Meet my boyfriend, Allen Long, his 2012 MINI Coupe, and his Teardrop Camper.
In the late summer of 2013, my parents came back from a motorcycle trip and showed me a photo of a guy pulling a camper behind his motorcycle. I was fascinated. I’ve always enjoyed camping, since I drive a MINI Coupe that doesn’t fit all of my camping gear, building a camper would make camping much more accessible for me again. A couple days later I saw a rendering of a MINI pulling a teardrop camper—and that looked pretty spectacular. I’m a fan of small, intricate things that are tightly integrated and require precision, and the idea of partnering the MINI with the camper really intrigued me, so even though I knew it would be challenging, I also knew that being put to the test would also be part of the fun.
The first challenge was the weight. MINI doesn’t rate their vehicles for towing of any kind, but I did some research on hitch ratings and manufacturers, and found if I stayed under 1,200 pounds total weight and 100 pounds directly on the hitch, I could safely tow a camper. Then it was a race to the finish line. (I started building in in my parents’ garage, but they were moving in a couple months and I didn’t want to finish in the driveway of my apartment building!)
Design challenges were what made the project fun—fitting everything I needed into the constraints of size and weight. Researching vintage blueprints and other people’s camper designs and reading old editions of Popular Mechanics gave me lots of ideas, and when I had it all together I modeled the whole thing in a 3-D modeling program. The whole camper is only eight feet long, so the 3-D model really helped me to tighten up the final product. There is no wasted space, and every opportunity I had to pack a feature in—I did. The sleeping chamber fits two people, and I was very lucky to find the perfect 8 inch thick memory foam mattress on clearance. I was amazed to find that it only needed slight trimming to fit the cabin. As you lay inside, your head is towards the front, and your feet are in a little cove in the back, below the pantry in the hatch. A fan, and directional LED lights in the front and back draw little energy and could operate continuously for at least four days with a standard car battery.
The style is a classic teardrop shape I borrowed from the Benroy model. This classic style has a hinged hatch on the back that opens to a small galley kitchen, always configured differently based on their builder’s preference. I built my galley cabinetry of the same material I used throughout the camper: marine grade plywood, a special-order wood that prevents rotting if water gets in. I oriented the edges to prevent seepage, and sealed the wooden edges with marine sealer. The hinge I selected for the hatch is called “Hurricane hinge” because it won’t let water in regardless of its location or position.
Inside the hatch I built pantries on either side of the workspace for food and utensils. There is also a four-burner gas range salvaged from an old pop-up camper, which has been great for baking up hot biscuits. The exterior is satin-finish aluminum sheeting typically used for building custom racecars, and it reflects the heat very well. It “floats” on the plywood skin and is held by retention at the edges and special putty that secures the hand-bent aluminum trim which expands and contracts with the heat and sun to keep everything fastened throughout the seasons. Full-surround insulation keeps the cabin cozy, too. I didn’t have enough time to make a custom door, so I spent a little extra money on a commercial door. I also cut custom vinyl strips to match the racing stripes on my MINI, which my brother helped me install. I estimate that the total project cost was less than $2,800.
It took a lot of evenings and weekends over that summer and winter to finish. I took off an entire week off work to put the finishing touches on with my dad. It’s neat that my family got involved. Both my father and my girlfriend Caren, spent many hours with me helping me build the camper. Among many other things, Caren found the red and white outdoor fabric at Ikea and helped me make an awning, chairs, umbrellas and rugs that match the colors of my MINI. Caren also drives a MINI (it’s how we met) and we enjoy participating in MINI events and road trips, including a MINI-sponsored cross-country trip last summer (the camper’s first road trip). My parents now want me to build a larger version for them to tow motorcycles.
It’s been a great opportunity for me to go out of my comfort zone and learn woodworking and other new skills. But you don’t need to be an engineer to make one. Anybody can build one! You can buy plans, but they’re free for the looking online. You can build one for less than $1,500 using found materials and basic woodworking tools. You just have to have the desire!