So You Want A Vintage Airstream? What You Need To Know!

Featured image for So You Want A Vintage Airstream? What You Need To Know!

You may have noticed in recent years that Airstream trailers have had a ton of exposure all over the media and in pop culture.  It seems the auto manufacturers want to have their ads and commercials with Airstreams in tow.  And vintage Airstreams are used for product photography, wedding photos, hitched up to classic cars, and rented for top buck as luxurious rental getaway destinations at five star resorts and hotels.  With all this exposure it is no wonder that folks from all walks of life are fantasizing about vintage vacations in polished Airstreams from yesteryear.

Now, I don't want to rain on anyone's campout, but there is a bunch of stuff folks need to know before going down this road of restoration and possible heartache.  I personally have owned six Airstreams and all but one have been vintage models, (unless you count the 2005 as vintage these days) and I have a bit of experience about the joys and frustrations of taking a trailer apart and putting it back together again.  Let's make something of a list of things to think about when considering a vintage Airstream.

1. Cost of a restoration: This is the obvious and largest consideration.  And it is really, really tricky.  Like old cars, starting condition is everything, and having a complete working trailer to start with is a big plus.  But there are areas of concern in a  trailer that you will not know about until you tear it apart and that could be shocking.  Can you do this kind of a project yourself? This is really quite an undertaking.  There are so many skill sets needed including welding, mechanical work, electrical work using two voltages, 12 volt and standard 120 volt household plus carpentry and metal fabrication.  Fabrics, countertops, upholstery and paint and prep work are the final stages ( and lets not even talk about the 200 plus hours it takes to properly polish a vintage trailer.) Most people are going to have to sub-contract many aspects of a restoration out to professionals.  Getting accurate quotes for work needed is hard to do.  Unless you are dealing with an actual Airstream restoration specialist, many companies may not know what is involved.  If you decide to take your "barn find" Airstream somewhere for a complete restoration you will need to have a very substantial budget.  Spending $100,000.00 on a proper and complete restoration is not at all out of line.  I know of a collector of rare vintage Airstreams that budgets a quarter of a million dollars per trailer for an accurate and perfect restoration!  

2. The things you don't see:  The parts of a restoration that never see the light of day are the parts that are expensive to fix, but super important.  An Airstream has and inner and outer skin of aluminum with arched aluminum ribs between those skins holding it all together. Miles of wiring runs through those walls and pass through the ribs in a rubber grommet.  When you get into a 50 or 60 year old trailer there is a good chance that some of those grommets have dried out and crumbled away leaving wires rubbing away on an aluminum edge inside the wall.  You really don't want something shorting out and catching fire after spending three years restoring your dream trailer.  The innner skins should really be removed and the wiring inspected, replaced where needed and probably have more circuits added to meet our contemporay demands.
 The axles on an Airstream are a great invention, mounted in a rubber casing and are maintenance free.  However when they get to a certain age the rubber gets harder and harder giving a stiff ride that begins to shake your trailer apart.  I know this from first hand experience!  Axles should be replaced and it is an expensive undertaking these days with a pair of axles running in the thousands just for the parts!  The other hidden enemy is the frame.  Depending on where the trailer spent its life there could be rust on the inside of a frame that is quietly ruining the integrity of the steel.  Owners have had the front "A" frame snap off, and a friend of ours this year had the frame break in the middle of the trailer while on vacation, and this was a pristine, original condition, 1950's era Airstream.  You just don't know unless it is torn right down.  Floor rot is a very common occurance and a trailer does not have to be too old to have a problem.  Any undetected leak can wreak havoc on the plywood or particleboard floor.  Because a leak is usually between the skins of the wall and then gets under the tile or vinyl flooring, by the time it it detected it may be a big repair.  You need to know where to look to ascertain whether the Airstream you are considering has problems with the floor.

3. Beware the "Pinterest Restoration": These are the Airstreams that look great in photos and usually sell very well.  The trailer has had a "freshening up" with upper cabinets and valuable storage taken out to create the impression of more space and the entire interior painted sparkling white. New trendy fabrics, window coverings and pillows will give it appeal and a new laminate floor is installed over the original and unrepaired flooring.  There are new black cabinet hardware and at least one live edge table or countertop evident.  It looks great, usually shot with a wide angle lens and it only took a couple of weekends to accomplish.  The problem is that none of the important, systematic or structural elements are addressed.  You might call it a polished...lemon. ( I actually had a different analogy in mind).

4. Know What You Want: There are so many floor plans, lengths and features to consider when on the lookout for a vintage Airstream. Do you want a single or dual axle trailer? Can you live with a "wet-bath", that is a small shower area that the toilet shares.  A short bar sized fridge or a full sized fridge is important when determining how long your trips might be.  Twin beds or a queen will depend on the year and model.  Some aspects can be remodelled but when you think you are moving toilets and sinks around that is a whole other level of resoration.  Speaking of plumbing, almost all pre-1974 Airstreams do not have a grey water tank.  What will you do about that? Re-working the sanitary system is a very big job, the other choice is to take a portable tank that sits on the ground under your trailer.  That has limitations.  Without a grey tank even just washing your hands means water coming straight out on the ground.  You might get away with that out in a campground, but it sure won't go over well at the Petro-Can while you are getting gas!

5. Beware The Gutted Airstream: The happy seller of the gutted trailers usually starts with this optomistic line, " All the hard work has been done! It is a blank canvas ready for you to make it your own! "  This is the farthest thing from the truth.  In actuality, in nearly every one of these cases, an individual found an Airstream, gutted it to do a restoration and got in way over their head and now is bailing out and trying to re-coup at least part of their investment.  The big problem is that often all the interior and appliances have been discarded during tear-down.  Now there is nothing to make patterns from, and you will have no idea how things came apart and how to put it back together.  If the price is right, these Airsteams make a good stationary storage shed out in the back forty of your property (if the floor is still in it).

Please don't think I am against Vintage Airstreams.  I love them!  My aluminum-infused heart goes pitter-patter at the site of a polished Airstream, but they are not for everyone.  To have one restored professionaly will take a couple years and could exceed the cost of a brand new Airstream.  And that is ok if that is the aesthetic you are after.  A pre-owned Airstream that was built in the past 20 or 30 years may not be as "vintage" but will likely be completely functional. With hopefully only minor repairs and maybe you can work on the cosmetics yourself.  At Can-Am we are always getting pre-owned Airstreams as trade in and we may have something that is perfect for you at any given time.  Do your research and know what you want and what budget you have.  Take your time, but be ready to buy when you find the right unit.  When you eventually own that Airstream that is really perfect for you it will give you many decades of joy and maintain an excellent resale value.