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The Ford American Road Restoration From Hell

Get ready for the most utterly outrageous truck camper restoration story you have ever heard.  It all starts with a breakdown.  Then everyone falls through, falls out, and it rains.  And that’s just the beginning.

American Road Camper Restoration

In 1973, Ford Motor Company and Starcraft RV partnered to develop and manufacture the American Road, a truck camper decades ahead of its time.

44 years after the debut, the American Road remains a unique and compelling statement in truck camper history.  From its smart floor plan, to the fiberglass shell construction, to the use of basement holding tanks, the American Road design could be considered competitive with the non-slide truck campers in production today.

Unfortunately, the timing of the American Road launch coincided with the 1973-1974 oil embargo and crisis, the 1973-1974 stock market crash, and the resulting high inflation and 9-percent unemployment.

Requiring a fuel thirsty one-ton truck and priced at the very top of the truck camper market, the American Road was not successful in this environment.  By most estimates, less than 1,000 were built and the American Road was cancelled in 1974.  Many truck camper and RV manufacturers followed.

Looking back, the American Road represents something of a pinnacle of 70s truck camper design.  In the wake of the 70s recession, the major RV manufacturers turned away from truck campers and focused on trailers and motorhomes.  Along with Avion, Amerigo, and Alaskan, the American Road needs to be recognized for its ground breaking influence.

Tony Tabacchi fell in love with the American Road as a teenager.  When he and his wife, Michelle, decided to get into camping, he recalled the sleek fiberglass vision of the American Road, and decided to track one down.  At long last, he would have an American Road truck camper and match it to his dad’s 1973 Ford F350 Super Camper Special.  What a perfect dream.

Well, that’s not exactly how things went down.  After everything that happened, it’s amazing that Tony and Michelle survived the experience, much less completed the project.  Prepare yourself for what has to be one of the most insane truck camper restorations stories ever told.

American Road on American Road

Above: Tony and Michelle’s restored American Road camper on American Road

TCM: How did you become interested in truck campers and Ford’s American Road?

Tony: My dad special ordered a 1973 Ford F350 brand new when I was 14 years old.  We had a Travel Queen truck camper at the time.

Back then, I often looked at dealer brochures of the Ford American Road truck campers.  I remember thinking they were very cool looking and that stuck in my head all these years.  Even today, nothing looks like a Ford American Road.

American Road Ford Camper advertisement

Above: An advertisement for Starcraft and Ford’s American Road truck camper

Starcraft manufactured the American Road campers as a joint venture with Ford Motor Company.  They were specifically made to pair with the Ford F350 Camper Special.  The American Road features Ford branded automotive glass and a few other items are Ford branded.

TCM: How did you end up restoring an American Road?

Tony: We actually started with a pop-up camper.  I wanted something vintage to pull behind our 1972 Ford station wagon and found an older Apache pop-up in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Because I don’t do anything the easy way, I drove to Ann Arbor to get it.

Once I got it home, I realized that I couldn’t easily crank the roof up and down because of my bad shoulders.  We camped in it once or twice, but the set up was too much work.

Camper Coachman Cover, March 1973

Above: Camper Coachman Cover, March 1973

As this was going on, I kept thinking that I had to find an American Road.  I brought out the old brochures and started looking for one online.

RV World Magazine Evaluation

Above: RV World Evaluation, February/March 1974

Popular Science Article on The American Road, June 1973

Above: Popular Science article, June 1973

I soon discovered that they were very hard to find.  Starcraft only made about 850 American Roads.  That’s why so few turn up on the used market 40-plus years later.

Then I came across a website on American Road truck campers by a fellow named Johnny in Oregon.  He posted that he would no longer be doing the website, so I volunteered to take it over.

In the meantime, I found an American Road on eBay for $1,700 in southern California and bought it.  That was the beginning of my love affair and nightmare with American Road truck campers.

The owners told us that we had to come get it that weekend.  The camper was in a mobile home park and it immediately had to go.  We took our 1973 Ford F350 to get serviced and hit the road to pick it up.

