Some people say that Airstream and Avion owners have aluminum in their DNA. Some owners (and a few non-owners) are obsessed with them. As a former Airstream travel trailer owner and restorer, I can say this is true. I’ve never really gotten over my obsession with them. Now that I’ve moved on to truck campers, I confess that I’ve been looking around for a Avion truck camper to purchase or restore. During a recent search, I came across Louis Helbock’s restored Avion truck camper that he affectionately calls the “Silver Pompadour.” In this interview, Louis explains his approach to restoring one of these old classics.
Thanks, Louis, for taking the time to talk about your Avion truck camper restoration. What year and model do you own?
Louis: The Silver Pompadour is a 1968 Avion C11.
How did you find it and how much did you pay?
Louis: I began looking for a used truck camper for less than $3,000, primarily on Craigslist. I wasn’t looking for a project and wanted to hit the road ASAP, but the Avion was one of the only truck campers I could find within my budget. It turned out that an old friend of mine also owns an Avion C11 and he insisted that I take on the project. On Halloween night 2015, my friend and I went to look at it with my truck and some nylon ratchet straps. I offered the owner $500, he was happy to see it go.
What condition was the camper in when you bought it?
Louis: The camper was very dilapidated when I purchased it. The jack mounting points were so rotted, I didn’t think we were even going to get it loaded on my truck. The first 18 inches of floor inside the door was even worse. On the initial drive home, the second nylon strap was passed around the back of the camper to keep the door closed. To top it all off, the camper was never unloaded after its last use sometime in the mid-70’s and so was still stocked with rotten and petrified foodstuffs.
I assume the camper had numerous leaks. Was this a frame-off restoration with a full floor replacement?
Louis: The cover for the rear roof vent had a hole in it in addition to cracked roof sealant and missing window seals so yes, the camper was a bit moist in the middle. I’d call it a frame-off but maybe not in the traditional sense of a travel trailer frame-off as there is no frame under the floor. All the wood was rotted including the floor, wings, cab-over and bulkheads. Step one was to strip the entire camper of EVERYTHING including the interior aluminum skin. The jacks are attached to the wings and so the wings had to be repaired first, while the camper was still in the bed of my truck. The outside perimeter of the wings tuck into a channel in the aluminum wall frame adding complexity to the construction. The wings, floor and cab-over were originally built as a plywood, foam, plywood sandwich to save weight and provide insulation. This is the method I used also, however, I coated the edges with marine epoxy to prevent future water intrusion.
Once the wings could support the weight of the camper on the jacks, the floor was replaced as one complete assembly. The “bulkheads” between the wings and floor were done about the same time. The trickiest part of the structural rebuild was the cab-over. It is ‘hung’ from the walls on three sides by tucking into the frame channel like the wings. This forced me to build the cab-over in-place, in sections.
Did you have to replace any of the exterior aluminum panels? If you did, what kind of rivets did you use?
Louis: There was an AC unit on the roof which I removed. The original fridge vent and antenna were also removed, all requiring panels and patches of varying sizes. On all the exterior panels, I used 5/32-inch buck rivets from Vintage Trailer Supply. The aluminum was sourced from Home Depot, which was a mistake, I should have gotten a heavier gauge.
Did you have to rebuild the cabinets or were they all in pretty good shape?
Louis: Most of the original walls and cabinetry were beyond repair. This was liberating as now I could change the layout with little restriction. The only original wood work I could salvage were the overhead cabinet frames. In the end, I reproduced those original frames in cherry to match all the other wood work I had done.
Are the appliances all original? Were you able to reuse any of them?
Louis: The two original appliances I retained were the 6-gallon LP water heater and range hood fan. Both still worked well and it would have been very difficult to fill the void if I changed to a newer model water heater. The new appliances I installed included an Atwood SS 2 burner range, a Shurflo water pump, a Camco Wave 3 catalytic heater, a Suburban 16k BTU LP forced air furnace, a Thetford Curve toilet, and a Xantrex 1,000 watt inverter. A Whynter FM45G 12 volt refrigerator is on the short list, but I’m not sure where it will be mounted. I’m using an ice chest for now.
