Hamilton Couple Brings Vintage Campers Back to Life
From photo booths to mobile retail, custom campers are gaining in popularity during the pandemic age.
Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy a camper, which enthusiasts say amounts to the same thing.
Dominic Gallego didn’t set out to restore vintage trailers for happy campers – in fact, he had to study aerospace engineering, start a fair trade coffee shop and work in a catering business before he stumbled upon his true calling.
“I met my future wife in the coffee shop in 2010. Chantalle complained about my blueberry muffins, which she told me were awful,” Gallego smiles. Like pages from a Hollywood screenplay, the complaint blossomed into a friendship and, eventually, an engagement.
The couple’s fateful trip to a wedding show in 2013 led to a discovery: There were no creative photobooths to rent for their guests on their upcoming wedding day. So they decided to make one.
It was a clever knock-down booth that looked so good people wanted to rent it, but it was hard to pack into their little sedan. They decided to make their next photobooth a truly mobile affair by converting a classic Airstream aluminum trailer into an eye-popping photobooth.
“We wanted something fun and different for our business, because everything looked boring,” Chantalle recalls of their motivation.
They found their dream trailer in a cramped laneway in the Beach neighbourhood of Toronto the following year. It was a 1957 model, the last one with the distinctive 13-panel end caps Airstream buffs swoon over (Airstream used fewer, larger aluminum sheets to make the curved end caps after that).
Decades of neglect had dulled the silver bullet to a leaden patina and rust had weakened the frame, but there was no mistaking the shape. It would be the perfect vessel for their photobooth rental business. They pre-booked three weddings well in advance to help pay for the trailer’s restoration.
“There were no manuals that explain how to restore an Airstream, so I researched the online forums and chatted with owners,” Gallego says. “The Airstream community is very forthcoming with advice.”
He worked on the 22-foot Airstream Caravanner in his parent’s driveway over the winter months, with little more than his small-engine repair skills learned in his native Philippines to rely on. He taught himself to weld with help from YouTube.
“I bought off-cuts from a metal supplier and found an online welding workshop and followed along. I used up a full roll and a half of welding wire on practice joints and exercises before I attempted to weld my Airstream back together.”
Restored and polished to a brilliant shine, their Snaptique Photobooth was a showstopper when it made its wedding season debut in 2015.
“It always brings the ‘wow’ factor to weddings, especially for the older guests who flock to it for the nostalgia,” says Gallego. Their trailer was such a magnet for bookings, the pair converted a VW minibus to work as a photobooth, then added a restored Boler lightweight trailer to the fleet, along with another Airstream.
Today Chantalle has a staff of seven who take the photobooths out not only to weddings, but to corporate gatherings where employees clamour to have their picture taken with the photogenic wheels. Big-name companies such as Pepsi, Ubisoft, The Body Shop and various universities have become repeat customers that host the booths at up to 300 events per year.
The couple’s main business remains Nomad Custom Trailers, which in addition to Airstreams, restores Canadian-made Bolers and Trillium fibreglass campers, along with other vintage trailers in their workshop in Canada’s steel town of Hamilton, Ontario.
Increasingly, American trailer owners are seeking out Nomad Customs for their restoration work. They like bringing their trailers north to take advantage of the currency exchange. Fortunately for Gallego, the parts and supplies he needs fall under the NAFTA trade agreement and he doesn’t pay excise taxes, which helps to control costs.
“Campers are tricky because the work is very labour intensive and there’s not a lot of margin in the pricing of restorations,” Gallego says. He points to the hundreds of rivets holding a single sheet of aluminum in an Airstream, fasteners that have to be drilled out carefully to preserve the old metal.
“It’s all custom work. And nothing is straight on an Airstream; every piece is curved,” he notes. It’s artisan work that appeals to Gallego’s project manager, Eric Anderson, a carpenter who used to build log cabin homes.
