Home » How This Brilliant Vintage Fiberglass Camper Inspired U-Haul’s Short Venture Into RV Production

How This Brilliant Vintage Fiberglass Camper Inspired U-Haul’s Short Venture Into RV Production

Burrotop

A reader has sent in a real piece of fiberglass RV history. At the top of your screen is not a U-Haul CT13 or a Scamp, despite appearances. Instead, it’s a camper so brilliant that it was one of the inspirations for the U-Haul camper. This is the Burro, and it’s a fiberglass camper that you could even camp in today.

Last summer, I got pretty darn sloshed at my parents’ house [Ed Note: Damn that’s a way to open up a blog! -DT]. While I swam in their pool with my phone–an activity that probably zero out of five doctors recommend–I looked at a 1985 U-Haul CT13 nearly 400 miles north in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I’m not entirely sure if it was the Malort, a drink that Illinois residents give to their enemies, or my insatiable lust for weird campers, but I told the seller to hold it because I was going to drive from Illinois and through the entire state of Wisconsin to buy it. Since then, I haven’t quite gotten around to restoring the thing. It desperately needs its lights fixed, and wasps decided to take up residence in the thing. Oh, and the VIN plate fell off and then disappeared. That’s very bad; absolutely not good. [Ed Note: That’s horrible luck! -DT]

Mercedes Streeter

With some luck, we’ll be able to get started on it soon. I found some companies that are willing to do the metalwork, the electrical, and the fiberglass work, leaving my wife and I to the fun stuff. While U-Haul has lost its records on its camper production, the company tells me that it’s likely that fewer than 2,000 of these were built. Of those, who knows how many are left? So, we want to preserve as much as we can of this piece of camping history. Perhaps we’ll go to EAA AirVenture 2023 with the U-Haul in tow.

Readers have been sending in the weird campers that they’re finding out there and each of them are lovely. During the weekend, a reader named Hugh dropped this beauty into our tips line (tips@autopian.com)!

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Facebook Marketplace Seller

And upon first glance, you’ll probably look up at my U-Haul and start to get some questions. Which came first? Did one copy the other? Were the molds shared? I have the answers to all of these questions and more!

What Is A Burro?

It appears that a lot of Burro’s history has been lost to time. I’ve combed a number of forums and while there are a lot of stories passed down from owner to owner, it’s hard to find an exact timeline. Unlike U-Haul, Burro isn’t around anymore, so there is no direct contact to chat with. Thankfully, not everything has been lost, and information can be gathered from brochures and even Burro’s dead, but archived website.

Burroint
Facebook Marketplace Seller

According to information gathered by the Tin Can Tourists vintage camper club and the RV enthusiasts of Fiberglass RV, Burro got its start in the late 1970s. I did some digging of my own and found that Burro Inc. was incorporated in Plymouth, Minnesota in 1977. The company then began producing a fiberglass travel trailer. This camper–the Burro–was similar in design to the Cloud, a fiberglass camper that was built in nearby St. Cloud, Minnesota in the years prior. The two campers have a similar design and interior layout, but the Burro is noted to use a double-wall fiberglass construction while the Cloud had a single fiberglass wall.

In this type of construction, the camper has an outer shell wall and an inner interior wall. Check it out in this Burro brochure from the 1970s:

Burro Dia
eBay

And here’s an explanation from Burro in 1999 for why you’d want your fiberglass camper to be double-walled:

Double Shell construction is a feature unique to the Burro. Cupboards, counter tops, seats, and storage areas are molded right into the shell.The smooth gel coat finish inside and outside may be wiped clean with a damp cloth. All fiberglass parts are specially formulated or a fire retardant resin. Commercial grade, foil-backed fiberglass insulation between the inner and outer shells adds comfort and protection from moisture condensation when the inside and outside temperatures vary. The unified interior features eliminate the need to rivet individual components to the outside shell. Burro’s rivetless construction eliminates leaks caused by rivet shanks wearing on the fiberglass which leads to unsightly streaking and expensive repairs.