What about the bathroom? Did any of the molded bathroom enclosures need repairs?
Louis: Since I was almost starting from scratch, I decided to rebuild the bathroom as a dry-bath instead of the original wet-bath configuration. Utilizing the original vinyl shower basin, I created a shower stall with some real estate annexed from the kitchen. The bathroom partition wall is lined with vinyl overlapping into the shower basin.
What about the plumbing? I assume you had to replace most of it?
Louis: Aside from the kitchen sink and faucet, all plumbing was completely removed and discarded. The Shurflo pump is supplied by a 40 gallon fresh water tank fixed to the floor at the front of the unit. I replaced the plumbing with crimped 3/8-inch PEX all sloped back to the pump for easy draining. The original faucet only needed a few new packing washers and works well. There is no sink in the bathroom, only a cold water hose spigot for filling the flush tank on the toilet.
What about the waste water holding tanks? Did you make any changes to the original configuration?
Louis: The Avion never had a grey water holding tank from the factory. I was able to source a 30-gallon low profile PE holding tank from eBay that would barely squeeze under the fiberglass “bustle” at the rear. For now the sink and shower are drained via traditional water traps, but I would like to install Hepvo valves for easier winterization. With a self-contained toilet such as the Thetford Curve, I have no need for a black water tank.
What about the electrical wiring?
Louis: Surprisingly, much of the wiring was in perfect shape. I replaced all the 120 volt receptacles with GFCI and removed the original battery charger. All the lighting both running and interior was upgraded to LED. While the interior skin was out, I added a ground wire to all the running lights so they no longer relied on the chassis for ground. I framed out a box containing two Group-27 batteries and a fuse block up front next to the water tank. The inverter is mounted on the side of this box along with a USB/cigarette outlet. I replaced the original 6-pin “trailer lights” plug with the common 7-pin for convenience. I recently added variable color LED strips under the cabinets on both sides. The main purpose is to have a dim red lighting to preserve night vision for stargazing.
How do you recharge your two batteries?
Louis: At the moment, my truck’s alternator. Solar has always been the plan. I will be replacing the Group 27s with two golf cart 6 volt and adding approximately 300 watts of solar on the roof.
Is that real leather that you used on the dinette seat cushions?
Louis: That is a commercial grade imitation leather upholstery fabric that was given to me by a friend who got it from his employer. Unfortunately, I have no idea who it’s manufactured by or what it’s called.
What kind of wood did you use to build and face your cabinets? What product did you use to finish them?
Louis: The walls and cabinetry are framed and capped with some locally harvested cherry milled thin to save weight. The cabinet and bathroom doors and partition panels are 1/4-inch birch ply stained with aniline dye in an attempt to match the cherry. The table is black walnut with a burled maple and rosewood inlay. Everything is coated with two to three coats of a semi-gloss polyurethane.
Why did you apply the vinyl flooring up the wings? Was this done for a particular reason?
Louis: I did that for a few reasons. I had planned to trim the vinyl to fit the floor, but realized wrapping it was an easy way to “finish” the sides. It makes for easier cleaning and any vinyl I trimmed would have gone to waste anyway.
How long did the entire restoration take?
Louis: Thanks to global warming, five months. I purchased the rig on October 31, 2015 and was on the road in comfort by March 14, 2016. Living in the northeast, winters are usually not conducive to outdoor projects such as this, but winter really didn’t come that year. I was able to find days in January that were warm enough for wood glue and marine epoxy to set properly. I just don’t have the perseverance for long, drawn out projects. After six months, I risk losing interest and motivation.
What’s been the most satisfying part of the restoration?
