Home » The Original Corvette’s Body-Engineer Designed This Awesome Forgotten Camper

The Original Corvette’s Body-Engineer Designed This Awesome Forgotten Camper

Premo Camper1

Ellis J. Premo isn’t a huge name in General Motors history, but it’s an important one. Premo was one of the men responsible for bringing the Corvette into reality with a fiberglass body. Later, he would become the Chief Engineer for all of Chevrolet. Before all of this, Ellis was an inventor and engineer working within the halls of Chevy. Over 85 years ago, Premo built a cozy camper for his family. The camper was never used by Premo, instead spending 72 years of its life in a hangar. It was used just a few times before becoming a museum piece. Now, you can own what’s essentially a brand-new camper from 1938.

I’ve known about this camper’s existence for over a year. It has been in the collection of the Volo Auto Museum of Volo, Illinois for the past 11 years and I got to look it over a few times over the years. The camper used to sit in the museum’s small camper display. I’ve long wondered about the camper’s story, but the museum didn’t display any information about it. Now, I’ve been able to piece together what happened with this camper and the man who built it. If you have enough money, you can buy it!

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Ellis J. Premo

1938 Camper Trailer (1)

If you’re a fan of the first-generation Corvette, known as the C1, you’ve possibly heard of this name before. Premo is credited with being the Corvette’s Body Engineer and is one of the men responsible for the fact that Corvettes have curvaceous fiberglass bodies.

According to a paper Premo presented to the Society of Automotive Engineers, in his early career, Premo received automotive apprentice training at Chrysler’s Highland Park plant in Detroit. In 1935, he joined General Motors in the Chevrolet Engineering department. I could not find much information about Premo’s duties before the Corvette, but a patent filing gives a clue.


In 1946, Premo, alongside engineer Ronald J Waterbury, filed a patent for a truck cab mount. In the patent, the men explain that trucks of the day had chassis rails that twisted and weaved in response to the terrain under the vehicle. It was necessary to limit the twisting that could be subjected to the cab. Too much force exerted on the cab could damage it. The inventors’ solution was a cab mount system that included a swinging arm in the middle and isolators. When the frame flexed, the cab mounts and the swinging arm allowed the cab to ride somewhat independently of the frame. Check out the patent drawing:

Truck Patent

The trail goes cold from there to the development of the Corvette. As the book Chevrolets of the 1950s: A Decade of Technical Innovation describes, the Corvette almost didn’t have a body of fiberglass. When the Corvette was green-lit for development, fiberglass as a building material was seeing increasing use. In World War II, the book writes, fiberglass was used for aircraft radomes. After the war, the use of fiberglass for aircraft components became even more commonplace.

On the ground, glass manufacturer Owens Corning teamed up with Henry Kaiser and aviation pioneer William Stout. Out of this partnership came a 1946 prototype car designed by Howard “Dutch” Darrin and a car for Stout. Darrin designed another fiberglass prototype that would go into production as the Kaiser Darrin sports car. Just 435 were ever built, plus another six prototypes. The book continues by pointing out that the 1950s were full of fiberglass-bodied cars, none of them reaching true mass production.

Kaiser Darrin – Volo Cars

One of the inspirations for the Corvette’s fiberglass body was the vehicles constructed by the Glasspar Corporation, a company then known for its fiberglass boats. Glasspar built about 100 G2 fiberglass sports cars plus fiberglass bodies for the Woodill Wildfire sports car. One of Glasspar’s other builds was the Alembic 1, named after Glasspar’s logo. This car was featured in a 1952 issue of Life magazine, where it caught the attention of GM engineers. The vehicle was also put on display and Harley Earl was reportedly impressed with the finish and dent resistance of fiberglass.

Naugatuck Chemical, where Glasspar got its fiberglass, demonstrated how GM could use a fender to create a mold that would be used to make an identical fiberglass part. GM Styling and Chevrolet Engineering ate that up like catnip, learning that fiberglass would be excellent for building experimental cars rapidly, rather than the much slower process of hammering out custom steel panels.

Glasspar G2 – Hyman LTD

GM’s engineers began experimenting with fiberglass. However, as the book notes, the engineers still worked from the idea that fiberglass would help with cranking out concept cars, not production cars. This was also convenient as GM decided to proceed with its Motorama traveling show. Fiberglass allowed GM’s engineers to get the Corvette show car into Motorama quickly.

