Scrap metal

I got an email from a friend today who was asking on behalf of her friend about a vintage Airstream she wanted to purchase. The 1960s trailer was listed for $4,500.  The prospective buyer knows nothing about Airstreams except that they’re cool. That has become the number one qualification of vintage owners lately. I don’t like saying it, but that’s a problem.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I bought my first 1960s Airstream because it was cool too. But I took a lot of time to learn about them, and shop as carefully as I could, and eventually I scored a usable model that became my learning platform. We still have it; it’s the 1968 Airstream Caravel that we no longer use but lavish attention on nonetheless.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a money pit, the Caravel certainly hasn’t been an awesome investment.  Even with my attempt to learn as much as possible before buying, I still had a lot of painful lessons ahead, and they cost me plenty. As I mentioned in my prior blog, vintage trailer owners tend to sink more money into their trailers than they are ultimately worth on the open market.

The person who wanted to buy the Airstream had dreams of turning it into a rental unit, using it herself occasionally, and decorating the interior herself. That’s all good, but if you don’t have a broad set of skills, lots of time, and a well-equipped workshop, the road from a “basket case” trailer to glamping heaven is paved with glue and cactus spines.  This buyer didn’t have any of the right qualifications.

So even before I looked at the trailer in question, I could say with confidence that a vintage project probably wasn’t right for her. But to be fair, I took a look at the online photos of the trailer too.

Colin Hyde in Airstream
Colin Hyde demonstrates a slight problem with this Airstream. This one was actually restorable, although at considerable expense.

Define “disaster”: an Airstream shell that has no interior, no windows, body damage, and a rotten wood floor. That’s what most people call scrap metal. There’s hardly any value in that, even if it is a very old Airstream (and 1960s-era is not considered very old in the Airstream world).

To get started on a project like this you would first need to find a way to transport it, since with no interior and a structurally deficient floor it would be unsafe to tow.  Then you’d need a good work space for two or three years, plus a long list of skills—or a really fat wallet to pay someone else to do all the dirty work.  $50,000-100,000 could disappear easily.

And yet, this buyer was ready to plunk down 45 hundred simoleons to acquire this decaying shell of an Airstream.  That’s the power of desire, triumphing over good sense.

Airstreams are enticing, no question. So I am writing this blog to warn those who don’t know what they are getting into. If you want to get into a project, fine, but don’t buy scrap metal. When you see an Airstream with no windows or with missing roof vents, it means it has been suffering water damage for years, not to mention the ravages of rodents and insects.

Junk AirstreamThe floor will be rotten.  The frame will probably be rusted. The insulation will be compacted and riddled with rodent trails. In short, the trailer is garbage. Junk. Restorable only at a ridiculous cost.

If you want a project, buy something that is at least intact, meaning with no major body damage, still sealed against the elements, and complete with all the doors and windows. If you don’t care about the interior because you’re going to strip it out and replace it anyway, at least make sure the structure underneath is still viable.  Don’t trust the seller on this—check it out yourself or find someone to check it out for you.

If you want to go camping in the next year, or you have a tighter budget, or you are utterly clueless about anything mechanical—buy a nice used Airstream that someone has recently camped in. There are plenty of good ones on the market.  They really aren’t rare, and Airstream keeps making more of them.  Most people will be happier without the horrible learning curve of buying a junker.

To those who make a sideline business out of selling scrap Airstreams to clueless buyers for outrageous prices: you should be ashamed of yourselves. Yes, if they are willing to pay and you don’t hide anything, it’s ultimately the buyer’s responsibility. But really, do you sleep well at night? Do something positive and help people by selling worthwhile trailers. Take the junk where it belongs: the recycling center.

Tech updates in the tow vehicle

Airstreamers love tech. That’s a big change from a decade ago, when most Airstreamers were repelled by technology.  When we got into it in 2003 most of the Airstreamers we met didn’t own cell phones (“too expensive,” they said) and the very few who carried computers were considered radical pioneers.

How times have changed.  Airstream owners today consider their mobile phones as essential as oxygen, and most that we meet are carrying around a laptop or two, a tablet, and either a wifi range extender or a cellular hotspot.

But why stop in the Airstream?  It’s fun to load up the tow vehicle with cool tech, even after the manufacturer has already outfitting the dash with an array of colorful displays, trip computers, and a backup camera.