Louis: Aside from the obvious milestone of completion, my favorite part of the restoration was fabricating the interior upper corners. On the upper outside corners, the skin is arranged in multiple panels (petals) overlapping to form the compound curve of the corner. The interior is skinned in vinyl coated aluminum with the exception of the upper corners. The inside was originally finished by a white molded plastic piece which was in sad shape when I got the camper. Lacking the ability to injection mold a new piece, I decided to mimic the construction of the exterior using aluminum. On the recommendation of some of the Avion Truck Camper Forum members, I made templates out of thick paper to establish a working pattern. This was then copied on to aluminum and riveted in place. The final result was pleasing to my eye and introduced me to previously unknown possibilities of metal work.
Is your restoration complete? Besides adding solar, do you have any other plans?
Louis: I consider the restoration to be complete. However, the upfit and personalization is an ongoing process. The structure is solid and all the basics of an RV are present. When building the interior, I tried to keep the floor plan as open and flexible as possible. The intention was to use the camper a few times to figure out what I wanted and how it should be done. Every time I use the camper, I think of changes and improvements to make so as long as I own it, it’ll never be 100 percent complete.
What make and model of truck are you using to haul the camper?
Louis: The truck is a 1993 Dodge D250 LE Extended cab with the Cummins 5.9L diesel and manual gearbox.
How well does your truck handle the camper at high-speed and off-road?
Louis: This is the only truck camper I have ever hauled. I’m used to towing trailers. For such a light truck (4,900 pounds) the camper is very stable at highway speeds. I use this rig as deluxe changing room when I windsurf so I am always driving it into high winds. All the rounded edges allow it to shake off some very gusty crosswinds with ease. When climbing the Rockies on I-70 west of Denver, I could easily maintain the speed limit. On I-15 in Utah, doing the 80 mph speed limit felt quite safe, although I dropped it back to 70 mph so as not to lay waste to my fuel budget.
No complaints about the off-road ability either, especially considering that my Dodge is only a two-wheel drive with highway tires. Without the weight of the camper, my truck has very little traction. With the camper on, it will climb a slippery slope that it can’t stop itself on coming back down as I found out west of Vegas on Lovell Summit—scary. Not having a solid front axle probably worked to my advantage while cornering over ‘washboards’ and rocks at speed. I am convinced the truck rides smoother with the camper on than without in almost all situations.
Where have you taken it since you’ve completed your restoration?
Louis: The first trip was to the first state, Dewey Beach, Delaware. In the year since, I’ve taken the camper to the Poconos Mountains of Pennsylvania, the Hudson Valley of New York, the Thousand Islands region of New York, the Lake Ontario region of New York, the Finger Lakes region of New York, and Sandy Hook, New Jersey.
I’ve also done about seven weeks and 7,000 miles of cross-country travel and desert boondocking at Arches National Park, Lake Mead, Lake Mohave, Red Rocks, various BLM areas, Coral Pink Sand Dunes, Glen Canyon, Muley Point and the Moki Dugway. I also passed through Mesa Verde, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Curicanti, and then made my way back to Gates BBQ in Kansas City. I was too chicken to take my two-wheel drive to Toroweap with all the rain and snow this winter, maybe next year.
How well has your Avion performed on your trips?
Louis: It performed wonderfully even lacking solar power and a fridge. The need for cold food items would force me back to civilization after about 6 days, the Whynter and solar should fix that. The heaters kept up just fine at -5 degrees F in Dillon, Colorado.
How much does your Avion weigh? Have you taken your rig to the scales?
Louis: My guess is in the ballpark of the original 2,400 pounds dry. However with the large fresh and grey water tanks, double batteries and extra LP capacity, the wet weight could easily top 3,000 pounds. I haven’t weighed the rig yet, but feel that as long as my grey and fresh tanks are never full at the same time, I am safely under my truck’s 8,510-pound GVWR.
Do you have any closing advice for others who are starting their own vintage camper restoration?
Louis: Knowledge is power. The speed and ease of my restoration owes much credit to the resources available online such as the Avion truck camper restoration thread on RV.NET. No need to reinvent the wheel. I posted my C11 restoration videos on my YouTube channel. I bought Trempro, Parbond, buck rivet stuff, Hehr and other vintage parts at Vintage Trailer Supply.