Archive for February, 2008

Why Buy Vintage?

Sunday, February 24th, 2008
My 1966 Globe Trotter
My 1966 Globe Trotter in Taos, New Mexico.

It’s easy to get into vintage trailering without really knowing why. People may articulate it by simply saying, “It’s cool,” but there is a genuine philosophy at work, not just nostalgia. Older trailers seem to have more character, inherent charm and simplicity.

Here are some reasons to buy a vintage Airstream:

1. They have classic looks with quality handmade construction.

2. If you like challenges it can be fun and exciting to restore an Airstream to better than new condition.

3. The interiors have the warmth and depth of genuine wood.

4. The North American woods used in vintage Airstreams are difficult, if not impossible, to replace. Those trees are either gone or protected.

5. The exteriors from the Fifties and Sixties were made of aircraft grade Alclad Aluminum, stronger and more durable than what was used in other eras.

6. Being lighter they can be towed more economically by a wider range of vehicles.

7. Restoration increases their value as opposed to new which depreciates.

8. They look great polished and compliment a classic car or truck.

9. Movies, Hollywood stars, and advertisers use them.

10. They are friendship magnets.

11. They are more than just a trailer – they are an icon.

12. It’s Green! The best way to recycle is to restore!

How To Kill An Airstream

Sunday, February 24th, 2008

Although my search for a larger vintage Airstream may now be over I had an interesting experience while I was actively looking. An ’83 Excella was for sale not far from where I live. It was advertised as being in “beautiful condition, SECOND OWNER, fully equipped, twin beds, fold out double, awnings all around, aluminum wheels with excellent tires, twin updated propane bottles, air conditioning, new carpeting, many attachments for water, power, tows beautifully, original owners were ambassadors for WBCCI.”

That intrigued me so I contacted the seller and scheduled a showing. Fortunately, I got there early and he got there late. That gave me time to look over the exterior of the trailer at my leisure.

I immediately suffered a letdown. To begin with, the location had the appearance of a junk yard, not a storage facility. The Airstream sat in weeds and mud. Rabbits scurried out from under it when I walked up. Trust me that should always be a red flag.

Weeds provide a ladder for mice and other rodents to get in. Also, the storage compartment and bumper had been damaged and the tray had come undone and was hanging open from below. That also provided an entry for rodents to get into the trailer.

I was so preoccupied looking under the trailer that I didn’t pay much attention to the upper. I had noticed some ghost WBCCI membership numbers, but that’s so common that I didn’t bother to read it. Then I saw a decal indicating that the original owner had been the WBCCI Parliamentarian. That made me actually read the membership number. Being a three digit number, it indicated that the original owner had been a WBCCI International Officer.

I stood there dumbfounded. I knew that number well. It belongs to a good friend and life member of the Club. Further, I had just recently bought his tow vehicle – the same one that had pulled the trailer I was looking at for over a decade. For a moment, I thought it must be providence. Was I meant to find this old trailer and bring it back to life?

My friend had sold the trailer a few years prior to my knowing him. The second owners had taken it into the mountains and parked it. They only used it as a cabin and had never moved it other than to bring it back into the city to sell.

The problem with using a trailer as a mountain cabin is that the snow loads can cave in a conventionally framed trailer (I’ve seen this) and while an Airstream withstands the load by distributing the weight more evenly it can still be damaged. No trailer is designed to withstand six feet or more of snow and that is how much regularly accumulates in that mountain location.
Evidence of this was provided by the seller himself. He had taken a vent cover off the roof because the snow load had broken it in half.

There were other problems likely caused by the snow load. There were telltale water stains in the interior and the street side window awning roller tube was bowed.

All of this can be fixed of course. The seams can be resealed, the vent cover replaced, and the roller tube bent back. The curtains can be replaced and stains removed. Wet carpet can be pulled up, but the list goes on and on not to mention the hail damage and failed clear coat.

Then there was the mouse problem. “Oh yes,” the seller told me, “there was a mouse.” But where there is one there are ten, and droppings throughout the trailer indicated they were still in house.

