PERU, Ind. — Dan Piper says he has an incurable disease. He calls it “silver fever.”
The main symptom? According to 54-year-old Piper, it’s the obsessive urge to collect shiny, metallic vintage camping trailers.
He first caught the bug in his late 20s, when he purchased a small, beat-up 1960s Shasta trailer for around $200. He patched up the leaky roof, made some other repairs and started camping in it.
After that, Piper said the silver-fever obsession took its full affect.
“At the time, I thought I was the only old-trailer nut out there,” he said. “I thought there was something wrong with me. I was crazy. But once I started looking on the Internet, I realized there’s a lot of us trailer nuts out there.”
That realization led Piper to found Vintage Campers — a 16-year-old business located about 50 miles north of Indianapolis that buys, sells, restores and repairs old campers for vintage aficionados all across the country, and even all over the world.
Piper said his business deals almost exclusively in 1960s-or-older campers, like the iconic Airstream, and the dealership is really the only one of its kind anywhere in the Midwest. They do full restoration work on old campers, sell a slew of original parts, and have shipped vintage trailers to places as far away as France, Germany and Japan.
“It’s a very niche market, and without the Internet we wouldn’t exist,” he said. “But through it, we can reach the world ... It’s amazing. It’s crazy.”
In fact, Vintage Campers is such a rarity that it recently caught the attention of cable station HGTV, who spent a day last year filming his collection for an upcoming TV show on vintage campers and the unique subculture that surrounds them.
It’s not the first time the business has attracted media attention. Ten years ago, Piper said he sold two trailers to a film company to use in the 2003 movie “Big Fish,” starring actors Danny DeVito and Ewan McGregor. He also rents them out to companies who want to use antique campers in TV commercials.
Piper runs his business out of the old Miami County Home that used to house the county’s poor and destitute. Now the rooms inside the mansion-sized building are packed with old toilets, handles, sinks, doors, windows and piles of small, obscure vintage camper parts.
Outside in a large open field, rows upon rows of metallic trailers glint in the sun.
Although Piper said there’s always been a market for antique trailers, he said it’s really picked up in the last few years as retro-themed 1950s stuff has become more mainstream. Just last year, he said he’s noticed vintage trailers in commercials for McDonald’s and Progressive Insurance.
“It’s a growing market, and it’s really growing fast,” he said.
Piper said his company sells about 25 units a year, and ships out around five packages of vintage tailer parts every day. Not many, however, just stop to shop. During a good week they’ll only see three or four people.
Piper said he’s driven by quality, not quantity. “The stuff that they build now, they slap it together pretty quick,” he said.
Then Piper said there’s the aesthetic appeal. “They’re just a cool looking rig, whether you’re driving down the highway or pulling into a camp ground,” he said.
Although Piper obviously aims to make a living dealing in vintage campers, he said at his core he’s not a businessman — he’s a collector “I love to go out and find the trailers,” he said. “That’s the fun part of the business. Restoring and working on them — that feels too much like work to me.”
Carson Gerber is a reporter for the Kokomo (Ind.) Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.