For anyone with an affinity for classic aluminum campers and trailers, the Avion name has to rank near the top. Founded by Loren and Robert Cayo, Avion began building travel trailers in 1955, but didn’t start building truck campers until 1965 when it introduced two long-bed models—the C-10 and C-11—with three floorplans for each. The Michigan-based company continued to sell the two truck campers until 1970 when the Avion name, and its travel trailer lineup, was sold to Ligon Enterprises. Robert Cayo retained ownership of the truck camper lineup (and a new class C motorhome called the Motovator) and soldiered-on under the Cayo Camper banner until 1975 when the oil embargo and its impacts, unfortunately, finished the company for good. Today, Avion and Cayo truck campers are collector’s items, prized for their classic, retro look. Avion and Cayo truck campers are becoming increasingly difficult to find, yet you can find one if you look hard enough.
After a lot of searching, Dick Galland, and his wife, Ann, were finally able to score on a 1966 Avion C-11. Unlike, most owners, however, the couple decided to take a different tack in the restoration of their truck camper by converting it into a chassis-mounted motorhome that they affectionately call Argo. The rig was featured in the “DIY” builders section at the 2023 Overland Expo PNW, and rightly received top 10 honors from our team. To learn more about this amazing, restoration and conversion, Dick Galland was kind enough to answer several questions.
Thanks, Dick, for talking with us. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself first?
Dick Galland: I was born on the east coast, but realized early that I was a Westerner by disposition. Rugged landscapes and wide open country called to me. My family moved to Colorado, then to Texas. I kept going and arrived in Muir Beach, just north of San Francisco, in 1975—as far west as I could go.
After college, I had begun working for the Colorado Outward Bound School in 1968. In 1971, I moved to Texas to start the Texas Outward Bound School in and around Big Bend National Park. From there, I came to California and started my own wilderness adventure outfit with my wife Annie.
In addition to a career in outdoor education—Outward Bound instructor and school director and then as an independent wilderness guide. I’ve also been a boat builder, a fly fishing guide, outfitter, and lodge owner, and an outdoor writer. I’m retired now and just writing.
Why did you decide to restore and convert a classic Avion into a chassis-mounted rig? Wouldn’t it have been easier to simply buy a motorhome or a new truck camper rig with storage?
Dick Galland: Many years of living out of a backpack as a wilderness guide segued into car camping. That, in turn, lead to towing a small tent trailer. At some point, all the loading and unloading each night led us to think about a camper. Annie and I don’t stay in RV parks. We prefer to be in the woods, down some dirt road in the desert or up in the mountains. We knew we needed a 4WD rig. That led me to truck campers. As I looked at campers on Google, at what was available in the early 2000s, none of them particularly interested me. I was unimpressed with the construction.
Then I saw a pic of an Avion slide-in camper. I was immediately taken with the sleek aerodynamic look and the all-aluminum body. Searching ebay and Craigslist, I found a couple in California and Nevada. I went to inspect them, but neither was in acceptable condition—whatever that meant.
Eventually, I found a Craigslist listing in Minneapolis for a complete rig—the 1966 Avion C-11 on a mid-80’s Ford Camper Special. Many phone conversations later, I flew to Minneapolis and drove the rig around. It was clean and original inside and behaved well on the truck. I drove it home. I pulled into my driveway in California. Annie came out and we examined the rig.
She said, “It smells kind of musty.”
“Yeah”, I said. “It smells like my basement apartment at CU my freshman year—kind of musty.”
That was the first step of what became a total overhaul and redesign of the camper.
What kind of things did you find wrong with the camper?
Dick Galland: I began poking around under the cabover bunk platform, a sandwich of outer aluminum skin, 5/8-inch plywood, 2-inch rigid foam and finally a 1/4-inch of plywood on top. It was damp. I knew the fellow I had bought the rig from had taken it to a truck wash in anticipation of my visit. I figured the high pressure wash had leaked through some of the many rivet holes. But as I poked deeper into the plywood and foam, I found rotten wood and loose fastenings. The closer I looked at the plywood within the rig, the more damage I found. In these circumstances with boats, I’ve always torn things out and started fresh. That’s what I did here. It have given the best outcome, but it was far from the quickest and most economical way to get an operating camper on the road.