The truck made it 750 of the 755 miles through the 118 degree desert.  Then, as we were going straight up a mountain, the truck broke a valve spring.  It was total panic as we were with our five dogs.  I was not prepared for that extensive of a breakdown.  Finally, we found a tow truck and, $200 later, we got it five miles up the hill.

From that point it was a comedy of errors.  Michelle fell out of the tow truck.  Then we were clearly not welcome in the mobile home park.

When we did get into the mobile home park, the camper had been there forever, so we couldn’t really get to it.  A huge tree branch was preventing the camper from being lifted high enough to get the truck underneath, so we dug trenches and deflated the tires in order to gain the necessary clearance.

American Road Camper in California

Above: The American Road in the mobile home park

Eventually we built a trench, and got it out in one piece.  While that was going on, Michele walked five miles to get a used part from a Chevy 454 to get the truck up and running.  Finding parts for a 43 year old truck in a small town on the weekend proved to be quite challenging.

Finally the camper was on the truck and we headed back to Albuquerque.  At 2:00am, we got tired and pulled over to sleep in the camper.  Inside, the camper reeked of cat urine, but we still crawled through the junk on the top bed and passed out.

A few minutes later, we fell straight through the cabover onto the cab of the truck.  Then it started raining on us through the broken roof vent.  It’s funny now, but it was the most stressful, horrible, and longest 23 hours of our lives.

First American Road Camper

Above: Their American Road camper back home in Albuquerque

When we got home, I backed the American Road into the driveway and thought, “What on Earth have we done?”  We had spent $1,700 on the camper, more than $1,000 on the trip, and it nearly got us killed.

TCM: How is it that you fell through the cabover?  Aren’t American Road campers clamshell fiberglass?

Tony: The fiberglass shell does not wrap around the whole body of the camper.  There is no fiberglass underneath the cabover or the bottom belly of the camper.

American Road undercoat restoration

Above: The fiberglass does not wrap around the entire bottom belly of the camper; this picture is after Tony restored camper’s belly

The cabover floor is a wood platform and the wood had rotted.  It would have been better if they made it fiberglass, but they didn’t.  It’s just the outer upper shell that’s fiberglass.

The particular American Road I had purchased was cut in some key structural areas to make it fit a utility truck.  Despite this and the fact that the cabover floor had rotted, there were many good parts of the camper.  The appliances, including the refrigerator, were particularly good.

After buying my first American Road, I found another one in Portland, Oregon for $1,900.  That price was for both the truck and the camper.

Second American Road Camper

Above: The second American Road camper in Oregon

This time, Michelle said I had to go get the camper myself.  I called the guy, flew up to Oregon, and started driving the 1,500 mile trip back.

Blue American Road Camper

Above: The second American Road camper in Oregon after a car wash

Three hours from home, I hit a deer and busted the radiator.

Busted the radiator after hitting a deer

Above: On the way home from Portland, Tony busted the radiator after hitting a deer

Naturally I was out of cell phone range in the middle of nowhere.  I walked until I got cell coverage, and called Michelle.  She and a friend pulled the radiator from our other truck, drove it to me, and I fixed it.

Third American Road Camper from California

Above: Tony’s third American Road Camper, from California

Then, a third American Road showed up as “free to good home”.  That camper was in Arroyo Grande, California.  We drove the Portland blue truck out to California to get the third camper.  The camper was buried in a sand dune that we had to dig out.

Three American Road Truck Campers

Above: Three American Road Campers

So now we have three of these American Road Campers.  The Portland camper is the one that we’ve actually rebuilt.  The rebuilt camper has the major components from first California camper.  I must have 1,500 hours in this thing.

TCM: That’s one heck of a story Tony.  After all the disasters, are you still passionate about American Road campers?

Tony: Yes, definitely.  The American Road was so ahead of its time.  It’s so aerodynamic that I don’t even know it’s there when we’re driving.  It fits the truck superbly and matches it really well.  As I did when I was a kid, I still like the aesthetics.  It’s not just a labor of love, it’s a practical and functional camper.

1974 Ford F350 camper advertisement

At the time, the American Road was a high quality camper.  It was $4,700 in the 1970s (about $25,000 in 2016 dollars).  The American Road I bought in Portland had all the original paperwork.  That’s neat because it’s like a time capsule.

