On Sunday, I made what is definitely now the biggest drunk purchase of my life. I sent a man 381 miles away a bunch of cash for a trailer that needs repairs. I’m now the owner of a U-Haul CT13 Get-A-Way Camper, one of the coolest campers ever built from an unexpected company. This trailer is one of those rare instances where it gets more wild the more you look into it.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Americans hit campgrounds in a new kind of camping trailer. The fiberglass camper promised lower maintenance, light weight, and a distinctive style. Americans were downsizing in this era thanks to a fuel crisis, tightening vehicle emissions, and a recession. A lot of people no longer owned vehicles that could tow a huge camper, paving the way for fiberglass trailers to become a favorite for campers. Meanwhile, U-Haul – the do-it-yourself rental giant – saw an opportunity.
At the time, U-Haul was going through one of its weirder periods in history. Back in the 1980s, you could rent almost anything from U-Haul.
That’s not an embellishment. You could walk into a U-Haul dealer and come out with an ATV, a Jet Ski, a VHS player, a tractor, and so much more.
And yes, most of those items would have that familiar logo and orange hue.
For campers, U-Haul offered a choice of motorhomes or two towables. The motorhomes were standard stuff right out of the factory, such as a Winnebago. But the company would do something completely different for the towables. Instead of just renting someone else’s camper, U-Haul decided to design the best fiberglass trailers of the era. The most popular of the two is the CT13 Get-A-Way Camper like the one you see here today:
The U-Haul Camper Story
If you go diving through the internet you’ll find a lot of rumors, best guesses, and assumptions about how U-Haul built its campers. For example, a popular rumor is that the smaller of U-Haul’s campers, the CT13, was built using old Burro camper molds. Some say it’s a Scamp with U-Haul stickers on it. Indeed, it does look like a Burro and I suppose you might see some Scamp in there, too. Here’s a Burro, for reference:
Last year, I decided to get to the bottom of the decades-old rumors and I asked U-Haul how its campers were built. U-Haul’s Media Relations team were surprised at my quest, but as luck would have it there was still someone working for U-Haul that had a hand in bringing the campers to market. Sadly, my copy of the conversation has been lost, but I did save notes.
They told me that U-Haul’s design process involved buying some of the most popular fiberglass trailers on the market, then hauling them into U-Haul’s facility. Those trailers were a Burro, a Scamp, and other then-popular brands. The engineers were then told to examine each trailer for its strengths and weaknesses. They would then take those strengths and bake them into a single trailer backed by one of U-Haul’s beefy frames.
Contrary to the rumor, U-Haul CT13s weren’t built using Burro molds, but U-Haul’s own unique molds. But the end result looks like a Burro because the design is inspired by one.
These trailers were manufactured by U-Haul subsidiary Rec-Vee World, as well as Dayton Trailer Manufacturing Company in Ohio, Youngstown Trailer Manufacturing in Ohio, and potentially a couple of more companies. They were produced for just a short two years between 1984 and 1985. Despite U-Haul’s size and the number of manufacturers contracted to build them, both the CT13 and its larger VT16 sibling are exceedingly rare.
How rare? Sadly, while U-Haul did have records of production numbers, the gentleman that I spoke with couldn’t find them. He spent weeks digging through the archives and it seems that the records have been lost. The best guess comes from U-Haul CEO Joe Shoen. He says that there are fewer than 2,000 CT13s in the wild. And the VT16 just barely exists with fewer than 80 units made. How many of them are left in functional condition is also unknown.
U-Haul did get some use out of its small fleet of campers. They were rented out from 1984 to 1992. Normally, a U-Haul trailer’s life ends when the company is done renting them. U-Haul destroys most of its trailers once their service lives are over. However, the CT13 and VT16 trailers were an exception to the rule. The company etched “Not” in front of “Property Of U-Haul” on the trailers’ tongues then sold them to the public. [Editor’s Note: This is objectively hilarious. – JT]
My U-Haul CT13
So, what do you get when you buy one of these campers 37 years after they were produced? Something that remains one of the neatest campers that you’ll find on the market. I got this one from the very tippy top of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for $5,000. It was the cheapest CT13 that I could find for sale by a wide margin.
Let’s start with the exterior.
U-Haul’s CT13 campers feature a 10-foot-long fiberglass shell with an inner liner and sitting on a 13-foot frame. That frame features a mix of square and round steel tubes. On mine you’ll notice some rust. Thankfully, this frame has mostly surface rust, with the only bad area being right behind the right wheel. So I’ve learned on fiberglass camper forums, this is a common issue. That part of the frame is right behind the wheel and right in the way of salt and road debris.
