Travel Units Inc.
P.O. Box 1833 Elkhart, Indiana 46515 Phone: (574) 293-8785

Have Your Way! -- It Can Be Done!


Since 1971
Custom Fiver

A specially built 40-footer fom Travel Units fulfilled this couple's dream for the perfect home on wheels
by Don Magary

What serious RVer hasn't daydreamed of someday riding off into the sunset in search of paradise and the perfect camping site-in an RV he himself designed?

John and Lenore Oster always dreamed of one day selling their California ranch and spending their retirement years traveling. The Osters considered many alternatives, but finally narrowed their potential life styles down to either RVing full-time or living on a boat (John is a retired Navy officer).

Ultimately, they settled on the RV way of life and began a search for that perfect retirement rig. After months of exploring, they were frustrated and disillusioned. Nothing they saw at RV dealerships or shows seemed suitable.

Labeling the Osters as perfectionists would be a fair statement. Recalling those numerous trips examining R'Vs, John said, "I'll bet we never went into a trailer that we couldn't see, just sitting down and looking at it, some cabinet that was hung crooked-little things that quality control people should see. I do a lot with my hands, and when I do a job, I not only want it to be well-done, I want it to look good too. And I don't mean just on the outside, either; I want the plumbing and wiring to run right. I don't want anybody to go in there and cut a notch in the frame so they can run a pipe through there or something."

It was obvious to the Osters that what they needed was a custom built unit. They spoke to several RV manufacturers. to determine if one would build a trailer to their standards and needs-such as a fifth- wheeler with a basement. A basement? That's right, a double floor that in effect would give them a 30- inch-high basement with lots of storage. (Fleetwood Enterprises has just recently introduced this in its Bounder Class A.)

"Normally," John said, "RV manufacturers who advertised that they would make changes or modify to suit you, it turns out, mean they'll leave out a cupboard, or they'll put in shelves."

Stymied, it seemed that the only way the Osters were going to be able to get what they wanted was to build it themselves. Oster continued, "We decided that full-timers were stuck with a trailer that is built for 10 peopie for a weekend. They have a dinky galley, a dinky bath, and everything that is flat makes into a bed. That isn't conducive to full-time RVing. We decided we needed a trailer home rather than a motorhome."

While they sketched floorplans and toyed with untried designs, their dream seemed more and more elusive.

Meanwhile, half a continent away, nestled in the southeast edge of Elkhart, Indiana, some enterprising RV builders guided by Sam Paolillo had devoted their lives to making dreams come true for RVers like the Osters.

Paolillo, president of Travel Units Incorporated, explained, "We deal with a lot of retirees who have always dreamed of selling everything and just traveling. We started in 1970, believing people wanted what they wanted. We knew a lot of people just weren't happy with what they could buy on an RV lot. So we decided to cater to that market."

Most of Travel Unit's customers are second- or third-time RV buyers. When they come in they know exactly what they want. They have lived with something that has aggravated them, and they do not want it in the unit they are going to have custom-made.

"You have people who are just plain discriminating," Paolillo said. "They want things exactly. a certain way. And we get the job done for them. Really, we are the only manufacturer who does it to that extent."

The Osters are extremely discriminating. John said, "Everybody that I mentioned the double floor to really became nervous. They had never heard of it, was their objection. They couldn't tell me why it wouldn't work.

"We discovered Travel Units through an advertisement in Trailer Life. Coincidentally, when I called Sam Paolillo, Jim DeGeeter, Travel Unit's general manager, was delivering a new trailer about 80 miles from our ranch. So we made an appointment to meet him, and we were quite impressed with the quality of workmanship on the unit."

Travel Unit's initial contact with a potential client is usually by either letter or phone. PaolilIo first asks them to send him a rough drawing so he will have an idea of what they want. It can be as simple as a sketch of a rectangular box, plotting where the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom should be, or, as in the Osters' case, very elaborate and detailed drawings. Then Paolillo prepares engineering drawings and mails the plans back to the prospective customer, to see if that's what he wanted. If it isn't, the customer corrects it. This goes on until the customer is satisfied. Then Paolillo phones them. Together they go down the option list, deciding what they want and where they want it. They choose the kind and color of the window coverings, floor coverings and appliances.

The cost for a 40-foot fifth-wheel trailer starts around $23,000. "That has just regular stuff in it," Paolillo explained, "an RV refrigerator and stove-all the basics."

