet.

Barrett-Jackson confirmed that the 1956 Little Gem will cross the block on Monday, January 23 as Lot #56. The auction will be televised on the FYI or History channels; the schedule hasn’t been released yet.

The only other camper trailer in the auction so far is a more-luxurious 1940s Spartan, but that crosses the block after the Little Gem, so there’s no telling what Turnes’ camper might bring. He’s hoping for the best, obviously, since he is using the sale to gain some exposure and determine if he goes into the restoration business full time.

“It’s a huge gamble,” Turnes admits. “We’re hoping it pays off.”

1956 Little Gem camper trailer interior
Courtesy Austin Turnes

Although Turnes also considered selling the Oldsmobile, he’s decided to keep it; he’s hoping Barrett-Jackson will allow him to use the car to drive the Little Gem across the block.

Whatever happens, Turnes says the restoration experience has been rewarding, and judging from the outpouring of comments and encouragement on his Facebook page, others are excited about the Little Gem too.

“It’s gotten a lot of love,” he says. “Hopefully somebody will give it a lot of love in Scottsdale too.”

We’ll keep you posted.

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