Out back, there’s a hefty aluminum bumper. Underneath, there are supposed to be stabilizer jacks. I’ve found a number of U-Haul CT13s to be missing these jacks and sure enough, mine is missing them, too.
Moving around to the front, you’ll notice the same tongue that is still on use with U-Haul trailers today. The coupler has U-Haul’s neat screw-on lock and the tongue has that nice carrying handle.
A little further back is a structure that’s supposed to hold the trailer’s propane tank. This thing is surprisingly rusty considering how little rust there is elsewhere. My trailer did not come with much of a story. The previous owner said that he used it like a hard-sided tent. He had never bothered to put a battery in the battery box or plug the trailer in to shore power. He didn’t even try to hook up the trailer’s lights to his car (and more on that later). Indeed, he treated it as if it were a 1,250-pound tent.
The owner before him lived out in Pennsylvania and he is said to have used the trailer the same way. Apparently, the previous previous owner also used it as an ice shack on frozen lakes. Who does that with such a rare trailer? And judging from the growth of mold and other crap on the trailer’s interior, it has probably spent years just sitting around abandoned outside.
Either way, because of neglect, U-Haul’s neat propane holder is trashed. This thing was designed to make propane tanks easy for renters. All they had to do was slide the tank in or out, then use the hand crank to secure it. And on the bottom of this rusty monstrosity should be a jack to hold the tongue up when the trailer is parked.
Originally, this trailer was covered in orange graphics that let everyone know that you were towing and sleeping in a trailer made by U-Haul. These graphics fade over time and owners eventually remove them. Diehard U-Haul camper fans then replace the graphics with fresh ones to keep the rad look alive. Here’s what the trailer is supposed to look like:
The pictures that you’re looking at here are actually after its first wash in probably many years. This trailer looked so grubby when I picked it up that I thought that I had made a horrible drunken mistake. But it looks pretty ok after I took it to a basic wash bay. I bet some time with real proper cleaning will probably bring out some of the gel coat’s shine, too.
Some of what’s left to clean up includes sealant that a previous owner sloppily used on the windows. U-Haul camper windows are known for their leaks, and people will either replace the windows with ones from a Scamp or put sealant on them. This sealant is incredibly unsightly and I’m pretty sure that I’ll redo it, but for now the trailer is watertight, even after I blasted it with a power washer for 20 minutes.
Before we move to the interior, check out the hinges holding on the door.
If these look familiar, it’s because you’ve probably worked in a restaurant. Those hinges are the same ones used on commercial refrigerator doors! The outside door is also supposed to have a U-Haul badge, but mine is gone.
Moving inside, the trailer is stock and almost entirely present.
Up front is a bench that converts into a bunk bed. The bunk’s poles are missing, as is the second cushion. In back is a bench and table that convert into a big bed. All of the cushions and the table are present, but the ice-fishing guy annoyingly decided to drill a hole right where the table’s leg goes.
And the floor–a mix of fiberglass and wood–is solid. Underneath the trailer is a U-Haul production sticker, so this is probably the original floor. Sadly, I’ll have to close up that stupid hole so I can use the table.
In the middle is a kitchen unit.
You get a sink that feeds from a small fresh water tank or from city water. Next to it is a propane stove. Of course, everything in this trailer is embossed with U-Haul’s logos, which is something that I find absolutely fascinating. Even the propane furnace has a friendly U-Haul on it.
There are two more rather odd appliances. Down below the stove looks like what a refrigerator, but it’s not. Instead, it’s an ice box. And up above, what looks like an air conditioner isn’t.
It’s a swamp cooler that blows air over pumped-in water. These devices are pretty neat, as they could allow the trailer to camp off-grid without quickly draining the battery. Oh, and that battery gets charged by a solar panel, which I’m betting no longer works.
Oh, and did I say that there’s an ashtray in here? Of course there is!
And in case you were wondering, the U-Haul VT16 Vacation Traveler is pretty similar to the CT13. The biggest differences are the addition of three feet of length and the addition of a bathroom. U-Haul thought that you’d use the CT13 for a weekend trip and the VT16 for something longer.
Here’s a picture, for reference.
The Camper’s Future
So, what are my plans with this camper? My fiancée and I plan to do a mix of modifying and preserving it. We will cut off the rusty propane and jack holder and replace it with a conventional jack. We’ll test the trailer’s equipment and if everything checks out, we’ll also mount a more conventional propane holder up front.