"First, we laid out the galley the way we wanted it," Oster said. "Lenore happens to be one of the world's best cooks, and she likes to cook. She.wanted a good, usable galley with space to work and plenty of storage. The big thing was to get a galley big enough, that had enough counter space. Originally, we started with the bedroom m front, galley in the middle and the living room aft, like so many RVs are. Because of the construction of the chassis and the basement, we had room to put the galley right up front, but I saw some potential problems with plumbing. I talked to Jim and Sam, and they said it would make the front awfully heavy, so I tried it all the way in the back. I figured a U-shaped kitchen was the most efficient.

When we decided to make it a trailer home, instead of RV appointments, we started looking for ltems that make homes nice, such as a garbage disposal, convection/microwave oven, washer and dryer, and in-floor ducts for heating and air conditioning-all the goodies

."We wanted a bathroom that was big enough to move around in and not bang our elbows every time we did anything in there. And we felt the bedroom didn't have to be anything but a bedroom, with room for the bed. Anything left over out of the 40 feet was going to be living room."

"He had good ideas," Paolillo admitted. "I never questioned anything he wanted. When I saw the basement plan, my first reaction was, what would it do to the weight? I didn't know what he was going to tow it with. But he seemed to know what he was doing on that end of it, so I said, 'Fine, we can build it.'

"We build travel trailers and have built park models in the past, but our specialty is fifth-wheel trailers. We have a lot of fifth-wheel trailers out there that have more then 100,000 miles on them. They have to be built pretty solid for that. You don't worry so much about weight; you worry about getting things built so they hold together.

"We guarantee what we build for life, so the only time we turn somebody's idea down is if we feel it will be a liability that might void our warranty. Then we recommend they do it differently."

The Osters returned home and eventually called Paolillo to say they had decided to go ahead with it. "We told him what we had to have," John said. "We told him what we wanted and laid it out then, gave it to him, and said, how is it actually going to fit?"

"First, they wanted the kitchen in the front," Paotillo said, "but I told them that would put too much weight on the hitch, so we ended up with the kitchen in the rear. He wanted a slide-out room over the wheel wells, which took some figuring on our part." He paused and then added proudly, "That was an engineering feat. It worked out good.

"The only variance between what they wanted and the way it ended up, as far as we know, is the countertop height. He wanted the height at 34 inches, but we couldn't do that because the appliances he selected called for 36 inches in their instaIlat!on specifications. That's the standard."

Once all the details are resolved, the actual construction only takes about two to three weeks. But taking into consideration Travel Units' ordering time and work backlog, it's between 8 and 12 weeks before the unit is finished.

Then, there was the waiting. Sure, the trailer looked great on paper, but what would it look like in reality?

"That was our biggest concerns as we sat back there, waiting for it to be completed," John remembered. "We were pretty sure the inside was going to look nice, but as I waited, I pictured a real monster on the outside.

"On the way here to pick it up, we kept saying to each other: 'Now remember, it is not going to be exactly like we want it,' But when we walked in, it was so pretty inside I was ecstatic."

Cosmetically, the Osters were pleased, but remember, the Osters are perfectionists. What about "under the skin"?

"Underneath," John said, "the man who designed the plumbing and location of the equipment, as far as I'm concerned, did an outstanding job. I wanted the plumbing,wiring, ducting and sewers all down there in the basement, so I could get to all that stuff if I wanted to fix it or modify it, and as far as I'm concerned, they did an excellent job."

The unit's final weight was Oster's biggest surprise. The !railer weighed 16,000 pounds; Anticipating a lighter weight, he had purchased a 1985 Ford F-250 series pickup truck with a 6.9-liter diesel engine 4.10:1 axle ratio and a trailertowing package. Ford recommends a maximum 8,000-pound fifth-wheel trailer weight with a 14,000-pound gcwr gross combined weight rating for this truck. Oster has added air bags to help the suspension and a turbocharger to boost power: (Ford rates the same truck at 18,500 I pounds gcwt when the 460 engine is ordered, which still would not get the Oster rig Into the approved weight zone,although he would be closer. Problems that can be traced to an overload condition are not covered by the factory warranty , not to mention possible safety hazards.

On the return trip to California, Oster purposely avoided mountains as much as possible. He reported that on the open road he was able to maintain a steady 55 mph, but over some low mountain ranges it was a struggle, sometimes slowing to 15 mph in low gear.

After driving their trailer home back to California and preparing to embark on their dream,-do the Osters have any regrets? "No," John said. "Overall, we are real pleased. The only thing we wanted that we didn't get was the 34-inch-high countertops. Aside from that and the weight, we are delighted."

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