Since I started writing about RVs and campers, a number of readers have expressed their frustration with the prices of a new rig. Even a mid-century modern-themed box on wheels will set you back the price of a nice new car. And at a time when it seems everything is expensive, buying a camper seems out of the realm of reality for many folks. But here’s a reminder that you can still buy a pretty cool camper for dirt cheap, and they don’t have to be total junkers, either! You can even get a fiberglass motorhome for peanuts.
A lot of readers have been flooding our tips line with different RVs that are out there in the wild. We’ve gotten bus conversion projects, fantastic vintage VW Bus campers, and what appears to be a hearse turned into a camper. Some of these campers have actually been pretty cheap, and it’s seemingly sent your favorite Autopian writers looking for inexpensive and cool RVs. We have a stack of these things, and let’s take a look at a few of our favorites.
1974 Starcraft Starcruiser – $2,500
This first one is a camper that our very own David is considering buying. I mean, you can’t blame him when you get this much vehicle for just $2,500. And David makes a great choice. Before the GMC Motorhome challenged the RV norm, motorhomes were commonly giant bricks that hurtled down America’s highways. These rigs sat high off of the ground and designs were often best described as “functional.”
Starcraft was founded in 1903 as Star Tank Co., manufacturing farming equipment in Goshen, Indiana. In 1915, the company expanded into boating, first with a rowboat in 1915. The company’s name changed to Star Tank & Boat Company and in the 1920s, the company began making galvanized steel boats. Aluminum boats followed, and in 1956, Star Tank & Boat made a fiberglass boat. Star Tank & Boat didn’t get into making campers until 1964 with its release of a tent camper. In 1966, the name was changed to Starcraft Corporation. This 1974 Starcruiser was made just ten years into Starcraft’s journey into campers.
There isn’t much information out there on these, but there is one factoid that I love: The Starcruiser is a one-piece fiberglass body. I like fiberglass as a building material for RVs because it means fewer places where you can expect water leaks. For example, my U-Haul camper is two fiberglass molds joined together as one. That means no disasters of water destroying luan walls here.
The Starcruiser is said to be the first, and maybe only motorhome to use a single piece of molded fiberglass. However, an owner disputes this, as they say that they found a seam in the fiberglass, suggesting that two fiberglass molds were combined to make a one-piece body. Likewise, the Ungers Crown Commander motorhome predates the Starcraft by almost ten years. It too made the same claim about being made out of a single piece of fiberglass. Fiberglass campers are generally made from more than one mold combined into one. For an example, my U-Haul was built from left and right pieces of fiberglass joined together.
Either way, it’s not the first or the only motorhome of its kind, but it’s still pretty awesome. Production numbers aren’t known, but after going through seemingly countless pages, I haven’t seen an estimate higher than 50.
Power comes from a Dodge 440 V8 that at one point made around 225 HP, but the seller says that the motorhome has sat for a couple of years. So the carb will probably need to be cleaned out before it’ll run again. Other than that, the seller says that it just needs a new water pipe and bedroom walls finished. It’s in Ferndale, Michigan, and the seller offers to tow it for free.
Now let’s look at other choices. I’m intentionally choosing campers with prices under $10,000. You can find tons of these things all over the place!
1998 Chevrolet C/K 2500 With A Valor Camper – $8,500
This one’s a package deal, and you get an orange Chevy C/K 2500 with a Valor truck camper on top. The seller believes that the Valor is 1996. As J.D. Power notes, Valor ended camper production in 1996. So, if that model year is true, this is one of the last of Valor’s campers:
New Paris Enterprises Incorporated founded the Valor name in 1982 as a builder of camping trailers. Ranging from 11 to 20 feet in length, Valor camping trailers could comfortably sleep up to eight occupants for a weekend getaway. Also focused on the construction of truck campers from the mid-1980s through to the 1990s, Valor briefly produced a unique fifth wheel trailer that possessed a roof that could be lowered by two feet for less wind resistance during transport. Valor ended production after the 1996 model year.