The trailer does have some fiberglass damage due to the bottom door hinge not being secured correctly. I won’t tackle this myself. Instead, I’ll let one of the many fiberglass restorers in my area do that.
The trailer’s exterior lights don’t work. The wiring is all there, but it looks like someone tried to do a custom job. They failed, and now the lights don’t work at all. I’m not touching that mess of spaghetti, and fixing the lights are on the top of my list. I hate having to ratchet-strap down temporary lights.
Thankfully, the trailer’s original light lenses–things so rare and coveted that U-Haul fans have taken to making their own–are intact and not foggy! [Editor’s Note: I’ve already checked, and these lights seem to be unique to these trailers, not borrowed from any car. I like them a lot! They’re sort of like curved versions of the square Yugo 50/50 amber/red taillights.– JT]
The frame is fine, but not pretty. At some point I’ll get under there and pretty it up. Oh, and I can’t forget, but this trailer is going to get all of its original graphics back. U-Haul trailers have such a fantastic owner community that the graphics are actually in production.
Inside, Sheryl will first work her cleaning magic.
Then, she’ll add some color to the olive drab. Maybe we’ll put some hot pink curtains and cushions in there or stick to U-Haul’s corporate colors with orange. Sometime down the line I want to update the appliances, specifically the swamp cooler and the ice box. We are for sure are replacing the carpet with something much more exciting and comfortable.
As for tow vehicles, my 2005 Volkswagen Touareg VR6 towed the camper 381 miles home from Michigan without problem. The trailer tracks straight and handles bumps as it should. However, don’t let the egg shape fool you because it’s a major drag in high winds just like any other trailer.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking, “don’t you already have like 19 vehicles?” Yes, I do, and one of them is getting sold to make space for this. That car is my duplicate Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI. I haven’t touched this car since buying another with a manual transmission, and I have no plans to. So, someone else will get to enjoy 40+ mpg wagon goodness.
Since this trailer is in decent enough condition as-is, we hope to take it on its first camping trip the moment the door hinges and light wiring are fixed. We have a wedding coming in the very near future so I can’t say when all of this will happen, but it will! I’ve been dreaming about owning one of these since 2017, and I can’t wait to roll up to a campground with it.
You already mentioned they didnt use Burro molds, but i wonder if they took female copy molds _from_ a Burro?
Such tricks save masses of time and expense. Once they’ve done that it’s relatively easy to make small changes where needed.
Anyone who openly admits they purchased something stupid/brilliant while drunk is ok in my book. Great work, Mercedes!
IF you decide to restore the gel coat: Having restored the finish on my 40-year-old 28-foot fiberglass sailboat, imho you could do worse than pay attention to what this guy has to say:
Key concept: Wax is NOT for getting a shine. Wax is to protect the shine you’ve already achieved by working the underlying surface.
Get yourself some of the original listerine and liberally spray the cushions and anything else moldy. That will get ‘er done. Remember, original gold listerine, the kind that Kitty Dukakis had over ice. Or was it neat? Anyhow the other less nasty ones won’t work. Go gold.
When Jason says he “checked” to see if the taillights were unique I have two alternate scenes in mind. Either he’s rummaging through a pile of ancient scrolls like Gandalf in “Lord of the Rings” or he just closes his eyes, sits there silently for a minute while his eyeballs dart around madly behind the lids, then his eyes snap open and he’s like “Nope! They’re unique!”
Can you kick a link over to your Volkswagon that you will sell? Been looking for another TDi since we sold ours back to VW stupidly during dieselgate.
But this is a awesome little camper! I have a 22 ft’er but this would be fun for just the wife and me
Ahh Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Such a magical place. My wife asked me one time why everyone has a junk pile up there. I told her…it is not a junk pile, it is outdoor material storage. You never know what you might need when the nearest escalator is 300 miles away. We used to drive 100 miles for a taco bell run….but that was when tacos we $0.39, gas was $0.88, and a decent beater car that could move under its own power was $100.
There looks to be enough space in the wheel wells to widen it’s gauge and thus give it a bit more stability. Wider wheels and tires or a longer axle would do the trick.
How cute. If you water it regularly and give it lots of sun, it may grow up into a beautiful big trailer.
Every time I see an article for one of these I want one even more. Would love to have one repolished/gelcoated. Would definitely do a orange/tan combo cloth interior, fresh stripes. Would also love if they were 4 lug, I’d put Mk2 VW 12 hole steel wheels on lol
Forget the camper, my new goal is finding one of those U-Haul VCR’s.