American Road campers in driveway

Above: The first two American Road campers in their driveway

TCM: Tell us a little about the restoration process.  How did you make one American Road from the three that you had purchased?

Tony: I bought the original American Road in August of 2013 and started with that.  My intention was to rebuild the fiberglass part that was missing.  I did a lot research and head scratching, and started accumulating parts.  For example, the clearance lights were still available.  My goal was to keep it as original as possible.

In reality, I was in over my head.  I’m not a carpenter by trade.  The previous owner of the first California camper tried to make repairs, but it was so unbelievably bad.  I didn’t even know what it was supposed to look like.  Making matters worse, the camper had termites, wood ants, and was saturated with cat urine.  It was practically a biohazard.

Thankfully, the Portland camper came up about a year after I purchased the first California camper; about Thanksgiving of 2014.  That’s when things took off.  The Portland camper was actually usable.

I put the Portland camper on the red truck, got the exterior cleaned up, and replaced the wood grain on the outside.  At that point, the exterior looked good.

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Rear floor section that had rotted out.

Rear floor section

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Rotten wood needed to be removed.

Rotten wood

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Rotten areas removed. Starting the clean-up process.

Rotten areas removed

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Rotten areas removed. Starting the clean-up process.

Rotten areas removed

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After the cabinets and appliances are removed, reality is starting to set in.

The cabinets and appliances removed

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The lower floor exposed. The tanks are sandwiched between the floor

The lower floor exposed

Above: Rotten areas were removed, starting the clean-up process – click on photos to read more detailed captions

The inside was a mess.  A friend who is a carpenter gave me a jump start.  With his help I saw what I needed to do.

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Red oak studs to replace rotten pine.

Red oak studs

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Ceiling with new structure and added insulation.

Ceiling being redone

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Ceiling structural repairs

Ceiling structural repairs

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New bathroom floor.  Foam insulation like original, only a lot more of it.

New bathroom floor

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Rebuilding the left side of the camper.

Rebuilding left side

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Left and right sides starting to go back together.

Left and right sides

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New rear floor going in.

New rear floor

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New rear floor coming together.

New rear floor

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The overcab bed area was completely redone.

New overcab bed panel

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LPG compartment being built.

LPG compartment

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LPG compartment on the back overhang of the camper

LPG compartment

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New structure and insulation

New structure and insulation

Above: The restoration process – click on photos to read more detailed captions

I literally look a year off from work, and went gang busters on the restoration.

New countertop American Road Camper

I wanted to keep the vintage look.  I kept all the cabinet doors and the original layout of the camper.  The formica countertop was rotten, but I found a laminate that was similar looking and recreated the formica areas.  It’s not exact, but it’s close.

1973 American Road Camper restored dinette and floor

I desperately tried to find the 70s era shag carpeting that originally came with the camper, but it’s not available.  Then I looked for a 1970s linoleum pattern, but wound up going with a more modern linoleum.

American Road Camper wet bath

The camper has a bathroom with a shower, sink, and Thetford toilet.  The bathroom is a one piece fiberglass stall, which was challenge to get in and out.

I was able to keep the original fresh and grey tanks.  They are sandwiched in between the bottom and upper floor, which keeps them protected and keeps the weight down low.  The black tank is in back on the outside and has a strange shape or I would’ve tried to replace it.  It was repairable.  All three are in the camper and functional.  I added tank sensors and a monitor panel.

American Road Camper venetian blinds

The windows are all original and in great shape.  We put venetian blinds in which are wood and match the interior.  The originals were cloth and off-white, which you can see in the brochure.

Reupulster the cushions in vintage camper

I had to reupholster the cushions because the first camper had the cat urine, and the second and third were moldy and disgusting.

Interior of 1973 American Road Ford Camper

I tried to find a plaid pattern that was similar to the original, and eventually found something with the right 70s colors.  If someone didn’t know, they might think they were originals.

Refrigerator from 1973 American Road Camper

The Dometic refrigerator came out of the first camper.  Interestingly, it was a little larger than the refrigerator in the Portland camper, so I had to modify the cabinets.

