Michigan man’s dilapidated 1956 Little Gem camper is Restoration: Possible
Sometimes you have to climb the mountain just because it’s there. For Austin Turnes, that mountain is a dilapidated 1956 Little Gem camper trailer. Few would consider saving it, but regardless, he’s all in.
“It was past the point of no return for most people, but anything can be done if you have the time and money,” Turnes says, admitting that he has more of the former than the latter. “It’s a challenge taking something that’s a total dumpster fire and bringing it back to life.”
Once Turnes meets that challenge and the Little Gem restoration is complete, he plans to tow the trailer from Middleville, Michigan, to Arizona for Barrett-Jackson’s annual Scottsdale auction in January 2023—behind a 1954 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight, to boot—and test the market.
There’s a clear method to his madness. “Whether I make money, lose money, or break even,” he says, “it proves that I can do it, and it showcases my work.”
Barrett-Jackson will be a starting point of sorts for the 35-year-old Turnes, as he fulfills a dream and enters the restoration business full-time. He has worked in the automotive industry for years in a variety of roles, most notably as a mechanic and later as a car and truck salesman, while also selling antiques, car care products, and refurbishing campers and trailers on the side.
The foundation for Turnes’ business, Mr. Vintage Restoration, was cemented early. His first restoration project was a 1949 Farmall Cub tractor, which he refurbished with his grandfather and a family friend at the age of 12. When Turnes’ was 16 he sold the tractor and bought a 1968 Cadillac Sedan DeVille hardtop. Soon after he also restored his first camper, a home-built project that had been given to him.
At 17, Turnes sold the Cadillac and “moved on to bigger and better things.” It became a pattern. During the nearly two decades that followed, Turnes’ automotive career blossomed. He earned automotive service and automotive management degrees at Ferris State University, then worked as a dealership mechanic. More recently, he sold International semi-trucks and was coming off “a very good year” when he came to a realization that took him aback. “I wasn’t happy,” he says. “I was comfortable, but I wasn’t happy. I’d set arbitrary monetary goals, and I realized that being happy had nothing to do with money. For me, restoration was it.”
Turnes had a decision to make. He discussed it with his wife, Elisha, who also buys and sells antiques, and they made a plan. By happenstance—or was it destiny? —the Little Gem trailer played a vital role in the direction that Mr. Vintage Restoration was about to take.
“The Gem kind of fell into my lap,” Turnes says. “I’d just completed a restoration on a 1971 Airstream, which I bought for $2700 in Muncie, Indiana … and after a two-year restoration I sold it for $33,000. That was really encouraging.
“Then two months later my wife ran into a family friend, and she said, ‘Hey, your husband does old trailers, right? We just bought some property with an old camper on it. It’s a little rough, but some of it might be usable if you want it.’ I thought I was going to find a 1980s 30-foot Coachman or something, but when I got there, there was this little trailer which had been sitting in the dirt for 30 years. I said, ‘Let me do ya a favor and take the whole thing.’”
Turnes returned on July 4, 2021 to free the trailer and take a step toward career independence. “The wheels of the thing weren’t even visible, and the tongue was underground. I thought there’s no way this is going to be solid enough to tow home, but the tires were still on it, so I took the air compressor and filled ‘em up, and I’ll be damned if they didn’t hold air. I hooked it up to my wife’s 2011 Chrysler Town & Country—super uncool, but the utilitarian factor is amazing; thank you, Lee Iacocca—and towed it 10 miles home.”
Turnes’ sense of humor is evident as he pulls out some photos to prove it happened just as he said. “If ever anybody doubts ya, do it twice and take pictures.”
The previous owner had used the Little Gem for storage, so Turnes had to remove a boat load of canning jars, boxes, and trash before the real work could begin. But hey, he got it for free, which he says “is super uncommon today in the world of vintage trailers.” The breadth of the project became fully visible once Turnes began taking the trailer apart.
