Everyone that reads Rolling Physics Problem knows I love motorcycles.
As an enthusiast, though, I’m multi-modal.
Sweet Doris from Baltimore and I have always been campers – first motorcycle camping off my /5 in tents , then in pop-up tent trailers, then in a series of camping trailers than got increasingly larger, and after we became somewhat wiser, got increasingly smaller, until we decided to build our first homebuilt teardrop camper, which must reasonably be assumed to be the smallest camping trailer possible.
The Cabinette is a 4 foot wide by 8 foot long teardrop camper — following a model that was first published in a 1947 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine. Teardrops are the ideal long distance travel trailer — their low height and streamlined shape mean they add minimal drag to the towing vehicle. In fact, I had an older pickup that actually got better fuel economy towing the teardrop than running solo – a strong demonstration of the Physics of clearing up airflow off the rear of a moving vehicle The Cabinette’s front cabin holds a double bed and the rear has an outside galley which is accessible via a clamshell hatch. The floor and walls are made from single sheets of 4 x 8 plywood. The Cabinette is a great unit — light, tows ridiculously easily, and is comfortable in cold and unspeakable conditions. After a 5 day trip to West Virginia and Ohio last fall, though, we realized that The Cabinette was like a favorite pair of pants than one had bought one size too small — with a bed that is 46 and 3/8th inches wide by 6 feet long, it just a tad too confined in there for more than a day or two on the road. Want to stay put after a deck party or rock and roll show? Perfect. Want to take a 3 week trip to Yellowstone? Maybe not so much.
So, it was from the inherent danger of rolling over in bed inside The Cabinette – -“OW! You put your elbow in my EYE!!!” — that the germ of the idea for Teardrop 2.0 was hatched.
There were a few foundational requirements for V 2.0:
- The bed needed to be bigger – a standard queen, optimally.
- Designed in storage space for luggage, clothing, shoes and jackets – V 1.0 has two narrow shelves
- Ability to change clothing in the trailer – no one wants to continue to see me changing behind a pickup truck door
- A small space – say two chairs – to shelter inside when Mother Nature loses her temper
- Room for a portable toilet
- Ability to boondock camp without campground facilities — solar power and battery for lighting/ventilation and onboard potable water
- A no maintenance/no painting exterior – ideally all aluminum clad – all that varnishing you see above means more varnishing
And as these thoughts were gelling, I started to see ads on my local Craigslist that seemed strangely familiar.
These were ads for the chassis of what had formerly been Coleman pop-up folding tent trailers. Except that all the Coleman bits had inexplicably disappeared, leaving only the floor, the frame and the axel and tires. There were more than a few of these ads. The background photos of these pictures that also looked… familiar. There was a Thurmont phone number in the ads.
I called it.
“Hi! This is Colton Beckley, can I help you?”
The Beckley family, hereabouts, owns multiple business ventures, not the least of which is one of Maryland’s biggest RV dealers. A dealer from whom I’ve even purchased a very basic Coleman Pop-up. The Coleman trailer company that went out the trailer business for the fourth and apparently last time about 5 years back?
Yup and yup.
The Beckleys, recognizing a business opportunity, started buying up all the Coleman Folding Tent trailers that they could find, figuring that since there was no longer any place to get new replacement Coleman parts, they’d break these trailers and become Colemanpopupparts.com — they’d corner the market. There was this one challenge, though — after you’ve stripped the camper like a bunch of toolsteel-toothed termites — you have a bare, almost completely useless frame. If you do this as a business, you have a lot of them. At the time I spoke with Colton, he had about 18 of them.
With VINs and clean titles.
Lots of supply, meet pretty minimal demand.
Colton had deals, Deals, DEALS!
I grabbed a little over $200 in cash, spent about 15 minutes walking the breaking lot, and left with a 1997 Coleman Utah trailer frame hitched to my pickup.