These campers are tiny, but they have just enough features for a weekend getaway. Inside, a Burro is outfitted like a U-Haul. Pop open the door and you’ll see a bench to your right and a dinette to your left. In the center sits a small kitchenette featuring a two-burner stove, an ice box, and a sink. That bench up front transforms into a bunk bed and the dinette could also be used as a bed. Burro even went a little further than U-Haul, and the brochure advertised the option for an air-conditioner and a portable toilet.

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eBay

Combined with the 12-gallon water tank and 110V shore power connection, a Burro was almost everything you needed for a camping getaway, and it could be towed by just about any car. A Burro weighed around 1,100 pounds before options. According to that aforementioned brochure, the company was even considering an even lighter Burro Ultra-Lite, which would have brought the 13-foot camper down to 740 pounds using an aluminum frame, aluminum propane tank, magnesium wheels, and other lightweight materials.

It’s unclear how many (if any) of these were made. I can say that in my nearly six years of researching fiberglass campers, I’ve yet to see a single one in that configuration.

Burro Spread
eBay

According to that brochure, you had a few options in buying a Burro. You could buy the base trailer as a kit that started at $2,596 before adding in electrical, appliances, and more. Burro advertised the build process as being so easy that you could do it in a day or two with basic tools. Or, you could give Burro $4,650 and have a complete trailer built by the company. Burro initially built its campers out of that Plymouth, Minnesota location before moving to Sac City, Iowa. Some think this happened in the mid-1980s. Apparently, some of these campers were built in Iowa in 1980, so the move likely happened sooner.

U-Haul Buys Its Own Burro

Along the way came U-Haul. The rental giant was expanding into renting anything that you were willing to fork over some cash for, including VHS tapes, personal watercraft, ATVs, and yep, RVs!

As U-Haul’s representatives have told me, the company didn’t find any existing camper on the market that it felt would do the job. After all, a rental needs to survive abuse for a long time. So, U-Haul decided to build its own camper.

Outdoorsy

To do it, U-Haul would buy popular fiberglass campers and wheel them into a warehouse for its engineers to look over. Those engineers would take their favorite elements from each camper and bake them into U-Haul’s own design, baked by U-Haul’s own frame. One of the campers that the engineers got to take a look through? A Burro.

The company tells me that while the U-Haul CT13 and a 13-foot Burro look very similar, U-Haul did not use Burro molds. Engineers simply loved the design enough to do their own take on it. Thus, no Burro molds were used for U-Hauls.

Sadly, U-Hauls were built for just two short years between 1984 and 1985. They were rented until about 1992. Then, in a rare departure from U-Haul’s norm, the trailers weren’t destroyed but sold to the public. The trailers had “Property Of U-Haul” etched and stickered on them in places, and some of the ones that were sold to the public have the word “Not” added so people don’t think you’ve stolen a camper.

U-Haul Interior. Mercedes Streeter

A Difficult Existence

The end of Burro production is estimated to have occurred around 1990. Normally, that would be the end of a company’s story, but Burro wasn’t willing to go out without a fight. In 1998 Burro Travel Trailers LLC appeared in California, and in 1999 trademarked the Burro graphic found on the sides of the campers.

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Fiberglass Classifieds

Over Burro’s short existence, the company managed to produce campers in a variety of lengths. There was the original 13-footer, but there was also a 14, a 17 (above), and even a proposed 21-foot version. If you opted for a larger Burro, you not only got more space, but more features. The company advertised options like a gray water tank and a wet bath that includes a shower. Other goodies included a power range hood and insulation. It seems that the 21-footer never saw reality, but the campers did get wide in their later years. While an older Burro is about as wide as my U-Haul, the company began selling wide body versions of the 17 and the 14, which gave them a 7 foot, 6 inch-wide girth. Yet, they were still light, as a 14-footer weighed in at 1,400 pounds with the 17 coming in at 1,800 pounds.

