Sunday, May 15, 2016

So you want to buy a Travco...

2015 - Camping in Banff, Alberta

I adore Myrtle but she has her difficulties. I see many people very eager to get a Travco without considering the work involved. I understand this, I fell in love with a 1963 model and became obsessed with buying one. We had never owned an RV before and we had no idea about the costs, work, and time needed. None of this discouraged us from eventually purchasing Myrtle, for $5000.00, and driving her home to Alberta from Montana, in 2008. Her interior was very complete, she was in working condition, and made the 800+ KMS drive home. However, as we found out later she still needed a lot more in immediate repairs plus the regular ongoing maintenance. I don't want to discourage anyone else from buying one of these lovely old motorhomes, but I want to share some things to consider before making the commitment. To be successful with a Travco you need the following; time, money, patience, and either mechanical and renovation skills, or more money. And even with more money, it is advisable to have at least some mechanical skills to source parts and take care of more minor on the road issues. In addition, I recommend good RV roadside assistance coverage, we opted for RV coverage via AMA.

When you buy a vintage motorhome you are buying both an antique car and an old house. With a vintage trailer you can tow it with a newer vehicle and take your time working on the 'house'. With an old motorhome you do not have that luxury; both the living quarters and mechanical need to be working or you will soon find yourself stranded. While we've never owned a vintage motorhome before Myrtle, we did rebuild a vintage car (1970 Dodge Dart) and we do many of our own house renovations. We also have the support, labour, and extra tools, of my husband's very talented parents.

Time: The old Travcos take more time for everything. From sourcing parts, to slower speed on the highway, to repairs and getting ready for the camping season, you must budget the time needed. And sometimes they may break down on the road which means extra time getting there or getting home. If you have good mechanical and home renovation skills then you will save money but spend more time working on your unit.

Money: There will be costs for parts and repairs. For example we have invested over $1000.00 just in new wood and stainless steel screws. The windshields are also very expensive to replace, so really check out the glass before purchase. Replacing Myrtle's windshield, and re-sealing the rear window cost over $3200.00 (and a bit of work to find a shop willing to do it locally!) Once in Canada she also needed to pass a safety inspection to be registered, and completing the necessary repairs for just this aspect was $8,800.00, beyond the many repairs we had already done ourselves. This included work on all brakes, steering, driveline, suspension, tires ($2600.00 here alone!), speedometer etc. We also later needed a new muffler and exhaust at a cost $700.00 (parts only), new exhaust manifold which we thankfully found used for $20.00, but it took many hours of our own labour to install both. You will also need the required tools for any repairs you want to do yourself, and place to do the repairs. Most storage facilities do not allow you to do mechanical work onsite, but thankfully we store ours on a family acreage.

Mechanical and Renovation Skills: We spent 2.5 years of regular work on Myrtle to get her to point that we could safely and comfortably camp in her, and we had the help of my husband's very skilled parents. We continue to do repairs and refinements yearly. To start, I definitely recommend looking into an electronic ignition to replace the ballast resistors which always seem to break (or travel with extra ones!) Sometimes the repairs are minor, like replacing the battery. However, as with all things Travco, that is not always as easy at it seems. Last year Myrtle broke down at the gas station on the way to our first camping trip of the season. Her batteries are inconveniently located under the floor behind the drivers seat, and have to be lifted up and over the holder while underneath the vehicle. The batteries are very heavy and this is a difficult maneuver. After removal, my husband had to take a cab with the batteries to a local store and purchase new ones, while I waited at the gas station with Myrtle blocking the pump. Our lesson from this is to trickle charge the batteries at the end of the summer season and to take a dry run around the block well in advance of the first trip of the next season. We also always travel with an extra battery.

You also can't easily get a part number from the current installed parts, so it is helpful to have working knowledge of mechanics to determine what will work. Record everything you do find that works including; the part number, where you purchased it, receipts, and I suggest a photo as well, because you may need another one in the future!  For example windshield wiper motors and arms took quite a bit of hunting; the motors were found at a marine store and the arms found at Traction Heavy Duty Parts a division of NAPA. NAPA has actually been a terrific resource, especially the more experienced staff, who can help source needed items. If you do not have the mechanical skills and/or home renovation skills you will spend more time and may be challenged to find people willing to work on your Travco. We found a local garage, Dale Adams, that understands vintage vehicles and has a lift capable of lifting a Travco, for the aspects we can not repair/maintain ourselves, like suspension and wheels.

