The Suleica and the Orion – a bubble shaped duo

The Suleica trailers and Orion RVs never quite made it to the US. These bulky looking might look outdated today but they were definitely futuristic looking back in the 60’s. They were designed to be extremely lightweight but in the end it is their unique bubble shape design that ended up being the reason behind their short lived success, nevermind them being amphibious, or at least trying to be amphibious.

The idea

In 1958 a man by the name Ferdinand Schaefer and his company Schaefer industries wanted to introduce a 10 year innovation at the the time into the recreational vehicle market and produce a lightweight trailer. The new technology that he based his idea around was fibreglass reinforced plastic or GFK. This permitted to build a sturdy lightweight trailer that would be easily be towed by a 4 cylinder vehicle.

What came out of the drawing board was a 14 foot long trailer that weighed 1200 pounds approximately. They modelled a prototype from that design and then invited the German press to take a look at their radical new invention. It was from this press meeting that the “Suleica” name was coined. A reporter by the name Fritz Bush called the vehicle the “Super Leicht Caravan” – Su-Lei-Ca – which translates in english to Super Light Caravan.

Production started in 1962. The shell was constructed out of the GFK material then isolated with Steppex foil and Styrofoam. Inside was a standard setup for the era: 2 burners, a fridge, a heater, cross sleepers and a small bathroom.

What wasn’t typical however was the curved, reinforced shape of the windows and the high quality birch wood that the furniture was built from. The shape of the trailer in general very unusual, the edges were curvaceous making the trailer more bubble-shaped than box-shaped.

The trailer was well received in the camping community. The unique shape and the well furnished interior justified the 30% premium campers paid for it. It had everything going for it, and things were taking a turn for the better when an enthusiast fitted a Suleica trailer on top of of a Hanomag chassis. The resulting prototype inspired the company to create the Orion, an elongated type B based on the design of the Suleica.

The last Orion

The last Orion and Suleica were produced in 1987 at the request of a high net worth individual. By then, the company had down sized production of the Suleica and Orion dramatically. Although the Schaefer vehicles didn’t enjoy much glory near the end, it would be still unfair to say they were unsuccessful, they were on the market for 15 years, more than the Winnebago LeSharo for example.

We can attribute the decline of the Orion to a couple of factors: first are the labor hours. The Orion and Suleica needed around 800 labor hours of manufacturing. The extra labor was probably due to the curved design of the trailer – a feature that is extremely laborious and its fruits, only aesthetic. It added nothing to the functionality of the vehicle.

Second was the many variations of Schaefer’s vehicles. At one point the Suleica trailer was produced in 4 different lengths ranging from 14 feet to 20 feet. This would create many inefficiencies in the production line and these costs would be transferred to the buyers and suppliers in the form of extra cost and fulfilment delays.

Lastly was a set of fires that took place in the halls of Schaefer industries between 1972 and 1974. These fires destroyed a lot of the tooling and raw materials of the company. What ensued was a financial hit that Schaefer was never able to fully recover from.

All that’s left today is a shrinking fan club of 40 people called the Suleica Orion club. Their purpose is to keep the enthusiasm of the beloved duo alive and to preserve its history for future generations.

The Evolution of the Orion

The Orion type I

The First Orion prototype crossing a lake in Germany

The Orion type I was built between the years 1969 and 1974 in Detmold, Germany. This would later change to communist Hungary after the fires of 1972 and 1974.

It was designed by a man of the name Freise. He designed the vehicle based on the Suleica G500 and a VW transporter type 26. There were two variants of the type I. The first was built on a Matador chassis and was powered by a 50 HP Perkins Diesel engine. The second was built on a Hanomag chassis and was powered by a 60 HP Mercedes diesel engine. Ironically since a lot of labor hours and dollars had to be spent on the shell of the vehicle, the inside of it was often built with cheaper materials. Gone was the birch wood from the original Suleica and in its place was a cheap chipboard making the base of the furniture.

Funny enough the original prototype was designed to also be amphibious, and although, one attempt across a German lake was successful, many failures followed suite and the company modified the Orion to not have propellers anymore!

The Orion type II

the type II was designed to cut costs and to align its design more closely to the RVs on the European market. The width of the vehicle for example was diminished and this allowed more generic parts to be used and to cut down on those valuable labor hours, albeit them taking part mostly in the communist block.

The Orion type III

The type III starts looking a lot like a Mercedes type B camper

The type III was the last chapter in the Orion saga and although a type 4 was modelled, it never went to production. This time around, the design of the Orion was made to take as many elements as possible from Mercedes to further cut down on costs. Schaefer also decided to switch to a more standardized rear wheel drive like most Mercedes type B vehicles produced by the latter. They also decided to add features that were popular in that era such as rotating front seats and an automatic transmission option.

Thanks to the Suleica-Orion-club for providing us with the information and most of the photos in this article.

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