There’s a legitimate need for some good toys technological essentials in the cockpit. Obviously any Airstream needs a brake controller, but that’s pretty ho-hum.  Our Tekonsha Prodigy purchased in 2005 still serves us very well today, so it’s the only thing we haven’t updated recently. This deprives me of the opportunity to upgrade to the latest and flashiest, but on balance I am pleased that it has proven to be such a durable piece of equipment.  I never have to think about it, it doesn’t need software updates, and it just works 100% of the time. Silicon Valley, pay attention.

In prior blogs and one video I have documented some of the tech gadgetry we use while towing.  The IngoVision Airstream backup cam is still with us, although I don’t think Ingo is still selling them. If you want a backup cam, there are some good ones on the market at present. The electrical mod from Mid-City Electronics that makes the image appear on the built-in Mercedes display screen is still working just fine too.  The only change in this system was back in May 2013 when I relocated the video camera to the upper dome (instead of down low on the rear bumper) to get a better view.

The first two Garmin GPSs that we used (“Garminita” and “Garminita II”) gradually got flaky and was replaced by “Garmondo”, who also became unreliable after a few years, and so we are now on our fourth one. I would normally not have much respect for a device that has such a short life space (about three years per unit). However, the GPS suffers excruciating heat while sitting on the dashboard, gets dropped to the floor regularly, and is in operation for many hours each year.

Flaking out periodically isn’t ideal but I find that every time we get a new one, its capabilities are significantly better and so ultimately our convenience increases. This one provides lane guidance (really useful when towing a trailer in traffic), traffic reports, has lifetime map updates, and is a lot faster when searching. Plus the screen is big and the touchscreen works much better. I figure the $200-300 that it costs to upgrade every three years is just part of my fixed cost of being a frequent traveler. But Garmin #4 will not get a pet name. Real pets live longer.

Transcend dashcam installed outside
This “eye” will be watching for Stupid Driver Tricks

The latest addition to the dash is a Transcend DrivePro 200 Car Video Recorder. In short, a dashcam. Dashcams are a favorite with truck drivers, eastern Europeans (remember the great meteorite videos from Russia in Feb 2013?), YouTubers, and paranoiacs. I don’t think I fall into any of those categories, but I do see a lot of crazy stuff on the roads every time we cross the country, and now I’ll be able to document some of it for you.

The camera cost about $125. Installation added about $85, since I paid a local car electronics place to remove a bunch of the interior panels and run the power cord discreetly down to a hidden source. This was more of a hassle than it should have been, because Mercedes wired the car to keep all of the 12 volt power outlets “hot” even when the car is turned off. There’s only one outlet in the GL that switches off with the engine, and that’s the center cigarette lighter outlet. The poor guys at the local electronics shop discovered this the hard way.

Transcend dashcam installed insideIf you install one of these on your tow vehicle, I recommend thinking for a while before you finally stick it to the windshield glass. You want a spot where it can get a good view of everything (which means near the top and center of the dash if possible), but not in the way of the driver’s field of view, where you can get to the controls, and not where it will interfere with other things like the rearview mirror or toll transponders. It took two tries before I got the right spot for this one.

Speaking of toll transponders, we carry two of them.  One is a Florida Sunpass, and the other is EZ-Pass which works in a bunch of eastern states. The Sunpass is a permanently adhered windshield sticker that has the advantage of being postage-stamp sized and battery-free. The EZ-Pass is a clunky white box that takes up so much space I only put it up when needed.

If we had a transponder for every state that we drive through we’d have no room to see out the windshield at all, so we’ve resisted the temptation to get an Oklahoma PikePass, a Kansas K-Tag, a California FasTrak, a Washington Good To Go! pass, a Texas TxTag, North Carolina QuickPass, Georgia PeachPass, etc.  I am hoping that someday the states will manage to make them all interoperable. Not holding my breath on that, though.

We used to carry a Doran tire pressure monitor, but for various reasons I got rid of that one and switched to another made by Truck Systems Technologies.  This was after going through a couple of other brands and realizing what total junk they were. I like the TST unit so much that we are now carrying it in the Airstream Life Store—and if I may interject a brief commercial here, our price is pretty good so please buy one from us!

The other piece of tech that has been invaluable lately is my iPhone (or sometimes, the family iPad). Apps on smart devices like these are revolutionizing the way we travel. I have a slide deck that I keep updated with the latest apps that we find useful while traveling, and I present it occasionally at Aluma-events.  The presentation is always a hit, because everyone wants to know what works in real-world travel situations. It’s much better to talk to a fellow Airstreamer than to dig through the mostly-useless reviews in the App Store.