These costs and labour noted above do not take into account many other mechanical items and most of the interior which included the following and more; re-wired the entire unit, new plumbing including water tank, new subfloor, new floor tiles, new kitchen cabinets, rebuilt closet, new front seats (from a wrecked modern motorhome, which were then reupholstered), new seat belts, new benches, new mattress,  replacing portions of the water damaged wood panelling, new ceiling, new insulation, new welded panels under driver/passenger seats, sanding the entire original wood and new wood walls and varnish, pulling and re-sealing every window (look into butyl tape!), 2 new roof vents, re-building 2 exterior access panels, reinstalling the exterior roof strip (which is a major source of water leakage and is something we recommend addressing ASAP), chroming the bumpers and badges etc. Myrtle's lovely original, gelcoat fibreglass also takes labour each year to get it looking in tip top shape (washing, cutting compound, polishing compound, wax). I am personally very wary of repainting these units, in addition to the cost, I am concerned about the long term durability of paint vs original gelcoat.  You get the point; you need to have carpentry, flooring, electrical, mechanical, painting and related skills, or the budget to pay someone to do the work.

Other general tips;  Consider the repairs, maintenance, completeness and condition of a unit before buying. Check out the rims, some units have split rims, which some people like to avoid, as it can be harder to find shops to work on them. (Myrtle had non-split rims but no spare rim, which was another adventure to locate, and took us to meet a lovely fellow Travconian in NYC!) Do not balk at an asking price until you understand the underlying costs and time. The bargain Travco maybe no bargain if you end up spending more time and money repairing it.

Another tip, find reference materials (shop manuals) for your specific engine and chassis; I suggest eBay or one of the automotive literature re-print companies.  In the older models it will not likely be called a motorhome reference guide, but I have seen a few 1970's Dodge Motorhome chassis guides on eBay. The following book we have found to be invaluable in our restoration:


After all this, we love Myrtle. We love her comfort, vintage style, and thoughtful layout. We love taking her camping, to car shows and all the curious admirers. As far as vintage motorhomes go, we think the Travco is one of the best options with a steel frame, study chassis and fibreglass shell. Many other old motorhomes have a wood frame covered by siding. However, she still requires patience and care to ensure it is an enjoyable time. (To be fair, modern motorhomes require maintenance too). We view Myrtle as a hobby which makes the maintenance a bit more enjoyable. If you are still interested in this adventurous journey, check out the following resources to help you along the way:  Dodge Travco Motorhome Lovers Facebook page,  http://www.dodgetravcos.com, and if you have a 318 poly engine the Yahoo Poly Group and Polyspherical AKA Poly 318 Facebook group. If you are searching for a unit, craigslist is often a good place to start and compare prices and condition.

We wish you safe, comfortable and happy travels! 






7 comments:

Joanne Fralick said...

At least Myrtle ended up being useable after all your expense. All our costs so far have been money down the drain, probably to the tune of over $7,000, and still no Travco.

Scott said...

This is pretty much on par with my experience as well. Spent a bit more upfront for engine/new brakes but the interior was more work in both time and money than I originally hoped. And glad you mentioned the little stuff like the sheet metal screws, I'm appalled at how much I've spent on new screws and finishing washers. All the little things add up quicker than you think.

I'd still do it again though, no question.

voyagevixen said...

@joanne. Yes we are happy we were able to bring this one home and do the work to get it road worthy. I have seen others tow them back home to start the work as well. Also a good reminder that I didn't mention the costs in hotel, travel etc to go get it!

@scott - yes it is amazing how fast screws and fasteners add up! we have so many finishing washers lol

paul zeuke said...

Awesome information to have. Nessie our 76 Travco is our first motor home and we were not looking for a Travco at the time we purchased her. We were lucky as the Brakes were good and she ran well when we got her. She was partially gutted when we got her and is still a work in progress. A $2000 purchase price and about $7500 in parts and recovering of seats at this point and we are reaching the original budget of 10 k we set for an RV. The good thing is we have done all of our own work except for the exhaust and tires (don't have the tools). The parts add up fast. We have a way to go but we use her for camping on a regular basis while doing the interior work while at the house. If you have some mechanical and renovation skills there is nothing to be afraid of. If you have to pay someone else to do your repairs you might want to really think about it before getting into any Vintage RV. Out of the Vintage RVs the Travco might be the best choice with its solid structure and basic engineering.

voyagevixen said...

@paul I agree that a Travco is one of the best vintage RVs. so many others are just wood stick frame. Travcos have much sturdier metal frames and solid chassis

Carl said...

Very good post on the costs and involvement required to keep those vintage RVs alive. My parent's experience in renovating their Travco is similar. Always plan on more money, more time and more problems to fix than expected! Someone must absolutely have skills and be able to do a lot of work themselves. But it can be done, and it can be very rewarding!

Carl, from the Blue Whale Travco!

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