The story of the Caravel
It has been a long time since we last camped in our first Airstream, a 1968 Caravel. I suppose that a first trailer holds the same romantic spot in one’s heart as the first love, the first car, or the first house. It may not be the best one you’ll ever have, but it will always be the one that started you off on a road of adventure and travel.
Owning the Caravel was a life-changing moment for us. Emma was only three, and I was in another career. We had muddled our way through a few marginally-acceptable “family vacations” with the usual stresses and disappointments that go with shuttling a toddler around with aircraft and hotels. I was looking for a better way, and after months of research, I settled on the Caravel as something worth trying. We plunked down $5,500 and bought a car that could tow it, and struck out for a few trips together.
It was a hit — a huge hit. Between August 1 and October 12, we were out in the Caravel 20 nights, which is a lot for a rookie couple with a toddler and a full-time job. We camped at the biggest balloon festival in Canada, visited Acadia National Park in Maine, and explored numerous places in New England. I was so entranced by the lifestyle that I started Airstream Life magazine. It was a sad day when we had to finally winterize the trailer in mid-October (Vermont has a short camping season).
Since that 1968 Caravel, we have owned a series of other trailers, each with its own particular character and advantages. The 1977 Argosy 24, for example was a wonderful “upgrade” from the Caravel, with much more space and modern comforts. It was my first involvement in a full-blown DIY trailer restoration, starting from a severely water-damaged and virtually abandoned mess found in a damp Florida backyard. Together with Brett, we put half a year of restoration work, 600 hours of labor, and over $22,000 in parts into it. We sold it only because we had begun to travel full-time and needed more space.
A lot of other trailers have passed through our hands, some which we used and some which we re-sold without restoring despite their obvious assets. The 1953 Flying Cloud we found was a great trailer with a lot of potential, and so was the 1952 Cruiser … and the 1952 Boles Aero, and the 1963 Serro Scotty. All of those have found good homes and are either restored or in process. But we never adopted any of them in our hearts like the tiny 1968 Caravel. At just 17 feet, it is really too small for us to co-exist in it for long, and it had a lot of body damage and vintage quirks. Caravels are regarded as highly desirable, and we could have sold it easily at any time, probably for a profit. Yet, we kept it for sentimental reasons.
For the last five years the Caravel has been disassembled for restoration, with its guts torn out. We brought it in for a replacement axle in 2004 and discovered rampant floor rot, among many other problems. The scope of the job kept growing until we found ourselves with $18,000 sunk into the trailer, and completion still far away. The project came to a stop in 2005 and for the most part, the trailer has sat since, tightly sealed against the elements and wholly unusable.
In the summer of 2008 I finally decided to start the Caravel project again, but using my own labor (with Eleanor’s help) to complete the interior work. You can read about that in our Tour of America blog. We got about 80% of the woodwork done before we ran out of time. This summer, I had an invitation from my good friend Ken Faber to let his private restoration shop complete the job for me. (That same shop restored Ken’s one-of-a-kind Airstream named “Der Kleine Prinz” which was recently donated to the RV/Motorhome Hall of Fame.)
Even in the final stages, a restoration means lots of phone calls and debates about details. We thought we had all the hard work behind us, but still there were the details of things like hooks, hinges, trim and handles. These items seem small until you get them wrong, then you realize how important they really are. For the past few months we’ve been figuring out faucets, fabric, foam cushions, and finishes, and passing along all the information by phone to the guys who are doing the work.
And now, the trailer is nearly complete. Only the upholstery work remains. From a scratched, dented, rotting, and rusted (but well-loved) trailer, it is emerging as a shiny, clean and ship-shape silver pod that I can’t wait to sleep in. Ken has been teasing us with a few scattered pictures of the work in progress, and we made one interim visit back in September, but for the most part we haven’t seen the finished product yet.
Everything will be done in a couple of weeks, and I’ll be off to Michigan to pick up the trailer. So right now I’m thinking about all the things I’ll need in the car to outfit the trailer for the return trip to Tucson. It’s a more challenging pack job than you might think. I need to bring all of my personal stuff, my office stuff (so I can work from the road), all the furnishings for daily life like dishes and blankets, tools & parts, RV supplies, and work clothes for two days I’ll be stopped in Louisville KY for business. All of this will go into bins in the back of the Mercedes for the 2,200 mile drive north.
Of this list, perhaps the most important is the tool kit. Completely restored trailers always have bugs to work out. I may have to tighten a water fitting, replace some screws, or re-rivet a corner of the belly pan. When the trailer was new to us (35 years old), I was rather accustomed to having to fix or patch something on every trip. Paradoxically, at age 41 it should be more sturdy now. I wish that were true of people.
In the photos you can see a few details of the trailer that came about in this restoration. Colin Hyde oversaw the heavy work, handling all the exterior sheet metal replacement, removing the dents on top, adding a spare tire carrier, rebuilding the entry door, and many other things. Inside he installed a new plywood floor covered by Marmoleum, rebuilt the black tank, and refinished the entire bathroom. The Marmoleum was a big expense but I’m glad we chose it. It is incredibly durable and beautiful material. You can also see the new refrigerator (no more frozen lettuce and miniature ice cube trays!), the new catalytic heater, and the Marmoleum countertop. All of the furniture you can see in the photo was built and finished by us in summer 2008, and finalized & installed by Ken’s guys, Garrett and Jim. They did a nice job fitting the Marmoleum to the countertop and building matching wood trim for it.
What you can’t see is all new plumbing, a giant gray tank, new insulation throughout, new axle, brakes, tires, dump valves, window seals, wiring, power converter, battery, 12v breaker panel, window glass, door locks, and a thousand other details that have gone into this trailer. Like every good restoration I’ve ever seen, it has turned out better than hoped, and certainly much more expensive.
Now the question arises, what would anyone do with two Airstreams? We had considered keeping one in the northeast for excursions up there in the summer, but for various reasons that idea failed. We plan to keep the Caravel in locked storage in the Tucson area, somewhat pre-packed and readily accessible for spontaneous weekends. The sky islands in southern Arizona are mostly national forest lands, and they are dotted with gorgeous little campgrounds connected by dirt roads. These roads and campgrounds can generally only accommodate trailers of the sub-20-foot variety. That has kept us from exploring some great places in southern Arizona, like Chiricahua National Monument and the surrounding area.
We could have tented in those places, but when we are usually in Arizona the national forest campgrounds are cold because of their high elevation. A little Airstream with snug insulation and a catalytic heater is the perfect vehicle. It’s also the right choice for short trips where we want to get away from the “liveaboard” lifestyle that the big Safari allows, and get closer to a sense of “camping”. In the big trailer, it’s too easy to hole up inside, since it is so comfortable. The size of the Caravel forces us to live outside, and that’s a good thing when you want to engage your surroundings.
All of this anticipation has me actually looking forward to the marathon drive north after Thanksgiving. I plan to go alone; that way I can move quickly. If all goes well I’ll be back in a 10 or 11 days, but since I hate being on a tight schedule I will pack for two weeks and take my time on the way back if necessary. Want to come along? OK, cross your fingers and join me here for daily updates, starting November 28.