For decades, fiberglass has been the material of choice for RVers who want a motorhome or travel trailer that lasts long while also looking a bit different. Back in the 1950s, fiberglass was just beginning to make its mark on the RV industry around the world. Over in Germany, plastics company Ferdinand Schäfer Kunststoffverarbeitung decided to make something cooler than fiberglass lamps and swimming pools. In the 1950s, it became a pioneer in fiberglass campers. The company then became so obsessed with fiberglass campers that it made striking motorhomes and even a handful of amphibious trailers.
I was tipped off to these magical RVs by Autoverse on Instagram. A pristine 1973 Schäfer Orion I motorhome sits in the Erwin Hymer Museum in Bad Waldsee, Germany. The Erwin Hymer Foundation, which hosts the museum, has a collection of over 250 motorhomes, travel trailers, cars, and motorcycles for you to see behind the museum’s glass walls.
Many of the campers there are nothing like what you’ve ever seen here in America. The Erwin Hymer Museum is now on my bucket list of places to visit once I get a passport.
Since Autoverse gave me the tip, I’ve been digging through the German Internet for the history of the wacky Schäfer RVs and now it’s time to present them to you, dear readers.
From Lampshades To Coaches
This story takes us back to the late 1950s. While fiberglass had been around for a while by this point, it was still a bit of a novel futuristic material. Fiberglass was lighter than steel, but strong and could be formed into nearly infinite numbers of objects.
By that time, German engineer Ferdinand Schäfer through his firm Ferdinand Schäfer Kunststoffverarbeitung had been producing fiberglass parts for about a decade. Schäfer’s fiberglass parts included lampshades, furniture, which included chair backs, equipment for artists, and objects as large as swimming pool liners. In the 1950s, some firms in various parts of the globe began experimenting with building RVs out of fiberglass. The material looked promising, as fiberglass would not only reduce weight but increase durability and style.
In 1959, Schäfer began the development of its own fiberglass camper, and the company produced its first prototype that year. In 1962, it was unveiled as the Type F430, a travel trailer measuring 14.1 feet and weighing 1,234 pounds. As you can probably tell from the images, a Type F430 started life as two shells, an upper and a lower portion, before being joined in the middle.
Schäfer’s trailer didn’t stop at just being made out of fiberglass as it also featured advanced features for its day including dual-pane glass and foam and foil insulation. As far as amenities go, the Type F430 was as filled as a trailer from today, featuring everything from a refrigerator and stove to sleeping berths, an optional toilet, and birch plywood trim. The F430’s price was 7,900 DM (€20,522 today, or $22,138) making it more expensive than a German Ford sedan at the time.
According to the Suleica-Orion Club, another part that made the Ferdinand Schäfer campers stand out was the fact that since Schäfer had so much existing experience in fiberglass, the company knew where to reinforce the trailer to make it stronger than other designs from Europe.
Here’s what the inside of an F430 looks like:
For example, like a modern fiberglass camper, the F430 was so strong that the unit was able to support itself without any external reinforcements. The molded shell just bolted to the chassis underneath. The chassis, provided by Hahn, was simple, featuring a torsion bar suspension and overrun brakes.
Schäfer’s creation was shipped around German automotive media at the time. Auto Motor Sport journalist Fritz B. Busch was reportedly enamored with the F430 and even gave it a nickname, the “Superleicht-Caravan” (Super light Caravan). The name became popular and it was shortened to Suleica and featured in Schäfer camper advertising.
Despite the price, the trailers were popular enough to warrant expansion. In 1964, the Suleica was shortened to 11.1 feet, making the 771-pound F340. This little guy was small enough to be towed by an air-cooled Beetle. In 1968, Schäfer introduced the 1,609-pound G500, which was essentially the F430 Suleica extended to 16.4 feet. Later, Schäfer would experiment even further with the F600, a 19.7-foot, 1,962-pound tandem axle travel trailer.
Weirdly, Schäfer also pulled a stunt by turning the F430 into a travel trailer that was also a boat. Advertisements showed the famed Amphicar towing the F430 amphibious trailer in a lake. It’s believed that just a handful of the F430 amphibians made it into production.
In 1967, Schäfer would expand into making fiberglass motorhomes. The first Schäfer motorhome was the HS 68, which was little more than a Suleica F430 or a Suleica G500 riding on the back of a Hanomag F20 truck. Yep, it was made in the same way as the Silver Streak Matador I wrote about in 2022. Schäfer didn’t even bother to try to blend the Hanomag into the camper on the back.
Thankfully, the HS 68 was just a stepping stone. Schäfer engineer Dr. Freise drew up a real Class A style coach for Schäfer’s next effort. Dr. Freise’s design went big. This wasn’t going to be just a fiberglass motorhome, but a fiberglass motorhome that was also a motorboat. Yeah, Schäfer wasn’t ready to give up on the concept of an amphibious camper. Click here for a PDF featuring the entire history of the Schäfer venture from the Suleica-Orion Club.