Mice can be very destructive as well as unsanitary. They put holes in the fiberglass insulation because it makes good nesting material. Likewise they will chew through upholstery and bedding to make nests in the cushions and mattresses. All of this can become very expensive to correct.

My friend, the original owner, was meticulous in his maintenance and care when the trailer was in his possession. He’s told me the trailer was pristine and completely equipped for travel when he sold it and I believe him. It’s why I bought his vintage tow vehicle.

He and his wife were so excited for the people who bought their trailer. They envisioned that family having fun travel adventures, making memories they way they had. But abuse and neglect by the second owner ruined the trailer in a few short years; sad, so very sad.

Damaged bumper storage
Leaving the underside unrepaired like this invites rodent infestation.

I hope that anyone knowing my friend will not tell him about this post. It would be better if he didn’t know. But let it be a lesson for all the rest of us. Airstreams die from neglect and abandonment more than from any other cause, which is why so many owners of vintage Airstreams insist on using them. They thrive when they are kept on the road.

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Thursday, February 7th, 2008

I’ve said it many times, “never, ever buy a trailer that you have not first personally seen and thoroughly inspected.” That said I have not always followed my own advice. Sometimes, the trailer you want is a thousand miles or more away and can’t be personally inspected. You have to rely on friends, acquaintances, photos or faith. Let me be an example to not rely on faith.

I got it in my head that we needed a bigger Airstream. I wanted something with a separate bedroom area, and became enamored with the Overlander floor plan. I found a vintage 1966 on-line that promised to be ready to use. “Just bring clothes, hitch up, do some grocery shopping and go camping.” That was the promise. The photos looked great. But I was thinking with my heart and not my head. My head was saying, “NO, NO, NO!” It didn’t matter; I had “Bauxite Fever,” and must have been out of my mind.

To make matters worse, the trailer was in Maine, nearly 2,200 miles away, but all that did was make it more of an adventure. My wife and I drove hard and long to get there in three days. We arrived late just before dusk, dog tired, and followed the owner to the edge of the forest where the trailer had long been parked, unused, and neglected.

The moment we stepped out of our truck we were swarmed by mosquitoes. That made it very difficult to inspect the trailer and impossible to get down low to look under the trailer as the weeds were axle high. What I saw on the outside I didn’t like and I was tempted to walk away. When we looked inside though, we were sold. It was in great original condition and would clean up well. I convinced myself that what ever might be wrong I could fix it.

1966 Overlander
Looks pretty good in the photo, but looks are deceiving.

So, we bought the trailer just on the basis of photos, the sellers promises, and a cursory walk-through, and made the decision when we were tired and harassed by insects. Not too smart.

Away we went and camped in Acadia National Park. Then the realization of what we’d done settled in on us. With the windows closed at night it became apparent from the odor that there had been a rodent problem. The plumbing turned out to be a patch work of splices. The toilet leaked terribly when flushed. That made me look closer and I discovered that the plywood floor directly beneath the toilet was completely rotten. The septic tank was the only thing holding the toilet up; otherwise it probably would have fallen through the floor. The longer we lived in it the more things we found that would require repair.

When we got back home I started taking things apart. I discovered a dead squirrel under one bunk (hence the ‘odor’). The perimeter channel and bolts had nearly all corroded to the extent that they were non-functional. The wiring was aluminum throughout and was so corroded that at some of the outlets the wire crumbled and fell apart when I inspected it.

But what amazes me to this day, aside from my stupidity, is that the Airstream held together during our trip back. Despite totally worn out axles, rotten floor, corroded perimeter channel and bolts, and a badly corroded pan it towed beautifully without any problems over some of the roughest roads in America. That includes the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a toll road no one should have to pay to drive on.

How did it stay together? An Airstream is constructed as a singular unit. Everything is connected together and contributes to structural integrity. Built-in furniture is attached to floor and inner shell. The shell is attached to the floor and chassis and the outer part of the shell wraps around and is connected to the pan below. The pan itself is riveted to the bottom of the chassis. If a channel bolt fails the banana wrap and pan continue to keep the shell in place. This redundancy provides alternative structural support if another element fails. That is why so many old Airstreams are still on the road today. They refuse to die.

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.