Amazingly, Valor’s history is so short that the only solid information that I could find was from that J.D. Power blurb.
But despite the dead brand, you do get a lot for your buck, from hydraulic jacks and turnbuckles to a real bathroom with a toilet that dumps into a black tank. It also has solar panels, a house battery, a full-size bed, and even a heater for those cold days. And did I say that it also comes with a whole truck with service records and a relatively fresh transmission? Engine isn’t specified, but a common configuration is a 5.7-liter V8 making 255 HP. If you want it, you can get it in Milford, Michigan.
1999 Dutchmen Express 28A – $9,000
Want something that looks and feels modern? Yeah, don’t worry, you can even find one of those cheap, too! Save for the seats, this Dutchmen Express 28A looks like it was built in the past decade and provides 28 feet of living space.
It’s built on a Ford E-450 cutaway chassis and comes equipped with a 6.8-liter Triton V10. In this application, it’s making 305 HP and 420 lb-ft torque.
Dutchmen first opened up shop in 1988, building travel trailers and later fifth wheels. The company positioned itself as an entry-level brand, and grew fast enough to attract Thor Industries’ attention. And it became a part of Thor in 1991. There’s not much to say about the Dutchmen Express, aside from the fact that you get an RV that sleeps six with everything that you’d expect from a camper. The shower doesn’t look too bad, either! This one is in Harwich, Massachusetts.
This is to say that if you want to, you can get some pretty cool campers for dirt cheap. You can even find Class A rigs for under $10,000! I mean, take a look at this 1995 Thor Industries West Manor 3000 for just $6,000. It’s 30 feet of some decent luxury for the price.
This little guy has a huge awning, two air-conditioners, automatic leveling jacks, and the seller says that it doesn’t leak. Specific engine isn’t noted, but it’s fueled with gasoline. I’ve talked about Thor Industries a lot, but have never said where it came from. Thor was established in 1980 when Wade F. B. Thompson and Peter Busch Orthwein purchased Airstream.
You’d think the name would have to do with Norse mythology, but nope, it’s just a combination of its founders’ names. Thor collects different RV brands, but also makes its own motorhomes. Thor Industries West reportedly built Class A motorhomes from 1991 until 1999, when it was spun off into Mountainhigh Coachworks. This one is in Spanaway, Washington.
I’ve frequently written about absurdly expensive RVs, including near-six figure school buses with fire pits on top, Greyhound buses turned motorhomes, and all sorts of new campers that cost north of $50,000. But you don’t need to spend nearly that much to take yourself or your family on a camping trip. Old campers are practically worthless, and there are oh so many out there. Even better is the fact that winter is coming, so you’re bound to find some folks trying to get rid of their campers so they don’t have to pay to store them for the season. So you might get an even better deal.
Of course, as we’ve written about here, RV quality varies, as does the level in which someone has taken care of their rig. If you can, always get an inspection before parting ways with your cold, hard cash. With luck, you can find some sweet deals out there! Keep those awesome campers coming, and if you’re rocking an old RV, we want to know about it!
On one hand, I think that Starcraft fiberglass motorhome is awesome.
But on the other hand, I wouldn’t want to own it because of the cost of fuel and how much that old Chrysler 440 would drink. And I’m guessing that old girl needs a lot more than just a rebuilt carb.
If I had the money, I’d restore it and try to keep it as original as possible. Though instead of messing around with the existing or a new carb, I’d probably convert that Chrysler 440 to EFI so the fuel consumption will be a little less dreadful and make the vehicle easier to start and more pleasant to live with.
My recommendation for fiberglass and self propelled is Chinook, they lasted a long time and their credits include the Toyota pickup motorhome and the Blazer Chalet.
The problem with Stillplayswithcars’ math is that he’s forgetting that even at the end of its 10 life cycle (to him) it still has value. If it’s been cared for and it’s a premium version of that particular coach, it will still have quite a bit of its original value.