In a paper submitted to the SAE in 1954, Zora Arkus-Duntov noted that while the show car was built with a fiberglass body, development continued with the expectation of using steel. However, the public showed a lot of interest in fiberglass and from a technical perspective, making a mass-market vehicle with a fiberglass body was possible. However, GM brass wasn’t sure about fiberglass. The man credited with getting GM to commit to fiberglass is Robert Morrison, the founder of the Molded Fiberglass Company. The National Corvette Museum continues:

1953 Corvette Motorama Show Car

Robert Morrison is most recognized as the man who creatively developed the molded fiber glass (MFG) process for Corvette’s fiberglass body. In 1954, the Chevrolet Corvette became the first production automobile with a molded fiber glass reinforced plastic body after Morrison convinced General Motors that reinforced plastic had a use in the automotive history.

When Chevrolet agreed to proceed with this material, Morrison initiated all of the necessary financing, production facilities, engineering support, tooling and production personnel to make it happen. He partnered with automotive engineers as well as raw material suppliers which resolved Chevrolet’s concerns about a production site, equipment and scheduling.

As the cooperative process developed, the basement of Morrison’s home in Ashtabula, Ohio, became an impromptu design center for the 1953 Corvette Convertible fiber glass parts. MFG employees and GM’s engineers worked side by side on a ping-pong pool table, until suitable business space was established.

1938 Camper Trailer (2)
Automotive Industries via Volo Cars

One of the engineers tasked with making that fiberglass body a reality was Premo. At the time, he was Chevrolet’s Chief Body Engineer and Premo was joined by another engineer on a mission to learn fiberglass production techniques. The engineers found themselves at Lunn Laminates, Winner Manufacturing, and Morrison’s Molded Fiberglass Company, where they took in the new kind of manufacturing to take back home to GM. Fiberglass wasn’t an instant success for GM, and it took a lot of trial and error before the engineers could create singular panels, let alone whole bodies.

However, they pulled it off, and the Corvette would become famous for its fiberglass body. Premo was instrumental in helping Chevrolet make it real. By 1963, Premo would earn a spot as the Chief Engineer of Chevrolet, finding himself in charge of development teams for both cars and trucks.

Premo’s Camper

1938 Camper Trailer



Now, let’s flip our calendars back 30 years to Premo’s early years at Chevrolet. It’s 1938, and Premo was an engineer at Chevrolet for three years. According to a story written by Premo’s grandson, Premo decided to build a camper that he could use next to a lake with his family. Unfortunately, due to his obligations to Chevrolet, he never got around to using the camper. Instead, it was parked in a hangar in Michigan. Reportedly, when Premo was nearing his death, he decided to pass the camper on to his family in hopes that it would get used.

The trailer would stay in that hangar until 2010 when it was liberated by a buyer and then used as a camper just a couple of times. Volo picked the camper up in 2012 and it has been a part of the collection ever since. Sadly, it sounds like Volo is running out of space because it’s selling this camper to make room for more.

So, what you’re looking at is an 85-year-old camper that was reportedly used just 5 or 6 times in its whole life. The rest of the time has been spent sitting in a hangar, in Volo’s display, or getting towed by a matching 1938 pickup truck to car shows. That’s an easy life for a camper! Volo says it’s unrestored and aside from some areas where the paint may have been patched up, mostly original. Given that the camper has essentially been pampered its whole existence, I’d believe it.

1938 Camper Trailer (4)


1938 Camper Trailer (5)

According to Volo, the trailer is wood-framed and the siding is believed to be Masonite. This material, which consists of steam-cooked and pressure-molded wood fibers turned into a hard board, was a common building material for walls, canoes, and siding back then. The Masonite appears to be braced with metal and there’s a steel frame underneath with a leaf spring suspension.

The interior is said to be in mostly original shape, including the original curtains and varnished wood. The trailer’s original 110V electrical system also remains.

1938 Camper Trailer (11)

The kitchen is a real time capsule. On the wood countertop sits a portable single-burner stove. The sink looks elegant and it’s operated with a hand pump. That pump pulls water from a heavy tank located in the cabinet under the sink. Apparently, everything in the cabinets is believed to be original, including the dishes.


