In the Pantheon of bad automotive ideas, the one that has the most floorspace must certainly be the Pontiac Aztek. Justifiably derided for its appearance, the Aztek regularly appears on page-count-multiplying Top 10, 50 and 100 lists in all corners of the internet.
However, if you can get over the looks of the Aztek, you’ll see a pretty useful vehicle. It was big inside, like the minivan it was based on, and had a list of interesting options and accessories. In fact, the Aztek could be outfitted to be a (very) small camper by checking off a couple of boxes on the order sheet: (1) towing package – which included an air compressor (important in a moment), and; (2) the premium sound system for the rear cargo area-mounted audio controls. After that, a quick visit to the parts counter to pick up the accessory air mattress fitted to the rear cargo space and a rear hatch tent.
Viola, camping ancient-Central-American-style!
But alas, this post is not about the Aztek, as the Aztek was far from the first car – or even GM vehicle – to have such features. I’ll be honest, I don’t think anyone knows who thought of this idea. Scholars maintain that the original plans for the car camper were lost hundreds of years ago.
What we do know, however, is that a number of General Motors hatchbacks of the 1970s were available with the ingenious device. The first being the 1973-79 X-bodies – Chevrolet Nova, Oldsmobile Omega, Pontiac Ventura and Buick Apollo (how’s that for some brand engineering!). According to the March 1973 issue of Popular Science, you could acquire car-to-camper-transformation for only 80 bucks at your local dealership. Considering the cost of gas in those days, the idea of being able to use your compact car as a camper must have been pretty temping. Tempting, if you were about 4 feet tall. Unlike the Aztek, there was no tailgate to lower and extend the sleeping surface. Just fold down the rear seats and fold yourself in!
The idea was then recycled for the contemporary Chevrolet Vega, which was a certainly more comfortable camper due to its
even more cramped cozy dimensions. Other manufacturers jumped on the hatchback camper bandwagon, including AMC, with their wildly successful Hornet camper.
Nowadays, there’s any number of online retailers that will sell you a tent that somehow stretches over the back of your wagon, SUV or hatchback, but scant few factory options exist. The notable exception is the highly useful, but somewhat awkward-appearing Honda Element, which features an available tent that encloses the space beneath the upward-swinging hatch.
But let’s be honest, most Hoons will skip the fancy tent options and sleep directly under the hatch glass, to be mocked by passers-by and eventually baked by blinding sunlight… oh, you’ve never done that?