“I love to create things. This job requires a lot of customization, so the problem-solving aspect is enjoyable for me,” Anderson says. All that creativity comes at a price: a restored Airstream will sell for $80,000 to $120,000 or more, depending on the level of luxury demanded by the buyer.
The other side of the restoration business involves Boler and Trillium campers, which were introduced in the 1970s as Detroit downsized its cars and consumers needed a lightweight trailer that could be pulled by a four- or six-cylinder engine.
“The fibreglass trailer community is passionate,” says Gallego. “A lot of young families are buying Bolers again. I know because they appear and disappear in the online listings in a matter of hours when I’m searching to buy used examples.”
Gallego likes working on fibreglass campers because they’re easy to repair, they absorb bumps better than other types of trailers, and their clamshell structure (essentially a top and bottom tub fastened together in the middle) is durable and leak resistant.
Bolers and Trilliums can also be restored quicker. Gallego’s team can retrofit a Boler in six to eight weeks, while an aluminum Airstream takes six to eight months – or more, if deep-pocketed owners want more custom features.
Gallego points to a row of old Bolers that had just been delivered by the logistics company he uses to retrieve used trailers from across Canada. Most are the bigger models with a built-in bathroom – a high-demand feature now, given the fact families are reluctant to use a campground toilet in the pandemic age.
The Bolers will be completely gutted inside, with the old cabinets serving as templates for the new cabinetry, which is often ordered in trendy colours and materials that were never envisioned in a trailer in 1975, along with de rigueur stainless steel appliances.
A thorough restoration will see all the windows and vents removed and resealed, new electrics used throughout with LED lighting, the plumbing and propane lines replaced, and the steel frame reconditioned or replaced, along with a new axle, wheels, tires and brakes. A brilliant paint job tops off the update.
A completely restored 17-foot Boler will sell for around $40,000 – evidence that there’s a demand for these unique, lightweight trailers once again (check out this CBC story). While new manufacturers are making them from the old moulds, original trailers that can be reconditioned and modernized represent a lucrative business opportunity.
“Imagine buying a 40-year-old trailer that’s totally up to date and one that a family will enjoy for another 40 years, then pass along to the next generation,” Anderson says.
There’s no question campers are having a moment – especially now that more Canadians are looking at camping as a safe alternative to vacationing abroad during the pandemic. What Gallego and partner Chantalle started a few short years ago has evolved into a multifaceted business that almost defies definition.
Encouraged by burgeoning corporate interest in their trailers, Gallego is designing his own trailer for commercial customers who see a retail outlet on wheels as the next big thing.
“Shopping online will be the dominant sales method, but increasingly retailers see ‘experiential selling’ as an emerging trend. Ski shops want to be on the slope selling to skiers in the moment, and bike shops want to be at the trails marketing to their customers,” Gallego explains.
“Trailers allow them to be on site and in front of buyers. It’s a way to reconnect with customers – and it’s got to be ‘Instagramable’ so that they can share the experience with a wider audience.”
No question that the trailer story, told in photos on Instagram and elsewhere online, has ignited the imagination of a new generation of nascent campers – and budding artists.
“A young woman called me to ask if she could come work for us. She made jewelry and worked building movie sets, but when she saw our custom trailers, she knew she wanted to bring her creativity here,” says Gallego.
She may very well get a job offer as Nomad ramps up production this summer. Gallego is already looking for a larger industrial building where he can expand his business, along with land where he can offer storage for recreational vehicles. But he doesn’t want to leave the area.
“Hamilton has a really supportive network of fabricators to help us with every aspect of restoration,” says Gallego. With so much support and expertise nearby, he knows they can’t stray too far away.
Taking stock of their unorthodox business enterprises, Gallego and wife Chantalle acknowledge it’s been an unlikely adventure that could have fizzled out if not for their willingness to roll up their sleeves and embrace the challenges.
“Our love for the vintage, working side by side, being able to be creative and wanting to build something and bring it back to life was always there from the beginning,” says Gallego. “We’re very grateful that we can share our passion for vintage campers with others and help them create fun memories as they embark on their own adventures.”