<iframe src="//www.googletagmanager.com/ns.html?id=GTM-NFTJWR" height="0" width="0" style="display:none;visibility:hidden"></iframe>

The Suleica trailers and Orion RVs never quite made it to the US. These bulky-looking vehicles look outdated today, but in the 1960’s, they offered a glimpse of the future. Designed to be extremely lightweight, their unique bubble shape and the bold (yet inaccurate) claim that they were amphibious led to their early demise.

The idea

In 1958, Ferdinand Schaefer’s company, Schaefer Industries,  wanted to introduce an innovative entrant into the recreational vehicle market and produce a lightweight trailer. The innovation was based on the use of fiberglass-reinforced plastic or GFK. This material resulted in a sturdy, lightweight trailer that could be easily towed by a 4-cylinder vehicle. What ultimately came from the drawing board was a 14-foot long trailer that weighed nearly 1200 pounds. They modeled a prototype from that design and 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 was very unusual, with curved edges that made 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 was proving to be a success when an enthusiast fitted a Suleica trailer on top 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 downsized 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 required around 800 labor hours of manufacturing. The extra labor was no doubt due to the curved design of the trailer – a feature that is extremely laborious and only aesthetic, adding nothing to the functionality of the vehicle. The 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 created many inefficiencies in the production line and these costs would be transferred to the buyers and suppliers in the form of extra investment and fulfillment 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. Production later moved to Hungary after the fires of 1972 and 1974. Designed 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 interior was often built with cheaper materials. Gone was the birch wood from the original Suleica and in its place was a cheap chipboard constituting the base of the furniture. The original prototype was designed to also be amphibious, and although one attempt across a German lake was successful, many failures followed and the company modified the Orion, removing its propellers!

The Orion Type II

The Type II was designed to cut costs and align its design more closely to the RVs on the European market. The width of the vehicle was diminished, allowing more generic parts to be used and to cut down on those valuable labor hours.

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 modeled, 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. 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.