If you’re looking to buy a camper today, chances are you’re going to find a lot of boring, boxy shapes and flimsy interiors. RV design nowadays also seems to call for swoopy graphics and spaces that look like a hotel room. If you want to arrive in style and sleep in a camper that feels special, I’ve found a fabulous vintage trailer that hits the spot. This 1951 Spartan Spartanette Tandem is an aluminum trailer built by an aircraft manufacturer and it still works today, complete with a beautiful birch interior.
If you’ve been reading my work for long enough, you know that I love advocating for the adoption of vintage campers. I love some of the technology coming out of the RV world right now like trailers that can basically tow themselves and the glorious resurgence of fiberglass as a building material. Still, I love looking at the past.
Decades ago, RV manufacturers were full of experimentation and released designs that we don’t really see anymore. So, if you have the funds and the patience to keep these old rigs alive, just take a look at what you can get! I found this 1951 Spartan Spartanette Tandem for sale on Facebook. There are a few of these for sale right now; this one might be the best.
From Oil And Aviation To Trailers
If Spartan sounds like a familiar name, perhaps it’s because you’ve read about one of the last times I wrote about a large Spartan trailer over at the old site. Spartan has shown up a couple of times in my RV reporting and it’s because like an old Airstream, these units are captivating.
This trailer was the work of Spartan Aircraft Company of Tulsa, Oklahoma, which has its roots in oil. In 1905, the Ida Glenn Number One discovery well of the Glenn Pool Field struck oil at a depth of 1,481 feet. This well produced about 75 to 85 barrels of crude daily, and it became the stomping ground for rising American industrialists. Harry Ford Sinclair used the field to start Sinclair Oil and the infamous Jean Paul Getty Sr. started Getty Oil from the well.
William G. Skelly was another businessman to profit from the field. Skelly made a fortune from the Glenn Pool Field in the 1920s and used that money to fund his aviation interests. In 1938, he purchased the Mid-Continent Aircraft Company, renamed it the Spartan Aircraft Company, and started the Spartan School of Aeronautics.
Some of Spartan’s first aircraft included the Spartan C3 biplane, which was built starting in the late 1920s. Spartan is best known for the Spartan Executive, a high-performance luxury monoplane marketed towards corporate executives. Built starting in 1936, the aircraft had a then-impressive 190 mph cruising speed and a range of around 1,000 miles. The Executive could be seen as the equivalent of a private jet in the pre-jet age. As such, famous people like Howard Hughes bought their own Spartan Executives.
Skelly initially navigated Spartan through the Great Depression, but in the latter half of the 1930s, a controlling interest was sold to the aforementioned Getty. Spartan eventually shifted some of its production to military aircraft. In the late 1930s, it built the Spartan Model 8W “Zeus” all-metal military warplane capable of multiple roles. In 1940, Spartan also made the Spartan NP-1 biplane trainer for the United States Navy.
After the war, Spartans fortunes began drying up. As Forbes reports, the Spartan Executive was still in production, but couldn’t compete with military surplus aircraft. Thus, Getty decided to take the company in a different direction with more mass appeal. Spartan engineers were already working on a car and a camper, and Getty determined that a mobile home would be a good fit for the housing needs of postwar America. In 1945, the first Spartan trailer was produced.
One of the marketing points of a Spartan trailer is the fact that like a plane, the trailers were built using a semi-monocoque construction where the shell is a stressed element and internal stringers were used for support. Since Getty was trying to provide a living space, Spartan’s trailers were more geared toward being a cozy mobile home rather than your basecamp during travel.
Today, we might call a trailer like a Spartan a “park model.” It’s meant to sit in one place for a while but is also mobile enough to go somewhere else at a moment’s notice. Some of Spartan’s units spanned lengths as long as 57 feet and widths as wide as 10 feet. Those trailers would be closer to a typical manufactured trailer home today, a trailer that gets plopped down at a site for years.
This Spartanette Tandem
According to archived records, the Spartan Spartanette was a part of Spartan’s trailer efforts from the late 1940s. The Spartanette was advertised as a riveted aluminum trailer designed around lightweight materials and easy towing characteristics. Those early Spartanettes were about 25 feet 3 inches long and about 3,700 pounds with a cost of $2,937. Around 1950, the Spartanette Tandem joined the line as a 30-foot model that weighed 4,975 pounds and had a cost of $3,950.
As the name would suggest, a Spartanette Tandem was a Spartanette featuring two axles, which ride on a 10 gauge steel frame. Marketing materials for a 1950s Spartanette Tandem said the trailers included glass fiber blanket insulation in the walls, doors, and ceilings plus double insulation in the floors. Spartan said these trailers were good for all seasons and that the insulation would help keep you warm in the winter. Further, Spartan says the floor was made out of five-ply plywood with dead air space and the underside of the trailer had a cover to provide more dead air space.
Spartan says electrical power came from a 110-volt system using cable certified by the Underwriters’ Laboratories. Additional electrical work comes in the form of a 6-volt system for the exterior lights and the trailer’s brakes.
Since Spartan’s trailers were designed to be in one place a bit longer, they came with residential-style appointments. The Spartanette Tandem included an “apartment size” range powered either by gasoline or propane. You also got full size cupboards, a sink, and a refrigerator. The rest of the appointments are like home including a primary bedroom and a living room. On special order units, Spartan gave the trailer a full bathroom including a bathtub, flushing toilet, forced ventilation, and a vanity.
The seller of this 1951 Spartanette Tandem says the body is in great shape and the trailer even includes period-correct Marmoleum floors. Everything is said to work, including the heater inside of the trailers’s shower. It looks like the trailer has been upgraded where it counts with a new RV toilet present and what appears to be an upgraded electrical system.
The seller also says the plumbing works but doesn’t say if you get any tanks. It was common for these trailers to not have holding tanks, but some owners ended up adding tanks later on. The rest of the trailer is said to be very original, including the original screen doors. All of that wood you’re looking at? That’s birch!
I could not find official documentation for the 1951 model year Spartanette Tandem, so I don’t have the exact specifications. However, by 1953, the Spartanette Tandem got as long as 31 feet with weight as high as 5,925 pounds. Still, that’s not bad for a trailer full of metal and wood! Also good is the 6 feet, 8 inches of headroom in there.
If you’re as enamored as I am but have more money than I do, the seller, located in Prewitt, New Mexico, is looking for $39,000 for this trailer. Certainly, there are cheaper Spartanettes for sale, like one for $25,000. However, this one seems to be the best of all of them. I’ll warn you now, you might need to buy a different vehicle to tow something this classy.
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