Tips on Buying a Vintage Travel Trailer

Vintage travel trailer

Vintage travel trailers, manufactured decades ago, are gaining popularity among avid campers, collectors, and restorers alike and it’s easy to see why. The stylish lines and design elements represent classic Americana, and these quaint looking trailers of yesteryear bring back memories of simpler times and the basics of camping.

The idea of finding and resurrecting a long-ago abandoned trailer is exciting, but there are precautions that need to be taken before you buy it and before you attempt to transport your vintage trailer project from the field to the garage.
This inspection checklist is designed to bring awareness to safety issues you might encounter with your new project trailer, and to assist in preparing the trailer for transport home. This checklist is not all-inclusive so feel free to add to the list as you see fit. It’s important to keep in mind the vintage trailer project you are purchasing was probably manufactured over a half-century ago, and has probably sat in the same spot for many years.

Here are some important items to check before attempting to take your new prize home:

Tools & equipment to prep vintage trailer for travel

Tools and Equipment: Let’s start with some basic tools and equipment you should take with you on the day you pick your vintage trailer up. Ultimately I recommend taking everything on this list, but I understand it is not always feasible so take what you can. First, if you are not familiar with travel trailers, or you are not mechanically inclined, I recommend taking someone with you who is. A knowledgeable person can be a big asset when it comes to inspecting and preparing the trailer for the trip home.
1) Take a hydraulic jack with a weight rating that exceeds the trailer weight and take one or two jack stands similarly rated.

2) Take a 4-way lug wrench, or a breaker bar with several common size sockets for lug nuts.

3) Take some blocks of wood (2X8 or 2X10) or other type of blocking that can be used to chock the trailer wheels, to use under the trailer tongue jack, or to help support and stabilize the jack stands if you need to use them.

4) It’s quite possible you will need to change or replace a tire. Take a good tire inflation gauge and an air tank that can inflate trailer tires. If you have a small air compressor and access to electricity where the trailer is parked take the air compressor with you. Make sure you have an air chuck that can inflate the tires.

5) It’s a good idea to take some common hand tools to make small repairs to items like the lights.

6) Take the proper hitch components necessary to safely transport the trailer. I will talk more about this later, but you should have different size hitch balls and ball mounts with a drop or rise to attain the proper height.

7) Take a test light and if you know how to use a multi-meter take one to help troubleshoot and repair any electrical problems.

8) A small electrical repair kit equipped with connectors, wire nuts, wire strippers and electrical tape is helpful.

9) Take several sheets of various grit sandpaper, a spray lubricant, some wire ties and a roll of duct tape.

Trailer Tires:

The tires on a vintage travel trailer are a top safety concern. Tire age can result in tire failure. The tread might look good on the outside, but internal damage you cannot see causes the tire to fail when you are towing it. One tell-tale sign of tire age and damage caused by exposure to the elements is cracking or checking on the tire sidewall. If you see cracks in the tire’s sidewall the tire should not be trusted to transport the trailer. It is much safer to replace the tires if there is any doubt about the tire’s age or condition. A tire blowout can be difficult to handle and it can do lots of damage to the trailer.

Vintage trailer suspension

Suspension and Axle(s):

Some trailers do not get towed much, while others get towed a lot. Inspect the trailer’s suspension and axle(s). On trailers that sat stationary excessive rust can be an issue, and on trailers that were towed a lot loose or broken bolts and welds can be an issue. Old trailers are equipped with leaf spring suspension systems. You should inspect the hardware that mounts the springs to the axle. Look for loose mounting hardware, broken or missing bolts and any broken or cracked welds. If the trailer is located in an area where rust is common inspect the suspension and axle(s) for rust damage that might compromise safety. Some items are an easy fix, like replacing a nut and bolt, but other issues like excessive rust might require reconsidering purchasing the trailer.

Vintage trailer coupler

Trailer A-Frame & Coupler:

Like the suspension system, you need to inspect the trailer’s A-frame and coupler for excessive rust and broken or cracked welds. Something a lot of people are not aware of is there are three different size hitch balls (1 7/8″ 2″ and 2 5/16″) used to tow trailers. The trailer’s weight determines the size hitch ball required, and the trailer coupler is where you can find this information. The hitch ball size is stamped into the top of the trailer coupler. The problem is the stamping is usually covered by several layers of paint or rust on these vintage trailers. You can use sandpaper to remove the paint to see what size hitch ball is required. It’s a good idea to spray the coupler latch mechanism (top & underside) with a spray lubricant and work the latch back and forth making sure it operates properly.

Proper Hitch Work:

There are lightweight trailers, heavy trailers, single axle trailers and tandem axle trailers. The size, weight and configuration are all factors in determining the required hitch components to safely tow the trailer. Larger, heavier trailers with more tongue weight require a weight distributing hitch and sway control components to safely tow the trailer. Smaller, lighter single axle trailers don’t always require weight distributing hitch components, but they are prone to trailer sway and should have some type of trailer sway control mechanism. Hitch components should be installed by a qualified RV service facility. In addition to having the correct size hitch ball you want the trailer to sit as level as possible when the trailer is attached to the tow vehicle. This is why it’s important to have a ball mount with the correct rise or drop to level the trailer and tow vehicle as much as possible. On larger, heavier trailers if you connect the trailer to the tow vehicle and the lowest point is where the trailer couples to the truck you need additional weight distributing hitch components, and you should not transport the trailer without these components. Trailer sway is another concern you should be aware of, improper tongue weight, hitch components, crosswinds, passing vehicles all contribute to trailer sway. There is always the risk of trailer sway when transporting a trailer.