Why did you decide to convert your Avion truck camper into a chassis-mounted motorhome?
Dick Galland: I didn’t really decide on a motorhome conversion. It sort of happened. I originally began the restoration of the original truck camper design—slide-in with jacks to load and unload the camper. After I got the first version of the frame built using 11/2-inch square aluminum tube and set it into the truck bed, I had Annie come for a look. She saw the framing for little front window that’s typical in a truck camper, the window that matches up with the sliding window in the back of the truck cab.
She said, “how are the dogs going to get from the camper to the cab?”
I should mention here that we’re a German Shepherd family and have always had two dogs for the last 30 years.
I replied, “well, they can just be in the camper and stick their noses through. We can let them out when we stop.”
“Nope!” she says. “Not going to happen that way. Can we cut a hole in the back of the cab?”
“No. Well, maybe. Sure.”
I thought to myself, “What could possibly go wrong?”
Fortunately, I have friends who know considerably more about metal and fabrication that I do. They seemed to think it was a reasonable thing to do, although one said I was ruining the value of the truck cutting that hole. I replied that I reckoned mounting the camper was going to enhance the value profoundly. By this time, I had sold the 1980s 2WD Ford and bought a low-mileage, 2013 Ford F-250 4WD diesel supercab.
How did you go about restoring your Avion C-11?
Dick Galland: The inner structure of these campers was built of plywood. And not the highest quality marine plywood. Every Avion camper I’ve seen or heard of has had some rot in the cabover, in the wall in the front, or in the side panels that support the camper in the truck bed. Most restorations deal with these problems by scarfing in a fresh piece of plywood or doing an extensive epoxy patch and fill or a combo of these two. I have always been more inclined to start fresh in such a situation. I had rebuilt a couple of sailboats from the inner-hull out. I completely tore out the guts of the camper, down to the outer skin and supporting ribs, and hung it from an A-frame I-beam in the boatyard of a friend in Watsonville. That allowed me—and my fabulous metal fabricator and friend Gary Formo—to design and build a new frame to attach the outer shell to.
What appealed to me the most about the camper was the sleek outer appearance and the interior volume. I had no feeling for the vintage interior and reckoned I could come up with a more efficient use of interior space. The original inner skin was aluminum with a vinyl covering decorated with little fleur-de-lis throughout, not quite the look I was after. Neither was the orange plaid carpeting. The interior framing and cabinets were wood and of a moderate quality. Because I had to build an entirely new foundation frame for the camper using 1-1/2-inch square aluminum tubing, I stripped everything out and hung the outer skin as I described above.
Is everything inside your Avion camper original?
Dick Galland: In terms of original Avion items on the camper, the windows are all original, but with new panes of safety glass. The original door hardware remains. The grab handle at the door and the Avion nameplates were re-chromed and reinstalled.
The Avions came from the factory fully-anodized on the outside. This was an excellent way to protect the skin, but it weathers slowly and takes on a dull finish. Between adding new aluminum patches on the camper and building the lower utility body from new aluminum, I had dull parts and shiny parts. I didn’t want to polish the rig as it was too labor intensive to remove the anodizing and then to maintain in a shiny condition. I had Argo painted with Deltron two-part automotive paint. The color is Porsche Polarsilber. I think it looks remarkably fresh and being a Porsche color, it adds a bit of class to the rig.
The current interior evolved. I wanted a galley on one side, two-person dinette on the other. It needed a closet and a head compartment. It needed overhead cabinets. The current overhead cabinets are the same size and shape as the originals, just built with aluminum frames and teak doors.
Riveted trailers and campers, like Airstreams and Avions, are notorious leakers. What did you do the prevent future leaks?
