Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a caravan. Meet the Aerocamper.
This extraordinary contraption is the brainchild of Phil Collins, who built it in his front garden, in his spare time, over a period of about four years. But what exactly is it?
The main structure is provided by the fuselage of a 1964 Piper Comanche light aircraft, bought via eBay for around £350.
“I was concerned that when an aircraft reaches its expiry date, there are many ways in which it could be repurposed,” he explains.
“After all, here you have a weathertight, insulated container with windows and doors already fitted. And it is lightweight, so it’s ideal for transporting.
“I’d had a bee in my bonnet about a project like this for years, typing the search term ‘fuselage’ into eBay time and again,” he confesses.
“Every day there would be a dozen or so, but they were always model aeroplanes. Then one day, up came this Piper Comanche fuselage, a real one. ‘Wow!’ I thought, ‘I’ve got to make up my mind now – am I serious?’”
Phil had enjoyed tent camping and then caravanning during his childhood. When his own children were young, he hired a tourer from friends and towed it to France, staying at a coastal campsite in the Vendée region.
But this was all a million miles away from building his own caravan from scratch – so how did he do it?
Full-size Airfix kit
“Most of the designing, such as it was, got done inside my head,” he says. “But there comes a time when you have to draw things out before you start cutting metal.
“And if you’re asking someone else, such as a blacksmith, to make a part, it’s got to be a good drawing so that the piece fits. When designing the table and chairs, I found it useful to have a full-size template of an average-sized man, with arms and legs articulated, so that I could sit it inside the fuselage and work out the seating positions.”
It’s amazing to learn that Phil did most of the work himself, the many trips from his front garden to his workshop at the bottom of his steep back garden keeping him fit!
“I had help with welding,” he says, “and got a couple of components made by the local blacksmith, who is a friend. But all the rest of the fabrication and trimming I did myself.”
His first job was to get the fuselage up onto wheels. “I built a heavy axle in the location of the wing main spar, and attached rubber-bushed trailing arms and wheels from trailer parts suppliers. Despite its reasonable size, the finished Aerocamper weighs just 500kg, so no brakes are required.”
The fuselage had a tailfin but not a tailplane, so this was one of the parts he sourced from aircraft breakers.
It also came without wings, so he made the ‘stub’ wings from aluminium with a pop-riveter: “They look appropriate, because the rest of the fuselage is held together by rivets.”
First class travel
Peek inside, and you’ll be astonished when you see what Phil has managed to squeeze into the tight space at his disposal.
A triangular bed goes into the tail – “you could only sleep two people in it if they were very cosy with each other!” – and he has also fitted some small cupboards along the offside wall to house essentials such as cutlery, crockery, a kettle and, of course, teabags.
The instrument panel appears authentic, but the dials are paper: “It is actually a secret cupboard, where I keep my underclothes and t-shirts.”
And that’s not all: “I use a couple of 12V coolboxes as a fridge, and these slide into the space under the ‘instrument panel’ where your feet would normally be.”
There are also a few lockers under the front of the bed to store bedding, plus some narrow lockers above it, suitable only for small items.
All mod cons?
But surely there’s no kitchen, right? Wrong!
Phil didn’t want to cook within the fuselage, not only because it could pose a fire risk being such a confined space, but also to prevent the Aerocamper’s living area becoming a bit smelly.
His ingenious solution is rather special: “The cooker is housed underneath the nose panel, like a bonnet, on the outside.
“The downside is that, as with any open-air camping, the cooker is at the mercy of the prevailing winds, so I made a windshield for it!”
A sink, made from a stainless-steel dog bowl, slides out from beneath the cooker table with a water spigot over it.
Also accommodated in the nose are a water container, a leisure battery, a spare wheel and jack, gas bottles, and a cupboard for pots and pans and other camping accessories.
To prove that Phil really has thought of everything, an umbrella fits into a socket next to the cooker, so you can prepare meals in the rain without getting too wet.
Oh, and there’s a second water spigot and bowl inside, by the bed, so he can prepare his morning cuppa from bed!
However, what he’s most pleased with are the compact table and chairs, designed to work in this small space: “I made them so they fold away against the side, leaving you room to turn around.”
“I was looking to replace a tired Vauxhall Astra with something interesting,” he recalls.
“I saw the CX in a pub car park and didn’t know what it was, but it had instant X-factor. I liked it and wanted one.”
Power comes from a 2.5-litre, fuel-injected engine mated to an automatic gearbox, giving more than sufficient go for towing. It doesn’t take too close a look to realise, however, that this is another of Phil’s projects.
He took the Citroën to a company called CX-Basis in Germany, where the surgery took place, and the former four-wheeler gained an axle and had its bodywork extended.
“The Citroën is a conversion of a standard CX Safari,” he continues. “Hundreds of these ‘loadrunners’ were built on the Continent in the 1980s. They were used mainly for high-speed overnight delivery of newspapers.
“There are a few left on the Continent and I know of only one other in the UK. My car is not one of the originals, though.
“I decided a few years later to put the towball on the back for protection from a rear-end collision. Then I thought, ‘What can I tow with it?’ And the rest, as they say, is history.”
The perfect outfit
Together, the Aerocamper and the six-wheeled CX make an eye-catching outfit – and Phil is delighted with them.
You won’t be surprised to learn that they provoke a great reaction when out on the road and on-site, too.
“I get lots of smiles, people pointing and small voices saying, ‘Look Mummy!’ – not to mention older voices using expletives!
“When it is pitched, children all come round to look and ask questions. What they really want, though, is to get inside. And the mums and dads are never far behind, equally intrigued.”
As Phil reveals that he stores the Aerocamper in his front garden “with other projects”, we’re curious to know what else is in the pipeline.
“I always have ideas, but as the years go by I get slower,” he answers with a smile.
“If I could have, I would have made a house out of an aircraft, but I never even tried to do that.” Maybe next time?
You’ll be astonished when you see what Phil has managed to squeeze into this tight space!