In 1999 dollars, Burro wanted you to pay $7,900 for an assembled 14-foot trailer and $9,900 for an assembled 17-footer. Building it as a kit dropped the price down to $4,995 and $5,495, respectively. The new California-based Burro did produce some new campers using the old Burro molds, but it lasted for just a few years before it went under. Online records show a dissolution date in 2003. As a bizarre twist, while the company was gone, the website was still up and running until 2013. It’s accessible today through the Wayback Machine.

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Fiberglass RVs For Sale

Today, these campers remain collectible and a number of the campers that I featured in this post are for sale. Click on the links under each picture to check them out. As I do when my research hits a dead end, I want to know if any of you know anything about Burro’s wonderful campers. If you do, please email me at mercedes@theautopian.com.

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37 Responses

  1. I see these and think they are all rip offs of the Boler which was made in Canada from 68-88 or so- but it was probably copied from something else too

    1. It’s sort of amazing how much copying there was during this era. Indeed, Boler predated the Burro by a number of years. But yes, I think it’s fair to say that Boler really made this type of trailer popular, and helped spawn perhaps dozens of clones.

      1. That is what happens. Someone gets a great idea and makes it a success. Others copy it and splinter the market until noone is making a profit. Then everybody stops making it but a decent market still exists. To this day i am surprised the Miata still exists. And glad that it does.

        1. Fortunately for Mazda, none of the copies (Z3, Capri, MR2, Del Sol, MGF, Boxster, SLK, Elise, Barchetta, S2000) had the same perfect combination of performance and affordability.

  2. As the owner of a completely unrelated 1973 Cycle Burro trailer, I have found that the similarity in names makes it all that more frustrating to track down relevant information. Most of what’s out there is instead for the Burro. Below is a photo of my trailer which the previous owner posted on singlewheel.com (so no, that’s not my scooter), but note from the URL that even here the name has been abbreviated in a less than helpful manner:

    http://singlewheel.com/Scoots/Burro/BurroCL/IMG_2035.jpg

    The logo, just visible along its side towards the rear, is of a burro standing on top of a wheel.

  3. I always enjoyed seeing these guys on the road back in the day, the design was just so cheerful, but also clean and functional. They did seem to be popular in their time, based strictly on how many I would see on every road trip.

  4. Sac City Iowa??!!
    That’s the home of The World’s Largest Popcorn Ball!

    It’s right on the main street, behind glass.
    You don’t even have to get out of your camper to see it.
    It is a large ball of popcorn.

  5. *fairly certain malort does not exist outside of northeastern Illinois… i.e. south of Naperville (to people from Chicago, south of that is laughably referred to as “southern” Illinois).

    1. I just bought a bottle from my local Total Wine here in California so I can assure you of two things:

      1) It does exist and is available for purchase outside Illinois.

      2) It does taste like pencil shavings and heartbreak. Also regret.

  6. Very interesting – double layer fiberglass that can be hosed down.. now sold as a luxury camper that’s making someone very happy? See happiercamper.com to see what I mean.

  7. In one of the eBay-source photos, I spy a Burro hitched to a 1979 or earlier (based on the taillights) Chevy Chevette. Having owned a ’79 Chevette – and towed a small utility trailer with it – the idea of towing even a Burro with a Chevette is kind of frightening.

  8. Burro; now that’s an asinine name (literally).

    Jokes aside, these look great and the weight figure makes it feel like something the 34 ageing horses in my Renault 4’s engine could tow. I don’t remember seeing this type of moulded fibreglass camper around these parts though, and any cheap old campers that the Quatrelle could theoretically handle are usually for sale in very bad shape. It’s probably for the best, I freely admit my idea of towing a camper with the Renault is somewhat unrealistic.

    1. I never knew anyone drank this in the US! In Sweden we call it bäsk, it’s just grain alcohol flavored with wormwood. That stuff is an invasive weed in Colorado so we used to make our own, but I am so happy to find out that I can buy it right here.
      “Malört” means bad/evil herb, btw. Looking at you, Spanfeller.