So, with the die cast, and a trailer to design and build, Sweet D set to drawing. And drawing. And drawing some more. And making a few cardboard scale models. And then drawing some more. After working and critiquing and reworking and refining, we finally had a design that we were happy with. It was still a teardrop design, which means it isn’t designed to have full standing room in the cabin, but it did depart from many of the construction details of our first trailer. Instead of having the bed on the floor, this had a raised platform bed, which creates tons of storage space underneath. It still had one cabin door on each side of the cabin, allowing either one of us to enter and exit without disturbing or crawling over the other, but the bed was a full foot narrower on each side than the overall cabin, creating a space to sit on the edge of the bed but inside the cabin, as well as a place to sit shoes – which in the first trailer needed to sit on the ground outside. The bed platform has integral bedside tables and a bench at the foot which are structural elements of the trailer, as they tie the plywood sides of the structure together. The trailer has six awning style windows, including two full width ones at the head of the bed in the front of the trailer — combined with the Maxxfan ventilator fan would produce a nice breeze across the bed on warmer nights.
At the foot of the bed, we had a micro lounge — two director’s chairs, and a boat style table that folds up flat against the wall. Oh, and the all-important Porta Potti.
From a styling standpoint — Sweet D had become enamored of a 1950s and 60s vintage trailer called The Scotsman. These trailers had a semi-circular bump out on the front of the trailer that — depending on the model, were used either as a loft bed for a child or a storage space. D loved the look – in our small trailer it would be a great place to stash bedding and pillows – and, without access to a wind tunnel anyway – it appeared like The Bump would help to reduce the turbulent vortex that can form between the rear of the tow vehicle and the front vertical surface of some taller trailers by smoothing the airflow off the back of the truck and over the roof of the camper.
Out back, we also have an outdoor galley — this one behind a pair of swinging barn doors that rotate through 270 degrees and secure to the trailer sides when open. We’d have a 7 gallon fresh water tank, a sink made out of a small, oval, galvanized basin, a built-in Coleman ice chest, and some tunes, courtesy of a repurposed car stereo. Everything electrical is 12 volt, powered by a large deep cycle advanced glass mat battery, recharged by a 100w roof mounted solar panel.
All we needed now was to buy a whole bunch of plywood, some 2 x 2 spars, a few thousand screws, a 55 gallon drum of wood glue, and go build the sucker.
Our engineering and construction processes are 100% shared and cooperative – we went into the build with nothing but D’s drawing, and while in the garage worked out the details together as we encountered them. Some of our conversations were a little lively and a little loud, but that was how we worked through construction problems. Although our Daughter at one point wanted to know if our marriage was threatened, as a result of “the Yelling in The Garage”, the finished product represents what I think is an unusual ability to work cooperatively and have a product that equally reflects both of our strengths — design and engineering, left brain and right brain, décor and electro-geekery.
So, we took tools in hand.
Finally, the day came when the completed trailer was ready to roll out of the shop. Everyone who had been in to watch our progress had the same initial reaction – “I don’t understand how you’re going to get that thing out of here.” And had I not done the engineering, I’d have shared their concern – the dimensions of the side walls of the trailer — at 5 1/2 feet at the tallest point — had been designed with the specific intention of constructing the trailer in the space we had available. I’d checked the dimensions at several points during the build — and I consistently had between a third to a half inch of overhead clearance to the garage door’s trim molding. The rubber weatherstrip that was attached to the trim would contact the top of the trailer, but wouldn’t slow its egress.
Width was less dramatic – the trailer was 7 feet wide without additional hardware — the garage door was a full 8 feet — adding handles to the trailer’s cabin doors used about 4-5 inches of that. Compared to the overhead clearance, that was as good as a mile. So, we backed our Ford station wagon up to the door, hitched up, and, inch by inch, began slowly pulling the trailer into the world. Any similarities between this operation and childbirth are completely intentional.
One complexity was the use of the automotive dollies – which we’d needed to lower the trailer enough to clear the door. Because the dollies sit on industrial casters, they don’t respond with 100% deterministic motion — pulling forward can result in the dollies going sideways — and as we crept out, of course that’s exactly what the trailer did.
So we’d move 5 or 6 inches towards the door, Sweet Doris from Baltimore would scream, and I’d grab a corner of the trailer and apply some correction factor to get it centered up in the garage door opening, and then the cycle would repeat.
