Passport America Article March 2013
4 steps to 'going vintage' with a trailer
By Tim Shephard
It was August of 2000, I remember it like yesterday, when my buddy invited us to go camping with him. My family had never camped before, so we thought we'd tag along for a good time. I didn't realize this would begin a 13-year affair with aluminum. I guess I should explain that one ...
You see, my buddy had a new pop-up-tent trailer for his family, and lent us a small dome tent. While he was sitting at a dining table with overhead lighting, we were crawling around on top of each other with a flashlight in our mouths. Not exactly the same experience!
Have you ever restored a travel trailer?
After that trip we decided we’re not "tent people" and set out to get a pop-up trailer of our own. We soon figured out that pop-up trailers didn’t have a bathroom, which we learned from our tent experience was a must-have. We expanded our search to travel trailers. I didn’t want to buy new, because I wasn’t sure if we were going to be "trailer people" either, so I wanted to enter into trailering cautiously — cautiously meant used and cheap.
Unfortunately, used and cheap meant run-down and rusty. Bad investment. This is where aluminum came in the picture. It turned out that old Airstreams — called vintage by people who own them (like they’re going to admit they're old) — will go up in value when restored. At least if they are restored properly.
There are four steps everyone who yearns to "go vintage" must follow. You can’t skip these steps. They happen whether you realize it or not, so you might as well learn about them in advance. The steps are choosing, inspecting, recovering and restoring.
Choosing: Selecting a vintage Airstream is one of the biggest decisions in this process. Airstream has built trailers for many decades, and the choices are many. I recommend narrowing your selection by decade as each one has its advantages. Some models have real wood instead of cheaper laminates. Others use common, easily-replaced hardware instead of custom-molded pieces that will be difficult to locate.
Inspecting: To inspect an Airstream, you must first understand how it's built. Airstreams are built with a semimonocoque construction, simply meaning that the three main components — frame, floor and shell — rely on each other for the structure. If any one of these is out of sorts due to rust, rot or corrosion, it must be dealt with during the restoration.
Recovering: Recovering an Airstream is really a mission itself. We refer to it as the “recovery mission” because you never know what you'll find when you get there. Prepare for every contingency from flat tires to frozen tongue jacks.
- Restoration: This can be a surprise if you don’t do your homework. And this is where newbies make their biggest mistake. They go right for the superficial floor coverings and window treatments to make the trailer look good. You need to roll up your sleeves and get the foundation work done first. This includes frame, subfloor and axle repairs. Once the safety items are completed and you have a strong foundation, you can enjoy the rebuild.
Here it is 13 years later and our 1960 Airstream, which took a year to restore, is now worth three times our investment. We've enjoyed traveling across country from California to Florida visiting family, national parks and attractions of all sorts. The best part is that our trailer is truly “ours” because it was restored with our personal touches.
What started as an investment grew into much more as we traveled together in our aluminum home. The camping experience is much more than the places we visited, it's the things we experienced and memories we made. We got to pan for gold, visit waterfalls, walk through botanical gardens, and even climb aboard Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose. Each trip may have lasted only a few days, but the memories are for a lifetime.
Tim Shephard is the author of Restoring a Dream, a book which chronicles the restoration his 1960 Airstream. The book gives an in-depth look at how to choose, inspect, recover and restore a vintage Airstream. Tim is also the host of the highly-rated Vintage Airstream Podcast heard in over 22 countries.