I keep 8 to 10 apps on my phone for road travel, and would prefer fewer. It’s more efficient to have a few selected and really capable apps than to have dozens that each have some niche functionality. (If you want to know my current list, come to Alumapalooza in Jackson Center in May. We’ll keep online registration open until May 15, and after that you can register on site but it will cost $30/site more.) So if you are looking for apps, I suggest you be ruthless and delete those that you don’t find very helpful.

Perhaps I’m getting unimaginative, but I’m so happy with the tech I have that it’s hard to guess what’s coming down the technology pipeline that I would really find useful. Still, it’s undeniable that more is coming. That’s the fun thing about it; there are millions of brilliant minds working on the “next big thing” in software and hardware, and as travelers we get the benefit of that.

I don’t know what’s next, but I know this: I’ll probably be evaluating it. Look for my reviews in upcoming issues of Outside Interests news (subscribe via email for free; no obligation). Next week will mark the first official one: my full review of the Xantrex TrueCharge 2. I’ll also post a review of the Transcend dashcam in Outside Interests after I drive 2,000 miles with it up to Ohio this May.

Are you ready for a vintage project?

I got a call today from a good friend who is considering whether to plunge into an Airstream project. He’s got an older Airstream Classic 310 motorhome, which is one of the early models with an aluminum body. Those old Classics are basically an Airstream trailers mounted on a bread truck chassis, and the only major difference is the length.

Last night I met another friend at a doughnut shop to talk about a possible 1965 Airstream Safari project. Very different from the motorhome, but the basic issues were the same. Both of my friends wanted to get my opinion on the projects, and some insight as to whether the Airstreams were worth the effort.

After these conversations I began to think about all the times I’ve been asked by people about their vintage projects. Since starting the magazine in 2004, and working on a couple of my own vintage projects, I’ve probably seen several hundred vintage trailer restorations, refurbishments, and customizations. I have no idea how many we’ve published in Airstream Life but certainly dozens.

Vintage Airstream projects are always happening. Some never stop, and many never are finished. There’s always someone who wants to decide whether it makes sense to tackle a project, and I guess that’s why it’s common that I get asked about it regularly.

Vintage Airstream
Vintage Airstream at Region 1 WBCCI rally, Connecticut

I’ve come to realize that it’s not the trailer or motorhome you start with that really matters. Certainly you can make your life a lot easier if you start with something that’s not a total wreck, but the real determinant of a successful restoration is the person who takes on the challenge.

Not only do you need to have (or acquire) some skills and knowledge, but you also need to have a commitment to the project. A full restoration takes a lot of time. Sure, you can do a shabby job in 100 hours, but I’m not talking about those sorts of “eBay restorations” where someone makes over a vintage trailer cosmetically for quick re-sale (hint: look for a quickie polish job that looks swirly in bright sun, black-and-white checked floor, and Coca-Cola memorabilia) or ignores serious structural problems, or dumps a bunch of household cabinetry and appliances into it (thus turning a lightweight travel trailer into an unbalanced and crippled condo on wheels).

A more sensitive and attentive vintage restoration or customization (the difference being whether you try to match the original intent or modernize it) will go deep into the Airstream and take hundreds of hours, at least. How deep?  As deep as it takes. Typically this means gutting the interior (saving re-usable interior appliances and woodwork), dealing with frame rust and floor rot, and replacing lots of parts that won’t be noticed by the average person but which really matter.

I’m talking about parts like under-floor insulation, wiring, and plumbing. You work on these things because you don’t plan to flip the end product for a quick buck. You work on these things because you want to end up with something that respects the intent of the original Airstream: light weight, structurally strong, travel-worthy on any road and in all weather, and efficient with resources (water, propane, electricity). That’s how the Airstreams were designed, and it pains me to see vintage “restorations” which eviscerate that intent.

Caravel aluminum replacement

Of course, there’s no law that says you have to keep an Airstream true to its original design. Many cool and creative new uses have been found for old Airstreams, and I respect that because it’s a great example of adaptive re-use. Unlike just about every “white box” travel trailer or motorhome made in the last sixty years, Airstreams have an amazing capacity to be re-used as pop-up stores, promotional trailers, coffee shops and cafés, toy haulers, meeting rooms, and art. Make an Airstream into anything you want, but if you are going to make it back into a travel trailer, at least be sure it’s a good one.

