Archive for January, 2008

Is Airstream a Poor Design?

Friday, January 18th, 2008

In a word, “NO!” But when I finished giving a seminar on floor replacement at the 2007 RMVAC Rally a couple in the audience asked that question. At the time they did not own an Airstream, and were at the seminar to learn some insights. They wondered if the galvanic corrosion (discussed in the previous post) wasn’t an engineering oversight, or worse.

Their comments startled me because I realized that I had unintentionally discouraged them from purchasing an Airstream, old or new. But the purpose of that seminar is the same as what I want to accomplish in this Blog. It is better to enter the world of Airstreaming with your eyes wide open, than to be naïve and leave it disillusioned.

My reply to them was that the corrosion had taken decades, and that no RV manufacturer really expects a trailer to be in use for thirty, forty or more years. Yes, Airstream used to give a “lifetime” warranty to the original owner, but that should be taken in the context of the times.

Remember what your grandfather or dad’s philosophy was regarding automobiles? Once a car had 50,000 miles on the odometer it was time to trade it in. That’s the equivalent of about five years. It was the same for trailers. Yet, Airstreams have lasted ten times beyond that outlook.

Within that context, Airstream trailers have more than exceeded their original design parameters. I’d say that is proof of their good engineering. Just because vintage Airstreams show their age after decades of neglect and abuse is no reason to lose faith in them.

Buying a Vintage Airstream

Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

Finding the vintage Airstream of your dreams is often frustrating. It’s not like going to your local Airstream dealership for a new one. That has frustrations to be sure – discontinued models, backlogged orders and/or delivery, etc. But once a buyer decides on a particular model it’s a fairly straightforward process to order it, and a salesperson is there to help you get through it.

It’s not the same with the vintage Airstream. Sometimes RV dealers will have one, but most often you will need to search high and low – on e-Bay, in classified ads, and travel hundreds or even thousands of miles. Buying through e-Bay is well covered by Roger Johnson in his column, so what I want to write about is what to look for when you first inspect the trailer you are interested in buying.

For instance, one of the most common descriptors found in ads is, “has a solid floor, no soft spots.” But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem. Many people will walk around in a vintage Airstream and not sense that anything is wrong, and that is because trouble is mostly found around the edges of the floor where it meets the wall, not in the middle of the floor where you walk.

Airstreams are constructed with the wood floor meshed between the chassis and the monocoque shell. These three items are all held together by a U shaped aluminum extrusion called the “floor channel.” It is installed all the way around the perimeter of the trailer. The inner and outer skins (or “panels”) are riveted to the sides of the channel and the floor and chassis are bolted to the bottom of the channel.

This is the most vulnerable area in Airstream construction. Moisture from breathing and cooking will condense once it comes into contact with the cool metal surface inside the wall. That condensation will then drip down into the floor channel where it sits, trapped. Moisture, dissimilar metals, and conductivity are the three things needed for galvanic corrosion. In an Airstream all three are present.

It might take decades, but if the bolts rust away, or the channel corrodes a hole larger than the bolt, or if the edge of the wood floor rots away then both chassis and shell are compromised. Repairing the channel area is expensive and/or time consuming labor because to get to it often requires removing built in furniture, inner skin or “panels,” portions of underbelly and “banana wrap.” In others words, the trailer has to be partially disassembled. In some cases disassembled to the extent of being a “shell-off” restoration.

Vintage restorers have various shortcuts available. Some use self-tapping bolts to reattach the shell, floor and chassis where the original bolts have rusted away. Such a repair involves much less disassembly and may be satisfactory when the problem is isolated to just one or two small areas. Often though, if the bolts and channel are corroded in one area then likely there will be corrosion in others.

Since the channel is completely hidden from view what clues are available to the potential buyer? First clue is to check for “tail droop.” Grab the rear bumper first at one end and then the other. See if it can be moved up and down. If it moves more than a quarter of an inch then there is likely floor rot, or bolt and channel corrosion in the rear of the trailer.

Next, find a spot in the trailer that doesn’t have any furniture attached to the wall. Have your partner stand inside to watch the base of the wall at that location. Opposite that location, on the outside, push in on the shell where it meets the floor. If your partner sees the wall move in with each push then the channel and bolts have likely corroded away there also. Repeat this procedure near the door and under windows. This will not work where there is furniture because of the built-in construction. Furniture is often attached to walls and floor and that provides support in those locations.

If you have found a trailer that has a lot of movement in the walls and bumper then negotiate the price accordingly. Otherwise, walk away from it unless you are prepared to do a shell-off restoration.

Corroded channel bolt
Here is a photo showing the results of galvanic corrosion.

About the Author

Hi, my name is Forrest McClure. I've been writing for the magazine since its inception. My wife and I travel with our 1966 20' Globe Trotter or our 1986 32' Excella. So, my primary interest is vintage travel trailers.