Across from the sink is a convertible surface that turns into a Preway two-burner stove. A metal backsplash prevents you from lighting the camper on fire while cooking. Heat comes from that single-burner stove as well as an electric heater. The pièce de résistance of the camper is the giant ceramic icebox. Volo says these are often found broken and worn out, but since this camper was never really used, the icebox is perfect.

1938 Camper Trailer (6)

1938 Camper Trailer (7)

Unfortunately, you do get a bathroom, but the toilet appears to be a metal bucket with a lid. I’m pretty sure that’s worse than any “shitcase” we’ve featured.

Volo wants $29,998 for the camper. I’m not sure if that’s a good price or not. On one hand, the trailer is an incredible museum piece and time capsule. On the other hand, it might be frustrating to use it as a real camper without ruining the original equipment. I know I wouldn’t want to read the Morning Dump from a metal bucket. Either way, I love the trailer. It’s always fascinating to see perfect examples of how vehicles were built several decades ago.


1938 Camper Trailer (8)

1938 Camper Trailer (9)

1938 Camper Trailer (10)

(Images: Volo Auto Museum, unless otherwise noted.)



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Bob Opitz
Bob Opitz
4 months ago

I remember this trailer well. I grew up with Mr. Premo’s son, Bill. I remember Mr. Premo very well.

A story that I doubt many people remember is Mr. Premo had a 348 cubic inch V8 W-Engine installed by Chevrolet Motor Division in Bill’s 1951, (or was it a ’52?), Chevy. As the engine bay was far too narrow to fit headers and the exhaust system between the frame rails, the exhaust was routed to mufflers mounted under the radiator! The “tailpipes” exited in front of the front wheels. The car was wicked fast, as I remember and did quite in racing on Woodward Avenue. At that time, I had a ’55 Chevy 210 into which I installed a Pontiac 347 CID V8. As my car was equipped with a Latham Axial-Flow supercharger, I was able to best Bill’s car, but it was close!

Back to the trailer. As I remember it was parked behind their house. (We all lived in Franklin Village.) Bill’s father let us stay overnight in that trailer a few times. Seeing the photos, particularly the interior shots, really brings back memories.

I could go on and on about those days. BTW, former head of Chevrolet, Harry Barr, also lived in Franklin. He would bring home “mules”, (pre-production cars), which his son Gaity was allowed to take them out on Woodward. One that remember clearly was a ’54 Chevy 4-door. ’54s were powered by the old stove bolt 6 cylinder, but this “mule” had a pre-production 265 CID V8 in it. We sure did surprise a lot of the Ford guys on Woodward with that car!

Dat’s it! I’m done, but thanks for publishing the trailer article. I am flabbergasted that it is still around! One more thing, Bill and I communicated very frequently right up until his very early passing. I believe that was around 2012, not too long after his parents passed.

Montana Bob

4 months ago

The interior is fantastic.

Chris Stevenson
Chris Stevenson
4 months ago

So, what’s the towing capacity of a C1 Corvette?

Jim Stock
Jim Stock
4 months ago

The price is cheaper than a new one and the build quality is probably much better.

Uncle Cholmondeley
Uncle Cholmondeley
4 months ago

I can’t believe that even in 1938 it was considered acceptable to use a white gas stove inside a trailer. When I was young and foolish, I fired up my family’s Coleman stove (about 10 years younger than the Preway in the photo) inside on a rainy day to test it out before a trip.

Holy cow, the fumes took forever to dissipate even with windows open and a fan on. Were small propane stoves not a thing then?

4 months ago

Propane stoves didn’t become common until after the war, you can burn propane in an old liquid gas stove with an adapter, but white gas is still a thing

4 months ago

It’s one of those things where it’s an incredible find, but what do you do with it? It’s well preserved, but is it particularly historically significant? Could you use it as a camper? Eh, not really. Too old to be useful.

It’s cool, but kind of a white elephant.

4 months ago
Reply to  StillNotATony

Beds still work the same way they did in 1938, tow it someplace, park it, sleep in it, tow it home

4 months ago

That interior is beautiful, rare to find an unrestored trailer even decades newer without any hint of water damage, but I suppose that’s what 85 years of continuous indoor storage will do for you

Andrew Wyman
Andrew Wyman
4 months ago

That inside is classic, and I like the “V” front of the trailer along with that tiny cabinet at the very front. $30k is not too much in today’s prices, but it’s not going to be easy to fix anything on it.

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