Another point is that people don’t just go to the same places – the coach has an engine, it can go just about anywhere you want. Going to the same cabin year in and out would get tiresome to me, and you have a TON of yearly maintenance to do on said cabin too.
We used to own a lake home, 2 hour drive from the house – the first day there was usually spent cleaning up from rodents and killing/removing wasps. Then it’s unloading all the stuff you brought for the weekend – clothes, bedding, food, drink. Sunday was spent on the lake, but by mid afternoon you’re getting loaded again, putting the boat away and closing up the house, then the 2 hour drive home, usually in traffic. And two times the house to furnish, clean, paint, repair etc. No thanks…..
I thought having a motorhome would be perfect for us, the two dogs travel easily in it, you don’t have to panic looking for a bathroom. If you want a coke or a sandwich you just pull over and get one. When you arrive for the night you don’t have to schlep all your crap in and out of the hotel room, then try to find a restaurant you like/can afford for dinner, then back to the room to watch TV till you fall asleep….and what do you do with the dogs? Can’t leave them in the hotel. Can’t take them to the restaurant, etc
I would prefer the RV, but the bride felt like if she had to cook and make the bed it’s not really a vacation for her, so we don’t have one.
Well, my math was based on the 10 year rule which I fully admit I was ignorant on. It seems it’s not nearly the big deal I original thought and that it’s fairly loosely enforced/not applicable at national parks. That certainly changes my math. However, my logical side wins out on RVs. I just don’t see the value they offer relative to the pains in the ass they appear to be based on Mercedes’ articles. But hey there are plenty of people who would say the same thing to me about my choice in vehicles so who am I to judge!
“Want something that looks and feels modern?”
(looks at upholstery in Dutchman’s interior)
It’s kinda modern….I guess….
Perhaps modern, as opposed to actually contemporary?
I mean, they’re probably still using that exact same upholstery in a brand new trailer for sale today. They liked the swoopy pattern so much they decided to put it on the outside these days too. 😉
Maybe it’s pre-postmodern…?
The thing to remember is buying a cheap RV is like buying a cheap house or car. Expect to spent double if not more than the asking price getting it in shape. I am sure these things have leaks that need to be addressed or damage from them.
Also many campsites have the 10 year rule as many RVs have issues like leaking black tanks (ewww) and other issues.
Yes the prices are higher, that is life. No longer can you get a full loaded new car for $20k and RVs/Trailers are not cheap either.
Wait really? There’s a 10 year rule at most campsites? Man I really don’t understand this corner of the motoring world then. Why would anyone ever pay the high cost of entry to take on the depreciation and maintenance nightmares? Just looking at some rough numbers. If an RV costs $100k, and you factor most people would realistically only use the thing for 2 weeks a year (15 nights), you’re looking at an average cost of $666 per night not including fuel, maintenance, repairs, and campsite fees. Based on my maths above you’d need to be spending upwards of 2 months PER YEAR over the 10 year span to make the cost somewhat worth it at $167 per night (plus running costs). I seriously just don’t get it man. I guess I’ve lit plenty of my money on fire on stupid stuff but GEEZ RV seem to be a whole new way to go bankrupt to me.
The 10 year rule is predominantly at private campgrounds in touristy areas, think Pigeon Forge or the acres of glamping in Florida.
But you don’t buy an RV because it makes financial sense. Same reason we all don’t drive Prius Cs and live in 600ft2 apartments in major cities. Sometimes we just want what we want, and that is OK.
That makes more sense then. I’m all for everyone being into their unique automotive kinks I’m just struggling to wrap my head around this particular one as I’d never given it much thought until Mercedes’ articles. However, if there was a 10 year ‘expiration’ date on RVs then man, that would just be an even harder sell to me.
The apartment is a terrible analogy.