After all this work, it was time to take V2.0 for a test tow – we headed out up Maryland Route 180 towards Brunswick, and incrementally increased speed and tried a few change-of-direction maneuvers and hard stops to make sure the trailer was stable, that the new brakes, wheels and bearings were working properly, and that we had no clearance issues with the upsized tires. Underway, the trailer felt a lot like our old Coleman Cobalt pop up – stable, a tad bouncy at lower speeds, and rock solid at highways speed. Before the end of the test, we’d done a few miles at 75 mph — nothing fell off, nothing broke — she’d passed the tests with flying colors. After parking out in the driveway, the brakes were slightly warm from my deliberate hard test applications, and the wheel bearings were cool to the touch. 10 out of 10.
There are still a few last minute details that need to get sussed. The trailer side doors and windows get aluminum drip caps installed to keep rain from finding a way in. There are some fixtures that install to hold the cabin doors open that couldn’t be installed while in the shop – they’d have reduced the side clearance when coming through the doors.
And there’s a small galvanized tub and hand pump that need to be mounted on the kitchen counter – with a 7 gallon potable water tank and a 5 gallon covered bucket serving as a waste water tank that go under that counter.
I also have a few tubs of Mother’s Aluminum Polish – ‘There’s No Shine Like Mother’s’ – to clean off some of the water staining we picked up when the Aluminum coils were delivered during one of this summer’s many thunderstorms. There are also a more than a few construction-caused hand prints that need the same treatment. Once the Teardrop is clean the first time, though, we’ll let her patina-out — I’d rather confuse people by letting them think it’s some sort of obscure vintage Airstream than blind fellow road users with excessive polishing.
This weekend we’ll be taking V 2.0 to a Rally thrown by the Chesapeake Bay Chapter of TearJerkers International — our teardrop camping club — it’s time for The Reveal and for our friends to see just how hard we’ve been working for the last nine months.
I’ll follow up with a few more pictures as the final details are added and with picture of the camper in her natural environment.
First Trip – Jane’s Island State Park TearJerkers Chesapeake Bay Chapter Rally
It helps — for context — to remember that if you design and construct your own, one of a kind road going vehicle — whether its a trailer, car or motorcycle — that what you build is technically experimental, until such time as all of the design and features can be proven in use.
That makes what comes next a little easier to understand.
The morning of our big trip, Sweet Doris from Baltimore and I loaded up our cooler and cooking gear into the galley, tucked our clothing, jackets and toiletries into their designated storage spaces under the bed, made a final check of lighting and brakes, and headed up US Route 340 toward Frederick.
Unloaded, during its initial tests, the Teardrop had towed dead level and stable. With maybe 120 pounds of food and kitchen gear loaded high up and all the way to the rear, the experience was slightly different. As we cleared 65 miles an hour the trailer began to seriously sway — so much so it was threatening to snap roll our Ram 1500 Tradesman right off the highway.
Fortunately, I’d read the “Trailer Pilot’s Manual”, and knew enough to just lift off the gas, avoid applying too much correction, and just let the rig coast back down to where it became stable again. If we couldn’t obtain and install a friction anti-sway damper, our weekend was toast.
After a few frantic phonecalls, I was able to confirm that our Good Buddies (TM) at Beckley’s had the damper we needed in stock, and, with the help of a sympathetic parts man, had made arrangements to have their shop do the very simple installation.
After a 20 mile backtrack and about 40 minutes in the shop, we were back on the road to the Maryland Eastern Shore. With the damper installed, The Teardrop was dead stable at any speed at which one chose to tow.
With a the weather having turned into a foul, driving rain, and with bit more of the day gone than we’d been planning on, as we cleared Jessup Maryland, headed for the Bay Bridge, we started running into the earliest part of afternoon rush, and soon were mired in congestion, which turned our planned 11 a.m. Bay crossing into a 5 p.m. Bay crossing.
Once clear of the Bay Bridge and Kent Island, we stopped for a bad burger to stand in for the lunch we’d missed in the chaos. One back on the road, we started to wick up speed in the hope of being able to set camp before dark. Somewhere just south of Easton, I looked to my left and in the lane beside me, there was a very alarmed looking man gesturing towards the rear of my trailer.
I didn’t know what he was trying to tell me, but it likely wasn’t good.
After finding a safe spot to pull over, I walked to the rear of the camper, only to see the right hand door of the trailer open and swinging on its hinges. My mind kind of locked up, because with the three different latches — slide pin latches, external draw latches, and a shed door handle — holding that stationary mounted door of the two barn doors, I was trying to figure out what kind of series of cascading failures it would have taken to have turned that door loose.
