The Vanderbilt Camper Expedition
Of all the vehicles that we have chased and rescued over the years, I would say the most spectacular experience was that of the 1959 Tempo Matador Mikafa Landyacht from a few years back. The Tempo Matador is a pretty obscure machine in the US and through our website Oldbug.com we have sold a couple of the early models that have the air cooled VW engine. As a result of those sales, if you Google "Tempo Matador" the old ads from those trucks pop up on the screen. As a result of this, on a random weekday the phone rang here at the office and a gentleman started telling me the story of a Tempo Matador that he was looking to find a home for. As the description continued the story evolved into one of the most spectacular tales I have ever heard. From that phone call forward it was my sole quest to do everything I could to make this one my very own.
The first intriguing detail is that this Tempo was not a truck, but a camper. It was a 1959 model, which is after the VW era for powerplants, this one having a BMC (Austin) 1500cc engine. The vehicle had been last run in about 1971 and was in a small carriage house/garage in New York. With our location here in California, New York is a long way away, and the vehicle, while certainly rare, is not something that is high on the list of collectors cars that the world chases. The story behind this one though is what really hooked me, and I must say in retrospect it was without a doubt one of the most interesting and exciting historical trails that I have ever followed. This one had direct ties to one of Americas most incredible families, the Vanderbilts.
When I was a child I can remember my mother pretending to be a Vanderbilt whenever she was experiencing something truly fanciful or over the top. Even in the 70's and 80's as well as today, the name is recognizable as one of American Royalty, but I never fully investigated the family story until this vehicle entered my life. I had some general knowledge of the name Cornelius Vanderbilt and his ties to the railways, but thats about where things ended for this west coast boy.
The short story is that Cornelius built one of the largest empires in American history and the wealth that was amassed rivals anything that is seen even today. What is more incredible is to follow the story of how spectacularly that wealth was spent by the family as the family tree spread its branches. Mansions, yachts, mind blowing parties and extravagant everything. The family stories of chasing status and being at the top of high society are unrivaled. I highly suggest that you give it a further look to red for yourself just how wild of a life that the Vanderbilts lived. Its endlessly entertaining and amazing. Not only is the story of the rise in wealth impressive, but the tales of the ways the wealth was spent by the generations to follow will make your head spin. In 1877 Cornelius was the worlds richest man, less than 50 years after his passing none of the Vanderbilt family could be counted among the most wealthy in America. Check out the book "Fortune's Children" if you want a very good read. https://g.co/kgs/c3gGxL is a link to the book.
Back to the vehicle at hand and the story behind it, it turns out that this was originally built for members of the family for use in touring through Europe. The owners, the Count and Countess Szapary wanted to show their children the world in a more down to earth way, in their own "gypsy wagon". Count Szapary was originally from Hungary and was a fascinating man that grew up in a noble family and was well known for his contributions starting the Hungarian National Sports Federation and also for his contributions to the Red Cross. The latter efforts unfortunately put him in the crosshairs of the Nazi regime during WW2 and he was captured and sent to a concentration camp and was left to die. He was miraculously released thanks to a favor by the the King of Sweden, starved to a skeletal frame he was sent to the safety of America to stay with family and recover. It was here that he met the beautiful Sylvia Szechenyi, granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt II , the builder of the spectacular Breakers Mansion in Newport Rhode Island.
Sylvia was a wonderful character that was much beloved by all who knew here. She was known for her playful spirit, sliding down the staircases of the Breakers on a silver tray and riding her bicycle at top speed through the halls. In here later years the playfulness continued, once arriving at a black tie event in a baseball jersey with her foot wrapped in bandages and telling the attendees that she hurt herself bungee jumping. She also spearheaded a wonderful model trail layout in the stables of the Breakers that replicated the Vanderbilt historic railways, a feature that still entertains visitors today.
With a "summer cottage" such at the 70 room 62,482 square feet Breakers Mansion as a reference, the Count and Countess and their two children lived a very privileged life. When the thought of travel abroad entered their mind, they sourced out the very best. The camper was coachbuilt by Mikafa to their specifications and was outfitted with many special features and was done completely to their desires. Drinking glasses etched with wildlife scenes, color matched linens and towels labeled with each family members name. The front seat converted to bunk beds for the kids and the rear dining area converted to a large bed for the Count and Countess. The camper was used on two trips through Europe before being shipped to the United States. A custom garage was built to house it on the property of their New York estate, and it was then used locally for family fun. While the kids would be playing in sports events, mom and dad would watch from the large rear window and cheer, and while attending grown up events, the kids would play in the camper as their own private clubhouse.
When the Count fell ill in 1971, the camper, nicknamed Czigany (Hungarian for Gypsy) was parked in the garage and remained there for decades. Rodents and moisture found there way in and time took its toll, but when this amazing story came to light there was no stopping the adventure. After an offer was made an accepted, I was immediately on a flight back east to extract the mighty relic from its tomb. Thanks to the amazing help of a friend and his crew in Connecticut, we made quick work of the extraction and then attended to preparing the camper for its travel across the country to California. New tires were fitted, the bearings and brakes attended to so it would roll easily, and the exterior mirrors and roof rack removed so that it would fit into an enclosed transporter.
Once here at the Carchaeology Laboratories, the resurrection and preservation efforts went into high gear. The engine was opened up and serviced, valve train was stuck from time, but came free after some efforts, the fuel tank had rusted badly and was reconstructed. Brake system parts were sent out to a specialist for rebuilding and eventually all the parts came back together for the maiden voyage. Cosmetically the original finishes were carefully cleaned and preserved inside and out. The padding in the seating had crumbled with age and was carefully replaced and all original materials re-installed. Great lengths were taken to retain , stabilize and preserve everything rather than restore and the size of the vehicle made that a challenge in its own right. Adding to that, the large array of the original period camping gear and equipment that accompanied it all needed its care and attention as well. It remains the largest preservation project we have ever undertaken.
Once completed, the camper was shown at a multitude of events including the Quail Motorsports Gathering, Palos Verdes Concours, Art Center Car Classic in Pasadena and at vintage camper and trailer events in Palm Springs and Buellton. It also received the Charles Phoenix award at the inaugural Dapper Day car show at Disneyland Park in Anaheim California. It was later sold at auction through Gooding and Company in Scottsdale and now resides in a spectacular private collection in Southern California. It was a truly amazing trip from start to finish and remains one of the very highlights of our lifetime of projects and adventures. Most definitely a trip through history that I will always cherish.