Little Gem camper trailers were built by the (Herman) Schiebout Manufacturing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for three decades beginning in the 1940s. Every pre-1966 camper featured square-sided “Canned-Ham” construction, in which aluminum skin is screwed to a birch wood frame, and the wood structure beneath the skin of Turnes’ 1956 Little Gem was shot. So was the trailer it sat upon.
“I learned that wherever you see water damage, be prepared to replace everything within five feet of it,” Turnes says. “These weren’t made to last this long … and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to save it.”
The move was also strategic as he looked to the future. “When Airstreams get too expensive for most people,” he says, “you move to sticks and staples.”
It would take plenty of both—and a whole lot more—for Turnes to return the Little Gem to its former glory. He had to recreate the frame, including the rear ducktail design, sometimes with little to go on. “It’s like having a third of a fender and a bucket of rust and saying, ‘Make me a fender.’” Turnes had to continuously check his work to make sure the frames and the aluminum skin fit together correctly. “When you’re framing things up,” he says, “the skins don’t lie.” Surprisingly, the only wood that was still usable was the roof.
Turnes is far from finished—the project had to share time with a 1995 Safari Sahara diesel pusher coach that he just completed—but the work he’s done so far is impressive. Turnes built a new trailer frame with axles that have flanges, so that the camper’s new owner can add brakes if desired. He also gave it new BF Goodrich wide-whitewall tires.
A nearby table displays some of the more delicate work—including the stove top and burners, rechromed door handles, and a small interior light with a retro-look shade that he made—as well as stickers and a registration plate (this is #2129) to replace the originals.
“I’ve bought new parts when needed and NOS (new old stock) as I could find them,” he says. “I want it to look and feel like it’s original. It’ll have a three-way refrigerator that will have a vintage look, and a microwave will be hidden inside a cabinet. The floor will be green and black Marmoleum, and the walls will be wood veneer.”
Once the Little Gem is completed, Turnes says he’ll spend weeks carefully polishing the aluminum exterior. The entire project, if he had completely devoted his time to it, would have taken about 12–16 weeks. He hopes to finish by the end of October.
Turnes jokes that there will be a little more work to do after that, however. Measured from ball to back bumper, which is standard, the Gem is considered a 14-foot camper (the body itself is 11 feet long and 7 feet wide). No worries there. The problem is, the Gem is about 8.5 feet tall … and the garage doorway is only 8 feet high. Oops. Easy fix: Turnes is going to remove the axle, put the trailer on rollers, push it into the driveway, and then reattach the axle. “You work with what you have,” he says with a smile.
Then there’s the issue of driving it 2000 miles to Scottsdale … in the winter … behind a classic car. Turnes, not surprisingly, isn’t as worried as others might be. He bought the Oldsmobile from a local collection this summer, and he immediately thought it was a perfect way to haul the Little Gem.
“There are some naysayers who say you can’t pull a camper behind a classic car,” he says. “I beg to differ.”
The Olds packs a 324-cubic-inch Rocket V-8 mated to a Hydromatic transmission. The car already runs well, plus Turnes says he’ll do everything it takes to make it as safe and reliable as he can before heading to the Valley of the Sun. While he’s “still trying to wrap my mind around the possibility of snow,” he says he’ll only take backroads and may leave early so he can time the journey with the milder weather. “Those details are still developing.”
Is this Mission: Impossible? Nope, Turnes says. He is quick to point out that he’s made a career of proving other people wrong. With that said, he has a wife and two young children (Charlie, who turns 4 in October, and Violet, 2) to think about. So, any risks he takes are calculated ones—and that includes choosing Barrett-Jackson’s no-reserve auction to sell the Little Gem.
“My wife is worried; she doesn’t want to go with me, because at Barrett-Jackson once it sells, it sells, and that’s pretty nerve-wracking,” he says. “Of course I’d like to at least break even, but I’ve been given an opportunity to chase my dreams, so I’m going for it and we’ll see what happens.
“I may even sell the Olds out there. Although I’m kind of enamored with it, I have dreams that are bigger than Oldsmobiles.”
The summit awaits.