American Road Camper new ceiling headliner

Above: The new headliner using material from all three campers

The headliner is a molded plastic.  Between the three campers, I was able to make a nice, clean headliner.  I took it out, scrubbed it, and repainted it.  Taking it off was scary because I was not sure how I was going to proceed if I ruined it.

I took the 6500 BTU air conditioner off the first California camper.  The air conditioner cover is fiberglass, so I redid the gel coat, and recreated the original Duo Therm decals.

I am very fortunate to have met some people in Indiana who sold me some of the original Ford American Road decals.  They have a box full of these.  This was a great find.

I have gone through the plumbing.  Much of the plumbing is the original, including the water pump.

Modern tank switches in American Road Camper

I did install a new Suburban six gallon hot water heater with electric ignition.  I am using the original Suburban furnace.  You have to light the pilot light, which is inconvenient.  Eventually I will get a new furnace with electronic ignition.

American Road controls

Two of the converters are still working.  They are 30-amps, and not the greatest.  Most of our camping is dry camping, so it’s not a big deal.

12-volt-outlet-radio

I added some 110-volt and 12-volt outlets.  In the picture above is a 12-volt DC socket on the left and MP3 on the right.

factory-radio

Above: Here is a vintage intercom for communicating with the people in the cab.  Riding in the camper is frowned upon these days.

The camper had a factory AM/FM radio, which was an option at the time.  I put in a hidden sound system with upgraded speakers and mp3 capability.

Exterior Lights F350 and American Road Camper

The interior light fixtures are all original, but they have LED bulbs in them.  The exterior clearance lights look like the originals, but they are also LEDs.  The biggest reason for us going LED is to use less battery power.

TCM: How many batteries can your camper accommodate?

Tony: There is no battery compartment in the American Road.  We have two batteries under the hood of the truck.  One of the batteries in the truck is dedicated just to the camper.  It has an isolator, and the truck charges both.  In the future, I want to add a vented battery box in a cabinet.  I also want to add a 150-watt solar panel.

TCM: From experience, two Group 27 or better batteries, all-LED interior lighting, and 150 watts of solar is a fantastic combination.  After your year of restoration, what advice do you have for others who want to restore a vintage unit?

Tony: It can become overwhelming very quickly.  I would suggest starting with one end of the camper.  I did it in sections.  If I took too much apart at once, I was afraid the camper would implode.

Restoring a camper dinette

Above: Working on the dinette of the American Road

Once the wood inner structure comes out, the fiberglass shell becomes flimsy.  I did the right side and right wall first, and then the left side, and then the rear floor and forward floor, and then the overcab.  I didn’t go to a new section until I got the last part done.  If I did it all at once, it might still be a pile right now.  My wife has been my cheerleader.

Gutting out the American Road truck camper

There was one point last year that I worked eight to ten hours a day, seven days a week.  There were many areas that were completely rotted out that I had to re-do.  Now I think it is more solid than it was new.

Campers are constant maintenance.  You need to cap seal all the leak-prone areas a couple times a year.  Try to keep your camper covered or indoors.  The elements will destroy it.

My best advice is don’t bite off more than you can chew.  Don’t expect to be done in three months.  It’s a lot of work, and you need to stick to it.  It’s also going to cost a lot of time and money.  Try to estimate how long it will take to complete and what it will cost. Then, triple your numbers for a more realistic figure.

TCM: What are you going to do with the other two campers now that you’re done this camper?

Tony: Sadly, the original California camper is no longer here.  Once I had removed everything that was usable, the remaining shell was not worth saving.  We strapped the broken hulk down in the blue truck, had a moment of silence, reminisced about the infamous California trip, and headed to the landfill where it was crushed into oblivion.

American Road camper going to a landfill

Above: After the usable parts were taken out, the original camper was given to a landfill

The third camper is in a storage lot with some of the remaining pieces stored in it from the first camper.  It is restorable right now, but it needs a lot of work.  It’s doable.  If I live long enough and we don’t go belly up with the cost of this one, I will get that one put back together, too.

If someone is desperate for one of these, we can work something out.  Somebody has to have the skills and determination to do it.