  9. Any reason you don’t want to do the fiberglass yourself? I didn’t want to touch it with a 10ft pole when I got The World’s Most Expensive Boat, but I got over that. It was actually fairly easy to knock out.
    Start in an unobtrusive spot that needs work, gain some confidence there, then move on to the rest of the trailer.

    You got it!

    1. Fear of jacking something up, mainly! But people tell me that it’s not as hard as it seems. There are three small places where the fiberglass needs work, so heck, maybe I’ll give it a try in the one place that doesn’t bear any weight.

      The frustrating part about the needed electrical work is that diagrams suggest that the work would be super easy. However, U-Haul ran the wiring before mating the two halves together. Thus, the wires are between the inner and outer fiberglass. U-Haul forums (they exist) suggest cutting maintenance holes in the fiberglass and going in from the inside. Just…I don’t like that idea. The camper shop I found says that they have the tools to knock it out without turning the trailer into a high school science project. So unless I find a better way, I don’t mind paying for some good work.

      1. There are a huge number of how-to’s out there. The one that convinced me to just get out there and do it can be found here: https://youtu.be/DLJecJfFUGI
        That plus Covid boredom pushed me over the edge into getting to work.

        This is a massive MASSIVE oversimplification, but if you’ve ever done paper mache, you can knock out fiberglass. The oversimplification glosses over prep work, time necessary to do the work before the resin starts to cure, and a whole host of other issues, but at its heart? Grown up paper mache.
        Seeing your posts in the past and what you’ve accomplished, you can do this.
        But everything in its own time, maybe rescuing a boat will let you figure out fiberglass.

        I 100% get it on the wiring issues, though. That sounds like a massive pain in the ass.

        1. The ticking clock as soon as you start mixing the resin stresses me out, but yeah it’s not that bad. The few times I’ve done fiberglass work the results have been pretty good, although in one case it was an aesthetic disaster (but strong!).

          Make sure you get a proper respirator. The fumes from curing fiberglass are _nasty_.

      2. I suspect their process to fix this is to use the old harness as a lead wire to pull new wire into the camper shell, if that fails their “Tools” are a fish tape and a magnet. Only way I can think of and if the wires aren’t attached to the inside of the shell before the outside is bonded to it, this should be a pretty easy job to do, if they are, magnet and fish tape would be frustrating, but doable. A strong magnet anyways….

      3. If you want to try fishing wires yourself some of the magnetic tipped tools for internal bicycle cables might help.
        Alternatively lean into the fiberglass trailer’s marine esthetic and get some deck access covers to make service hatches for the wiring. These are round rims with a screw in hatch seen a lot on kayaks and small sailboats.

      4. Come on Mercedes think about it. Perfect opportunity to justify a car lift that would handle this easily. Think of all the money you would save working on all your cars with a lift? Not too mention safety first.

      5. Go to your local pick and pull and get some busted up fiberglass panels from Corvettes to practice.

        And “How to Drink” on YouTube hates Malort, but always ends making a cocktail he likes with it!

      6. You can do it. I did without any bodywork experience. Try a family marina, ask if they have any junk 80s boats sitting around you could cut a panel from.
        I now work with fiberglass insulation frequently. Go buy a 10-pack of microfiber towels. When done-or itching uncontrollably-dampen a couple and gently wipe affected areas, frequently flipping the towel. That’ll get the great majority off, or at least get you to where you can stand it. Wash & shower as cold as you can stand at first: hot water opens pores and those fibers will move in & make life miserable for a day or two

      7. This is an easy one. I restored a sail boat that had huge holes punched in the hull by a severe hurricane. Totalled by insurance co. Took about 2 weeks easy work, my first real attempt at fiberglass repair. Beat the crap out of it in the Gulf of Mexico for 3 years. Broke the mast in a storm. Cracked the hull again by floating log. But the toughest part turned out to be the areas I had repaired already. You can do this, no shit…Easy peasy.
        The burros, and UHauls are cool. Drag that thing down to me and I can repair it for material cost.

      8. Patching glass mat fiberglass like this is kinda like drywall. It’s a huge pain, but if you screw it up you can always sand/grind it down and try again.

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