What makes more financial sense? Paying rent for a tiny studio you’ll eventually get priced out of, or buying a big luxury suburban McMansion that you don’t need that will guaranteed appreciate faster than inflation as long as you never panic sell at the bottom of the market?
People live in the tiny apartment because they want that major city lifestyle. Not because it’s the smart financial move.
Your basic point is spot on though.
What I really don’t understand are the people who buy these six-figure RVs and then go to the same couple campgrounds most of the time. That makes no sense. You can have the same lifestyle, more comfort, and an appreciating investment if you just buy a cabin somewhere. And you might even get a toilet you don’t have to pump as part of the deal.
There’s a 10 year rule at “some” campgrounds. I’ve never run across one in Michigan. I have a 15 year old Airstream, which looks exactly the same on the outside as a new one, and I have a 1966 vintage camper. I’ve never had a problem with getting either into a campground. Often even the few campgrounds with a 10 year rule will make an exception if your rig is a restored vintage or you send photos showing that it’s in good condition. It’s really just a rule to keep derelict campers or what they deem “less desirable” campers out of the campground. Also, no state or national parks that I know of have these rules.
If you are handy, like many people on this site, a vintage camper is a good way to go. Mine has increased in value from when I’ve bought it, and there’s a whole community of vintage camper rallies that you can get into. Airstream also has a club and I’ve met great people at their rallies. The vintage Airstreams hold their value or increase in value. The ones like mine that are 15 years old have reached a much slower part of the depreciation curve and a lower price of entry, but still are a depreciating asset. We used it for 6 trips this year, so short and some long, but probably close to a month of total use. It makes our vacations cheaper (just gas, a campground fee, and food for cooking our own meals) and less stressful (pack the camper and you aren’t living out of a suitcase), but at the cost of a large upfront purchase. The Airstream was still what I would consider a “toy” purchase and has no payback, but I think it’s a better long term value than a new white box with swooshes. We enjoy camping and meeting other campers and would rather do that with our time off than jet off to some city and stay in a hotel. But it’s not for everyone.
I will grant you that Airstreams appear to go against all RV stereotypes in regards to durability.
” you’re looking at an average cost of $666 per night not including fuel, ”
At $666 per night, it’s clear that Satan has a hand in all of this…
That’s a private campground thing. Public campgrounds don’t have that rule. As a result there are some cool older campers that show up. Like an older Hi-Lo, some nice canned hams, and some interesting converted trailers.
No, many campsites – private ones – have that rule because they don’t want poors ruining the aesthetic.
The black and grey tanks on my 1986 Fireball trailer are tight, and the state parks don’t care that it was built in Ronald Reagan’s first term. The $200/night “resorts” at the beach would have a fit of the vapors, though.
I was thinking the exact same thing of the ten year rule. What if you did the front end conversion on the Econoline? The RV will look like it’s been produced in the last decade (if it’s in reasonably good shape) and they’ll be none the wiser. Or do they do something like check the registration or VIN?
Back in 2020, I took a cross-country road trip with friends. We all had beaters dolled up for the Gambler 500 rally in Oregon. My wife (then just girlfriend) and I slept in a tent in the bed of a 1997 Ford Ranger, one friend slept in a tent fished out of a rotted out Honda Del Sol, and the other two hauled a 1970s Trillium with a Star Wars-themed Toyota Sequoia. We found some campgrounds that didn’t like the idea of our rusty junkers cluttering up their pretty lots.
My current personal rule of thumb is that if a campground is serious about how old your rig is, then it’s probably not worth visiting in the first place. Thankfully, there are countless campgrounds in America, so we never had a problem finding an accepting one. I love going to state parks, where you get way more than just a place to set your trailer down, and in my experience, nobody cares if you’re towing an ancient camper with a rusty SUV.
I do not know if this is the same Starcraft, but in the 1980s one could buy a kit to transform an old Ford Cortina into a six wheeled camper. I think there was also a simpler version that used a P100 pick up as well. Here are some pictures,
I can smell the first picture. It smells like sex crimes being performed at a moldy show curtain factory.