Trailer Brakes:

Depending on the age and size of your vintage trailer it may or may not be equipped with trailer brakes. If it is a small, lightweight trailer that never had brakes it is not an issue if the vehicle you are towing it with is properly sized for the trailer, and you have the necessary hitch components to safely tow it. On the other hand if it is a larger, heavier trailer that does have trailer brakes you need to see if the brakes are operating properly. This of course requires a tow vehicle equipped with a trailer brake controller and the proper wiring for electric trailer brakes. With the trailer hitched to the tow vehicle and the trailer light cord plugged in move forward slowly and tap the vehicle brakes. You should feel the trailer brakes engage. It might be necessary to adjust the power setting on the brake controller. If you do not feel the brakes engage there is a problem with the wiring or the trailer brakes do not work. Transporting a trailer without trailer brakes can be extremely dangerous.

Wheel Bearings:

One item you cannot inspect, unless you have the necessary tools and equipment is the wheel bearings. If the trailer sat stationary the grease in the bearings and hubs gets hard and loses its lubricating qualities. When you tow a trailer in this condition the metal-on-metal contact, with little or no lubrication, causes friction and heat resulting in severe damage to the hub, axle flange and other components. If it gets too hot it can result in a fire. Ideally you should remove the wheel and hub and inspect the wheel bearings. If this is not feasible you should at a minimum jack one tire up at a time and spin the tire to see if it turns freely.

Caution: If you are not familiar with how or where to jack the trailer up, do not attempt to do it. This should only be done on a flat level surface, with the tires on one side chocked and using the proper equipment and location for raising the trailer.

Vintage trailer lights

Trailer Lights:

It’s important the trailer lights are operational to alert drivers behind the trailer of your intentions. The problem is when a trailer sits stationary some or all of the trailer lights do not work. Another problem is the trailer plug receptacle on the tow vehicle may not be compatible with the light cord plug on the trailer. You can purchase adapters that go from a 4-way to a 7-way plug, but keep in mind if the trailer has brakes and you use a 4 way plug the brakes will not operate. If you plug the light cord in and none of the lights work there is a problem with the wiring. It might be the age of the wiring, or its possible mice and other rodents chewed and damaged the wiring. If you plug the light cord in and some of the lights work there is a good chance the inoperable lights just need some basic maintenance. Quite often it is a bulb that went bad or a poor connection between the bulb and the socket. Another possibility is the ground at the light itself gets corroded or rusty. Sandpaper and a test light or multi-meter can solve lots of lighting issues. If all else fails there are trailer light sets you can purchase. You mount the lights on the back of the trailer and route the wiring harness up to the receptacle on the tow vehicle.

Tow Vehicle:

When you tow any trailer it is important the tow vehicle is properly matched to the trailer. What this means is the tow vehicle is rated to safely tow the fully loaded weight of the trailer. Some vintage trailers are small and lightweight, but other 30-plus foot models can easily weigh 6,000 pounds or more. Don’t ever attempt to tow a 6,000 pound trailer with a vehicle rated to tow 3,500 or 5,000 pounds. If you know the name and brand of trailer you are purchasing lots of information can be found online. Do a search and try to locate weight information about the trailer. A simple towing rule I use is, the tow rating of the vehicle should be equal to or greater than the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) of the trailer you are towing. This way, even if the trailer is loaded to capacity, the tow vehicle is still rated to safely tow the weight.

Water Damage/Structure:

There are other concerns about transporting a vintage trailer that hasn’t moved in years. Is the structure safe? If there is water damage to the roof and walls it’s possible the trailer could literally fall apart when subjected to the rigors of towing. Inspect the structure of the trailer. Look at the areas where the roof meets the sidewalls, the walls, and the front and back of the trailer. Are there signs of water intrusion or soft spots? Inspect the floor of the trailer. Are there soft spots in the floor? It can be difficult to detect water damage so look closely inside and outside for signs of water intrusion. Lots of vintage trailer are constructed of wood with nails holding the wood together. When there is excessive water damage the wood is rots to the point that the only thing holding the trailer together is the aluminum siding. When you start driving down the road the vibration and jolting can cause what is left to come apart.

Mobile Technician Service:

If you are not comfortable making inspecting the trailer try and locate a mobile RV technician in the area who can come where the trailer is located and inspect it for you. For a modest fee they can help prepare the trailer for transport. Look online or call some local RV dealerships and ask if they can refer you to a mobile tech service.

Vintage trailers are lots of fun to own, work on and camp in. Take the time to research the trailer, inspect it before you buy it, and properly prepare it for transport and you are on your way to a fun and fulfilling project.

For more information on owning, using and maintaining your RV visit RV Online Training

Happy Camping,
Mark J. Polk
RV Education 101
We still have some 4-DVD sets titled Mark’s RV Garage capturing a 7 month-long educational and entertaining trailer restoration project on a 1967 Yellowstone trailer.

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