It didn’t take long for me to figure it out.
The sliding pin latches had been set up on the top and bottom of inside of the right door – with their sprung pins sunk into holes drilled in the wooden door pocket stops. The upper pin — acted on by highway speed vacuum behind the combined rig — had ripped the wooden stop completely in two. Once that had occurred, the doors had opened slightly in the middle, where the externally mounted draw latches were supposed to ensure they could not open. A properly designed draw latch is supposed to be impossible to open if the closing lever is closed to the over center position. My Chinese made, Amazon special draw latches were clearly not one of those — both latches were cheerfully swinging in the breeze outside my largely soaked outdoor galley.
I was clearly going to have to find a way to prevent the draw levers from opening. Fortunately, these latches had a hasp for a small padlock, which, in this case, could be used to hold a set of trailer hitch safety pins, which would ensure the latches would stay closed. A few miles down the road, I saw an Advance Auto Parts, who supplied said safety pins, ensuring that these barn doors would stay where I’d put them until our arrival at the park. Pinned up, and not having had to resort to duct tape, we finished rolling the remainder of the way to Crisfield, where we arrived at the park just before 9 pm.
199 miles in 11 hours. A new record, and not the good kind.
After arrival, though, our luck turned in a big way.
Unhitching and setting up was a breeze – partially thanks to the utility/hitch light we’d placed on the front of the camper — it not only lit up the hitch and truck connections, but threw enough light that it was easy to see inside truck’s cargo box, as well. After about 20 minutes, we had set camp, and were enjoying a celebratory cold one, drinking in the cabin-y ambiance of Doris’ galley design, and feeling just the tinyest bit smug that after all that time in the garage, we were finally camping out of our new unit.
Once inside, we rolled the front windows open and turned on the roof mounted fan – which did a swell job of pulling a gentle breeze directly across the bed. The ambience and decorations of the cabin – which had been intended to mimic a US Park Service rental cabin — were spot on. The interior was warm, inviting and spacious. The curved interior ceilings of teardrop campers feel somehow womb-y, and this one felt as warm and safe as any I’ve seen. Once I finally fell asleep, I slept the deep sleep of the righteous.
The rest of the weekend went to 11s.
The sun came out and stayed out. All our Teardrop buddies were there, and each expressed wonder and appreciation at what Sweet Doris from Baltimore had designed and we had built. Everything worked as intended — we were able to change clothes comfortably inside, we had our own toilet, and even in full shade the solar system kept us in sufficient electrons all weekend.
After a small helping of shakedown drama, the rest of the trip went as well as anybody could possibly expect.
The only truly hard part was putting it back on the hitch to head home Sunday. The trip went by way too fast, and two or three more days would have felt two or three days better than the first three.
New draw latches and seals from McMaster-Carr industrial supply will hit here tomorrow. After re-engineering the galley doors and their waterproofing Teardrop V 2.0 will be ready to go anywhere.
Post Shakedown and Project End
A few more strategically placed draw latches – inside the upper and lower galley cabinets for the right door and one on the roof for the left door – and some heavied up door gaskets made galley door operation a whole lot less dramatic and a whole lot more weatherproof. We had two inch an hour rain rates last night for two hours and 35 mile an hour winds – when we opened the galley this morning there had been absolutely no water incursion anywhere. None around the cabin doors either.
Getting it right feels good. I’m starting to get really confidence inspiring vibes from this trailer – seems to be built like a tank.
We’ve taken Tear Two (Tear Too?) on another trip, and had zero drama and max relaxation – did some camping and biking at Rock Hall, Maryland.
We did get the chance to test some additional systems on the camper.
We’ve had some friends tell us they thought this camper was large. Enormous even.
When we got home, we washed up Tear One and finally got it back inside.
Finally – after some problems finding a quality supplier – we finally got the second set of window drip caps for the cabin windows – a perfect match for the ones on the cabin doors – and got them mounted on the trailer. Eyebrows complete.
D and I are supposed to go to a Tear Jerkers Mini Rally at Lum’s Pond Delaware, next weekend.
According to my long term weather forecast, it’s supposed to snow.