Dick Galland: One of my guiding principles was to eliminate all structural wood from the camper, on the assumption that with hundreds of rivets penetrating the outer skin, leaks were inevitable. I intended to drive off-road, which would cause the body to work (and flex). I wanted any water that got into the rig to find its way down and drain or dry out without doing any damage along the way. That’s why we call him “Argo, the all-aluminum camper.” The only wood is teak and it’s used in cabinet doors and drawers and in the two yacht doors I found in a marine resale shop on San Francisco Bay. They are for the wet head compartment and the closet.
Permanently mounting an aluminum slide-in camper is a huge undertaking. How did you go about doing it?
Dick Galland: When we made the decision to cut out the back of the truck and permanently mount Argo on the truck chassis, it opened up the inside of the camper significantly. Gone were the big spaces inside that accommodated the wheel wells in the pickup bed. I sold the truck bed, built a steel frame on top of the truck’s chassis, and mounted the camper to that frame. I was left with the sides of the truck exposed; they had previously been covered by the truck bed. I basically built a service body attached to the sides of the camper and around the rear wheels, using the same 11/2-inch square tubing that the camper frame was built from. That service body has compartments accessible from inside or outside or both. The outside compartments hold the batteries, the propane tank—a 10 gallon horizontal aluminum unit—and a tool storage compartment. They also provide access to the water tank fillers.
At the recent 2023 Overland Expo PNW in Oregon, I had a long conversation with an engineer about the way I had mounted Argo to the truck. He asked if I had calculated loads when I considered the permanently attached camper project. I had not. I built a three-rail steel channel frame that bolted to the top of the truck chassis along the long axis using the same stock rubber body mounts used in the pick up bed and the cab. For the cutout in the cab, we made the aluminum frame snug up against the back of the cab and added steel wings to each side of the hole in the cab. Those wings were bolted to the aluminum frame. The forward part of the frame that extends over the cab was bolted through the roof of the cab with reinforcing plates. The cab on chassis construction allows the camper and cab to move and flex as a single unit on the body mounts. So far, this has proven to be satisfactory. I don’t have any intention of taking Argo to those places that many overlanders appear to fancy, places that involve rock crawling or narrow, precipitous tracks above yawning canyons. However I have no doubts about Argo’s ability to negotiate the mountain and desert back roads we love to travel on.
What provisions did you make for towing?
Dick Galland: Gary and I also built a front hitch receiver utilizing the two massive towing loops built into the truck’s frame. That receiver allows me to mount a winch on the front of Argo, should I need one, and it supports the welded steel flat rack that exactly accommodates the folded-up 10-foot Avon inflatable sportboat and 15 HP Honda that we use for exploring lakes on our travels.
Gary also created rear bumpers for Argo out of thick wall 3-inch steel tubing that he curved around the sides of the camper They are split beneath the door accommodate the Torklift Glow-Steps that swing to the side to allow us to get into the camper easily when a boat and trailer are hooked up.
Can you tell us about Argo’s electrical system? Did you replacing all of the OEM wiring?
Dick Galland: Argo’s electrical system is 12 volts. It consists of two AGM deep cycle batteries totaling about 250 amps. I have two 100 watt solar panels on the roof. The system is controlled by a Victron BMV712 battery monitor and a Victron Smart Solar 100/200 MPPT controller. The system functions very smoothly. The Victron apps let me see exactly what’s going on at any moment with my smart phone. I have to give credit here to the Canadian couple of FarOutRide.com whose website was most helpful with electrical planning and equipment selection.
My total demand with all systems functioning is less than 90 amps per 24 hours. All lights are LEDs. The biggest juicers are the fridge and the water pump. The first runs a lot of the time depending on the outside temps, the latter mere minutes in 24 hours. I have two 12 volt Fan-Tastic fans, a Propex propane furnace with a fan, and 12 volt USB charging ports for various digital devices.
What did you do about the plumbing?
Dick Galland: Plumbing in Argo involves two 20 gallon water bladders in metal compartments between the cab and the rear wheels. The shape of those compartments was complicated enough that I elected to have bladders built of heavy vinyl raft fabric by Aire, with inlet and outlet fittings and a large waterproof inspection port in each. They can be removed with relative ease for cleaning or inspection.
