Finding the vintage Airstream of your dreams is often frustrating. Itâ€™s not like going to your local Airstream dealership for a new one. That has frustrations to be sure â€“ discontinued models, backlogged orders and/or delivery, etc. But once a buyer decides on a particular model itâ€™s a fairly straightforward process to order it, and a salesperson is there to help you get through it.
Itâ€™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 â€“ 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, â€œhas a solid floor, no soft spots.â€ But that doesnâ€™t mean there isnâ€™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 â€œfloor channel.â€ It is installed all the way around the perimeter of the trailer. The inner and outer skins (or â€œpanelsâ€) 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 â€œpanels,â€ portions of underbelly and â€œbanana wrap.â€ In others words, the trailer has to be partially disassembled. In some cases disassembled to the extent of being a â€œshell-offâ€ 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 â€œtail droop.â€ 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 doesnâ€™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.
Here is a photo showing the results of galvanic corrosion.