By Richard Truesdell
Wikipedia defines a truck camper as “any recreational vehicle or RV that may be carried in the bed of a pickup truck. In North America, this RV type is sometimes known as a slide-in or cab-over.” At one time, especially in the 1960s, truck campers made up a substantial part of the recreational vehicle market, but its popularity waned over time as other RVs emerged, especially van-based Class C RVs. But the truck camper’s versatility remains unmatched as the camper can be easily dismounted and you’re left with all the versatility of a conventional pickup truck.
Let’s look at one example this combo: a pristine 1968 Silver Streak truck camper mounted in the bed of an original, 37,000-mile 1969 Chevrolet Longhorn Custom Camper.
The Silver Streak Trailer Co. was founded in 1949 by Frank Pollito and Kenneth Neptune, two former McDonnell Douglas employees who applied their knowledge of aerospace construction techniques to the art of building state-of-the-art travel trailers. Silver Streak’s trailers were compared favorably to the better-known Airstreams.
Rolf Zushlag, a key employee of Silver Streak, purchased the company from Pollito and Neptune in the mid-1980s. Ultimately he moved the company from El Monte, Calif., to Chino, east of Los Angeles. Zushlag continued with the production of Silver Streaks until the company shut down in 1997.
The 1968 Silver Streak shown here is representative of the 600 Silver Streak truck campers built in the late ‘60s by the company best known for its travel trailers. Its companion truck is the pride and joy of Henry Wallace, who has assembled an enviable collection of vintage RVs, pickups, and automobiles as part of his Wallace Collection. Some of his unique vehicles predate World War II and date back to the start of the recreational vehicle era.
The condition of the Silver Streak is exceptional, and included in the sale was all the original paperwork, including the original bill of sale, brochures and manuals. Wallace found the Silver Streak in 2005 when it was put up for sale by a charity that had taken it as a donation.
This Silver Streak is 10.5 feet long and contains an over-cab 54-inch-wide bed, a full kitchen with a stove and refrigerator, and a combination toilet and shower. It is a paragon of space efficiency, and in that regard it has little in common with a modern 40-foot diesel Class-A pusher with four slide-outs. Whereas the Silver Streak is more akin to a studio apartment, a modern RV has more in common with a New York City penthouse.
Wallace’s Longhorn Custom Camper had just 31,000 miles on the odometer when he bought it. It is equipped with a big-block 396-cubic-inch V-8, power steering and factory air conditioning. In the era in which it was built, Wallace's Longhorn Custom Camper was a fully equipped pickup truck.
Looking at page 8 of the 1969 full-line Chevy truck brochure, we see that Chevrolet's marketers — like their counterparts at Ford, Dodge, Kaiser Jeep and International — were clearly addressing the emerging RV market. In the case of Chevrolet, the brochure proclaimed, “Factory installed equipment to make Chevy pickups and chassis-cab units more suitable for camper service is another way that Chevrolet brings greater efficiency to the American motoring public. The availability of such items as heavy-duty springs, high-capacity tires and front stabilizers make it possible to move your camper with greater driving ease and keeps repairs to a minimum.” The brochure continues, stressing truck toughness with a smooth ride. In a nod to what was to come, it stressed the availability of “low-silhouette” four-wheel-drive.
The published specifications for Wallace's C20 three-quarter-ton Longhorn state that the gross vehicle weight rating for a cab-over with rear overhang is a respectable 7,500 pounds. The camper can be up to 10.5 feet long, and the camper itself can weigh up to 1,600 pounds. The companion Silver Streak brochure indicates that Wallace's 10.5-foot camper weighs in at 1,990 pounds, meaning that with a combined 3,000 pounds for the camper, passengers and other equipment, Wallace has about 1,000 pounds to designate for himself, his wife and all their gear.
When PickupTrucks.com spoke with Wallace, he related the story of how the Silver Streak was added to his collection. After he found the Silver Streak in San Diego, rather than having it shipped back to Kentucky, he flew in to San Diego, completed the purchase, mounted the camper, and then he and his wife drove the combo east. “The trip east was very interesting,” he says. “Sleeping in the 54-inch cab-over bed is the most comfortable possible. You can look out the top front windows and see all things going by. I grew up camping in a 1968 Open Road that had the same style, cab-over bed, and the Silver Streak brings back great memories.”