There’s something about aluminum trailers.
Whether parked by a windswept beach or rolling down a lonely highway, the sleek silver tubes evoke a unique set of emotions: a yearning for the open road, nostalgia for a simpler time, craving for new adventures, and freedom from our workaday lives.
John Long understands. The Canadian tech entrepreneur and vintage auto collector bought a rare 1935 Bowlus travel trailer and spent a decade meticulously restoring it. As he rode it cross-country with his family, he was shocked at how many people shared his zeal (one admiring stranger followed Long on the highway for two hours, waiting for him to pull into a rest stop, so he could get a better look).
Realizing that his personal passion might be a pretty cool business, Long secured the rights to the Bowlus brand, originally founded by Hawley Bowlus (builder of the Spirit of St. Louis, Charles Lindbergh’s plane). The orders started rolling in, fast and furious.
Long’s newly resurrected Bowlus Road Chief reflects the riveted retro aluminum travel trailer of the 1930s, but with modern technology and luxuries. To see one is to want one.
Long and his wife/business partner Helena Mitchell expect the company’s new Oxnard headquarters to be fully up and running this summer. Here’s what they told us:
What made you decide to relocate from Toronto to Oxnard?
Long: Ventura County is beautiful. Also, the original Bowlus was built in San Fernando, so it has a Southern California heritage. Plus there are a lot of aircraft manufacturing businesses in Southern California, and the Bowlus is riveted the same way as a Boeing. So we thought we would be able to find good skilled labor.
Mitchell: We believe that Southern California will be a good market for us. We expect a lot of sales from the area.
How is the new Bowlus Road Chief different from the Airstreams we see around?
Long: The Bowlus is the original riveted aluminum trailer that all the others came from, so you have the incredible heritage. But in addition to that, three things make Bowlus unique:
One, it’s ultra-lightweight. It weighs just 2,000 pounds. You don’t need a big truck to pull it.
Two, it’s the most aerodynamic trailer ever made. Because of its shape, there’s much less drag, less wind buffeting. Gas consumption is greatly reduced.
And three, it’s convenient. We wanted to build a trailer that people can easily take out just for the day. It parks in a standard-sized garage; it’s easy to hitch up to your car. You can park it all sorts of places — I like to park between trees.
What is it like inside?
Long: It’s 20 feet long inside. In back, there’s a private stateroom—with a door—with twin beds that convert to a king. There’s a three-by-five-foot washroom. The living room includes a couch, two chairs, and table. I like sitting back on the couch reading a book, surrounded by windows, with my feet up.
It has a heated floor—I get cold feet, so that’s really nice. There’s also a charging station for laptops, cell phones, and iPads. And the galley has a stove and refrigerator.
Mitchell: The galley, with the high-end Italian cooktop, is my favorite feature. The fridge is big enough, and I love that I can prepare a really fabulous meal on the cook’s kitchen.
I understand you’re a tech guy. How did you end up in the trailer biz?
Long: I owned an Internet company, and I retired from that. I’m a vintage car collector, so as one of my retirement projects, I wanted to restore a vintage trailer. I bought a 1935 Bowlus Road Chief, which I restored to its original condition over ten years. Just 80 Bowlus trailers were ever built—in 1934, 1945, and 1936—and about half of them still exist. That started my fascination with Bowlus trailers. I wrote a book on the subject—“Bowlus Trailer, Origin of the Species”— and took the trailer across the country four times.
Tell us about the restoration of your 1935 Bowlus.
Long: The exterior was intact. But someone had added unoriginal windows, so I had to bring back the original curved windows. The interior wood walls and seats were not in good shape, so I had to replace all the wood.
Everything that I restored is true to the era—even the sconces on the wall were exactly reproduced. But I also added hidden modern features. For example, I installed a toilet and refrigerator. The old trailers had ice boxes, but it’s hard to find 25-pound blocks of ice today.
Mitchell: But you need to know that he did consider putting in an ice box. John’s passion is on the edge of crazy.
And you loved your Bowlus so much that you decided to keep on building them?
Long: I was taken aback at the response from the public. During Modernism Week in Palm Springs, 3,0000 people came through our trailer.
Then my son, who is 6’3”, mentioned, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a trailer that I could fit into?” The original Bowlus is not tall enough for him.
So I said, “Why don’t we build one?” I thought it would be a challenging and fun project to build a prototype, to see if we could.
From that idea, we started the business, bought the machinery, secured the trademark, and designed it. It was two years in development.
How is the new Bowlus Road Chief similar and different from the original?
Long: I wanted it to look identical, but be more usable.
The new Bowlus Road Chief is four inches higher and seven inches wider—enough space to add all the luxury features and technologies that have evolved since 1935. We added air conditioning and propane tanks. We put in a toilet and shower, and separate stateroom in the back. We increased the beds’ width, so they’re more comfortable. We installed refrigerators.
Also, the new Bowlus Road Chief is built with an aluminum frame. The back frame of the original Bowlus was steel. An Airstream also has a steel frame. It’s quite an engineering challenge to build an aluminum frame, and it costs a lot more. But this is why it’s so immensely strong and lightweight, with nothing to rust.
Mitchell: But as we brought back the brand, we respected and stayed true to the original. John always asks himself, “What would Hawley do?”
And how are people responding?
Mitchell: We were completely surprised at the amount of people interested. We almost immediately had a full year of reservations and had to ramp up production.
Long: We expected a lot slower build up. We didn’t realize how many people shared our passion.
How long does it take to make a Bowlus?
Long: Eight to nine months. Each Bowlus is handmade, and a lot of labor goes into each one.
Mitchell: Some people want their trailers customized with sound systems and televisions. Another client wanted us to create stairs for their dachshunds. We customize the experience for each owner.
Long: The client chooses options, such as linens and fabrics. And each owner names the trailer. We put the name on the fender strips on each side. Each trailer is unique to that owner.