Dr. Freise reportedly took a Suleica G500 and a Volkswagen Transporter T2 Type 26 chassis and combined them together into one distinctive coach. The Orion coach made its debut at the 1968 Caravan show in Essen and Schäfer introduced the motorhome by driving the coach right into the bay. Indeed, the coach floated and thanks to its propeller, was even able to motor around.
Despite the bombastic performance, Schäfer did not put the amphibious Orion into production. However, the company and the public still loved the overall design. The Orion was a pioneer as well because Germany was like America in that most motorhomes by that point did not have bodies made out of fiberglass. In 1969, Schäfer started developing the Orion as a still innovative motorhome, but without the amphibian stuff.
The next Orion coach prototype rode on a Hanomag F20 truck chassis featuring a 2.0-liter 50 HP Perkins diesel engine. Since these motorhomes used existing Schäfer trailers for inspiration, they contained all of the comforts of home, but now with more space and some additional features. The Orion had a Truma heating system and while the furniture was made out of cheap particle board, they were given classy cherry veneers.
The Orion I went into production soon after and it featured the same striking and pioneering fiberglass body, the same lavish interior, but seemingly lackluster powertrains. The chassis underneath was still that of a Hanomag truck, but Schäfer sold the Orion I with a variety of engines, each of which drove the front wheels. Two available engines came from the Austin A60 and were rated at 54 HP and 70 HP with 1.5 liter and 1.8-liter displacements, respectively. If you fancied diesel, your Orion I had a choice of 2.0-liter 55 HP or 2.2-liter 60 HP Mercedes-Benz diesel engines. Later in Orion I production, Mercedes-Benz would provide L206 and L306 truck chassis to Schäfer. The Orion I carried a price of 32,103 DM (€69,532 today, or $75,008), which makes it a luxury motorhome for the day, but Schäfer continued to find buyers.
Orion I production was hampered in 1972 due to a fire and then ceased entirely in 1974 when the Schäfer shop burned to the ground. Ferdinand Schäfer was ready to throw in the towel as the fire took everything from molds to tooling. Reportedly, it was Schäfer’s employees that convinced Schäfer to rebuild and make a sequel to the Orion I.
After the fire, Schäfer farmed out Suleica production to a boatyard in Hungary and in 1974, the new Orion II was ready to hit the road. The Orion II took on a more modern shape for the mid-1970s, which meant it featured big windows and the rounded design was dumped for something more angular. Underneath, the new Orion IIs still rode on an old Benz truck platform.
That changed in 1978 after Mercedes ended production of the L206 and L306. Unfortunately, Schäfer was reportedly still trying to recover from the fire and didn’t have the money to respond to no longer having a chassis to build with. Schäfer ended up selling the business to BMW dealer Ursula Depping, who formed Teutoburger Fahrzeug-und Gerätebau GmbH, or TFG.
The new TFG released the Orion III, which rode on the Mercedes TN chassis, specifically getting its bones from the 207 and 208 variants. While the Orion III’s interiors stayed largely similar over the Orion generations, the Orion III’s chassis became much better. In addition to bringing along swivel front seats, the Mercedes chassis was rear-wheel-drive and Orion IIIs were commonly equipped with 2.3-liter 85 HP four-cylinder gas engines and 3.0-liter diesel straight fives good for 88 HP.
Orion IIIs are easily identified as they have front ends that resemble their donor chassis. They were also quite expensive, with starting prices at 62,851 DM (€71,637 today, or $77,279) and rising above 100,000 DM (€113,980 today, or $122,962).
A Rare Piece Of History
It’s said some of these RVs were imported into America but your chances of finding one are slim. I found none in America, but plenty of Suleica trailers and a few Orion RVs for sale in Germany. That said, I would think before importing one of these. At their heaviest, the Orion coaches weighed 6,172 pounds when loaded. That’s not a huge amount of weight, but consider that most of these were powered by engines no more powerful than the little mills that power Smart Fortwos. And nobody would call one of those cars fast. These motorhomes are even slower than a 1980s Japanese RV, and those are known for their slowness.
Sadly, while none of the Schäfer Orion generations could be described as quick, they did represent a weird time in German RV history. I didn’t even cover all of the Orion or Suleica variations, just the important ones. Reportedly, among the variations of these RVs was a new Suleica based on the newer Orion body as well as an Orion with a garage for a motorcycle.
Sadly, the Schäfer and TFG venture didn’t last. By 1987, the new TFG effort ran out of money and closed up shop. The last completed motorhome was an Orion II that was used as a mobile office.
I think the wildest part about this is just the fact that Schäfer, like other weird European minds, wasn’t content on just making a vehicle with novel building materials, but wanted the campers to be boats, too. And then when one of the trailer-boat ideas failed, the company tried even harder with a floating motorhome. Still, when you ignore all of that, Schäfer still produced one of the most striking RVs you’ll see anywhere. I’d love to see more of that creativity today.