The last one is kinda appealing for some reason. It’s like Tayo grew up and became an RV.
Now that’s the stuff! We all know RVs and campers hold their value about as well as fresh fish, so let’s see what we can get if we’re willing to shop the bottom of the depreciation curve. Personally I’ll take the Valor, just because I kinda love that orange truck. On the other hand, I’ve always wanted to try one of those V10 econolines.
I’d love to see more of this as a semi-regular feature. Also, dare I say it would be both fun and informative to see a deep dive into how one goes about inspecting a used RV pre-purchase? What should one be looking at when going through one of these things, and if you’re not going to do it yourself then how does one go about hiring a competent third party?
Oh those are very good ideas! To give you an idea of where we’re headed, the RV stuff will soon be splintering off into its own sub-section, which will include advice coming from professionals in this field. It’ll include stuff like how to go RVing in the winter, used purchases, RVs for people with limited mobility, and so on.
And of course, more cheap RVs are on the way!
As a new Maverick owner who’s fallen in love with Scamps, Casitas, and the CT-13…but knows next to nothing about campers, this would be greatly appreciated. Thanks for all the awesome content and the content yet to come!
If David buys that Starcraft, he might want to construct additional pylons for support.
My immediate thought was to buy it and put a note that says “Vespene gas” by the fuel gauge.
I came here to make the obligatory “pylons” bit, but you guys beat me to it. Instead I say “MY LIFE FOR AIUR!”
And keep on the lookout for Zergs
Glastron made a camper as well. If I recall correctly they used a 318 and Torqueflyte.
One popped up for sale in Nebraska for like $2,000 when I was living in Denver. I had to chain myself to a radiator to keep from going for it. Then adding insult to injury it turned up a block away from me and I had to see it every day.
It looked so cool.
We need Edit!!!
That Starcruiser green interior is acid trip without the acid. Jeebus. I’d probaly need some pink Pepto-bismol to counteract that after less than ten minutes on the road.
The whole thing looks like it was designed by Saudi Aramco to use as much gas as possible. It has the aerodynamics of a cinder block and then a 440 big block to boot. No doubt, it is backed up by a 3 speed automatic.
LOL! I wonder if it even hits 10 mpg at 60 mph.
Molds for big things like fibreglass boats etc. are usually made in two or more pieces even though the final product is laid up as one piece. This makes removal a lot easier/possible as well as handling and storage of the molds.
Thanks for this article, it really looks like an affordable danger zone.
As someone who used to work at a place that built fiberglass boats I can verify this. We had molds for the top and bottom of the boats.
So David’s thinking of buying the Starcraft, maybe for his move like Torch did a few years back? In that case what does Beau think about it? That’s not just a rhetorical question, because given LA’s (and damn near everywhere else’s) housing shortage it may well wind up long-term parked on the Galpin property with or without David living in it.
I could live in it, then just walk right out front and wrench on my Nash Metropolitan. The dream!
On the assumption that the Nash won’t ever move, why does your house have to?
And while we’re on the subject of stationary mobile homes, why would you want to attract tornadoes to your project car?
Tornados like mobile home parks, not motorhomes. And they aren’t really a thing in SoCal.
Have some faith. I’ve seen that Nash in person. It’s one good weekend of wrenching away from purring like a kitten.
The ideal gearhead home is an old firehouse. Big garage down stairs. Good parking lot space. You live upstairs and you can slide down the pole to get to wrenching. You can even pretend to be a real firefighter and leave your pants at the bottom.
It’s an excellent choice for Ghostbusters as well.
I hate the fact that I didn’t think of it. I really like the idea of hangar house as well. Hoovie’s garage did a video on that, it would be perfect, plenty of room for cars and partying. And by partying, I just mean sit on the couch with my cats and watch television.
Now the real trick is to slide down the pole… and straight into your pants!