I decided at the onset that I did not want a black water tank. I dislike the concept. I converted the fiberglass molding that held both the black and gray water tanks beneath the original camper to a gray water tank and a tool storage compartment. My toilet is a Thetford Curve, essentially a cassette-style porta potti. It has us served extremely well.
What provisions were made for heating and cooking?
Dick Galland: I cook, make hot water and warm the interior of Argo with propane. The 10 gallon aluminum tank lasts quite a long time. I have a Precision Temp demand water heater. The stove is an Italian-made three burner with oven from Dometic, model CU434.
There is a sink and faucet and a long hose with spray in the galley. The head has a small stainless basin and a spray faucet with a long hose that can be hooked on a fixture on the wall for a hands-free shower.
The Propex forced air heater has a thermostat and blows hot air into Argo. I also have a 3-inch diameter flexible duct that I can slip onto the furnace pipe to direct the hot air into the cabin or into the head, to warm it up for a shower on chilly days.
Can you tell us more about the truck and how you converted it?
Dick Galland: It is a stock 2013 Ford F250 SuperDuty ExtraCab 4×4 with a 6.7L diesel and a multi-speed automatic transmission. I bought it with about 20,000 miles on the odometer. It carries Argo and tows a 2500 sailboat like they are not even there. And it accelerates amazingly fast! I find my mileage to be about 14-15 mpg, as long as I don’t exceed 70 mph.
The full rig with gas and water tanks full is 10,000 pounds. The camper alone weighs about 2,200 pounds.
I added Air Lift suspension in the rear with an onboard compressor. I have the Air Lift bags for the front but have not installed them. I am satisfied with the way Argo handles both on and off the pavement. All the weight of fuel and water is down low, below the chassis. I am considering adding a sway bar to the rear axle on the recommendations of several people have told me of their great experiences with sway bars.
Now that everything is done. Is there anything that you would do differently?
Dick Galland: I wish I had used a really experienced RV electrician to design and assist with the installation of the wiring. It’s embedded in the space between the inner and outer shell, making it virtually inaccessible. I’ve had a few glitches and had to create workarounds. A bit of a frustrating process.
It would have been interesting to have developed Argo using CAD skills. It’s not how my brain works, but I would likely have avoided a bunch of the bumps in the road.
What sources did you rely on during the restoration and conversion process?
Dick Galland: I can’t imagine how I could have done this project without Google and YouTube. The access to stuff—and pictures of stuff—on Google made the brainstorming and problem solving so much easier. A good example is P traps for sinks. The conventional U-shaped model requires a lot of space, always at a premium in a camper. On Google, I found a picture of an inline P-trap which takes no more space that the pipe it’s attached to. On YouTube, I learned how to work with and rivet aluminum, among many, many other things.
How long did the restoration and conversion process take and how much did you spend?
Dick Galland: Five years elapsed between the time I brought the rig home and when I was able to say it was completed. I didn’t work full-time for five years. At least 12 to 18 months were spent doing other things. And of course, there was a lot of time spent figuring out what to do next and how to do whatever was required. I made it up as I went along. A fair amount of trial and error was involved. I’m a visual learner and highly experiential. On several occasions, I would start off in one direction, only to back up and do it a different way. Or get to a certain point and have to stop and figure out what to do next and how to accomplish that.
I paid about $40,000 for the truck. I estimate I have spent about $40,000 on the build itself.
What are your future plans with Argo?
Dick Galland: Our longest trip so far has been one month. And several two week trips. We love western landscapes. We have been many times to the American deserts, into Baja, around the Great Basin, through the Rockies and the Sierra I’d like to see Canada and Alaska. I’ve been to Alaska snowboarding and Alberta fly fishing, but to drive through that country at a leisurely pace is profoundingly inviting.
Thanks for talking with us, Dick. If somebody wanted to reach out to you to learn more, how would they go about doing it?
Dick Galland: I have been asked to post the build process online. I’ll be grappling with Wix or WordPress in the near future. In the meantime, I’m happy to answer questions by email or phone. There is also an excellent forum on RV.NET called “Avion Truck Campers – Hundreds of Photos.” I can be reached at D1trout@gmail.com or by phone at 530-941-2753.