Ford truck advertisement 1973

TCM: Tell us about your 1973 Ford F350.  That’s a beautiful vintage truck.

Tony: My truck is very sentimental because my dad ordered it, and he loved camping.  We would go hunting and fishing together and the truck was his pride and joy.  Other than camping, he barely used it.  Over the years, dad had two campers; a Travel Queen and a Franklin camper.

1973 Ford Camper Special truck

Above: Tony and Michelle with their 1973 Ford F350

The 1973 Ford F350 has 70,000 miles and a 9,500 GVWR.  As a Super Camper Special, Ford extended the wheelbase about 7½” for better weight distribution, so it’s built for a truck camper.  It’s a work horse.

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Above: Restoring the 1973 Ford F350

The truck has a big 460 V8 engine and gets 10 miles per gallon empty, and 9 miles per gallon with camper loaded.  It would be nice to have a modern diesel but, for its age, it works well.  When it’s not breaking valve springs, it will cruise at 75 miles per hour with the camper all day long and not break a sweat.  People love this thing; we get thumbs up everywhere we go.

Two 1973 Ford Camper Special Trucks

Above: Tony’s two 1973 Ford F350 trucks

The other 1973 Ford F350 is cosmetically ugly, but it’s a good truck.  It’s had two owners.  The truck only has 46,000 miles on it and original paperwork.  It was in California and then Portland with salt air and humidity, which was not good for it.  It’s crusty, but not rusted out.  It rides like a new truck.  It’s an identical truck to my dad’s truck.  It can go with the other American Road.

TCM: Tell us about your American Road owners club; americanroadcamper.com.

Tony: That’s been one of the best parts of this whole thing.  I’ve become acquainted with some fun people and have some great friends around country that I’ve never met in person.  We did meet one fellow and his lovely wife from Houston who came into town and had dinner with us.  I helped him find an American Road camper which he bought.

I’ve threatened to have an American Road round-up.  We can meet and have a camping party.  I have 42 people who subscribe to my blog.  I need to update the blog now that my American Road is ready to go and about 90-percent done.

As a group, we have 26 or 27 American Road campers, and we have listed the serial numbers.  I think realistically there are only 100 American Road campers left because they only made about 1,000.  After seeing how rotten they can be after all these years, it stands to reason that they have mostly gone by the wayside.

Johnny, the original owner of the American Road website, tried to contact Starcraft for more information on the American Road, but the company has been sold three times and there’s evidently no information.

I even sent Ford some pictures and details on our camper hoping they might take an interest, but I never heard back.  Trying to find more history has been challenging.

I’ve heard stories about American Road campers going into landfills.  A tornado even took one.  I know of a person who has more American Road campers than we do.  He’s crazier than I am.  People are really passionate about American Road campers.

My current job actually came about because of my camper.  I was going to this RV dealership to buy parts.  I decided to work there, and started off as Porter, then a Service Writer, and now I’m doing paint and body work on million dollar coaches.

American Road Truck Camper in New Mexico

Above: Camping at El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

TCM: Where have you gone so far with your camper?

Tony: This coming summer is the summer of the camper.  I’m promising that to Michelle.

I was lucky to travel through some of the country when I brought back the Portland camper.  I went on the Oregon trail and to some national parks.  I was alone, and it would have been more fun with Michele.

We have only had the camper out three times.  This past summer we could have taken it out, but it wasn’t really ready and we were too busy with our jobs.  We have sat in the camper on occasion to have dinner and drink a glass of wine.

I hope that we can use our American Road for a few years before our health gives out.  The adventure of getting it to this point has been great!

After entering the 2016 Truck Camper Magazine Calendar Contest I had two strangers come up to me about my camper.  One stopped by our house and brought us a printed picture he got from TCM.  I have also met TCM readers at the dealership I work at and they have said that they love Truck Camper Magazine.


TCM: Well, they’re going to love seeing this article.  Thanks, Tony!

Tony and Michelle’s Rig
Truck: 1973 Ford F350 Super Camper Special
Camper: 1973 Ford American Road Camper
Tie-Downs/Turnbuckles: Original Ford Camper Special frame mount tie-downs, spring loaded turnbuckles
Suspension: Original Factory

 

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