Sometimes people go a little crazy on their restorations. I have seen friends lavish so much attention on every detail that they’ve spent 2,000 hours or more, working night after night in their garage to produce a museum-perfect restoration. Others I know have spent well over $200,000 on a personalized vintage Airstream.  I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with that. Like concours-quality automotive restorations, those Airstreams are inspirational. Here’s to the crazy ones; we need them to show us the ultimate standard, even if we aren’t going to achieve that level ourselves.

Gail Buck vintage Airstream
Gail Buck and her vintage Airstream

To the friends I spoke with this week, I gave the same basic advice: don’t look so much at the trailer you’re starting with. Look at yourself. Guaranteed: the project will take more money and more time than you expected, and you will definitely “invest” more money than the outcome is worth on the open market. Those things don’t matter.

Vintage Airstream at VTJ 08What really matters is whether a vintage restoration is how you want to spend your time and money. If you just want a trailer to go camping, there are easier and quicker routes. A full-blown vintage restoration is not a practical thing, it’s a commitment to the point almost of being a lifestyle. If you sell the project after you’ve started, you will lose money. Do it not because it makes any sense, but rather because you really want to do it.

And, I should mention, because you really want to be seen in it.  Let’s face it, a big part of the reward for spending countless nights and weekends painstakingly re-building and installing parts is the praise and admiration the vintage rig  generates once it is on the road.  People love to see cool vintage trailers and motorhomes. You’ll get invited to be in vintage shows, and random people in campgrounds and parking lots will ask for tours. A really good restoration makes you a celebrity—or to be entirely accurate, it makes you the manager for a celebrity.

Likewise, if you really need the finished product because your life-long dream is to operate a mobile coffee shop or kettle corn popper or pop-up store, you might have good motivation to do a good job and actually finish it.

But don’t look solely to the reward. You have to enjoy the process. If you see the project as a chance to learn new skills, demonstrate your chops as a woodworker/ plumber/ electrician/ interior designer/ upholsterer/ polisher/ metalworker (and all those skills do usually come in to play at some point), or just have an excuse to buy lots of new tools and set up a cool workshop, you’ve probably got a good motivation to tackle and finish a vintage Airstream project.

Having done a couple of projects, I feel I’ve learned a lot that I could apply to another vintage trailer. The third one, I’m certain, would be much easier. Once in a while the temptation arises, but I’ve been able to quash it on the grounds that I don’t have the working space or the time to devote. (The fact that I have absolutely no need for a third Airstream in my life hardly enters into it. As I said, you do these things for no practical reason.) Someday perhaps I will have that free time and working space, and then I’ll have to fight hard against the Siren call of aluminum.

In the meantime, I wish my friends well as they consider their projects. If they take the plunge, I hope they commit to the fullest because that’s how they’ll get the best result. And I’ll be happy to pitch in when I can or provide long-distance advice. If you can’t do a project yourself, it’s almost as gratifying to see someone else do a good job on one.  We’ll have more projects in future issues of Airstream Life magazine, too.

All new!

Yes, you’re noticing a fresh new look to this blog, and the entire Airstream Life website. We just went live with it yesterday, and wow, am I relieved about that.

I’m not big on updating stuff just because you can.  I like to use things until they can’t be repaired anymore, which explains why I was still using a 6-year-old laptop until last week when it finally died. (I also like vintage stuff that works better than the modern stuff, which explains some other appliances around our house.)

But in the case of a website, that philosophy doesn’t work.  I was getting nastygrams from Google complaining that the Airstream Life website wasn’t “mobile friendly,” which means you couldn’t read or navigate the content from a phone or tablet. A few years ago nobody cared about that, but now it’s virtually mandatory since millions of people now access the Internet from their little pocket devices.

Truth be told, the old website had a lot of other problems too.  My programmer back in 2008 did the best he could with the technology of the day, but he had to invent some kludgy work-arounds to make the site do what I needed back then. Now, all the magic is done with wonderful WordPress plug-ins that can do virtually anything you can imagine. So the site is less proprietary and more reliable & faster.

Of course, most people will just notice the new look, not what’s under the hood.  That’s fine. I really like the new blog format because it will allow me to run larger photos. When I’ve got a really nice Airstream shot, that’s important. For example …

Monahan Sand Dunes TX Airstream Mercedes
Airstream camped at Monahan Sand Dunes State Park, Texas

This is just the beginning. In May we’ll also introduce a new Airstream Life store, with new products that I’ve personally picked because I think they are essentials for Airstream travelers.  More on that soon.  But if you want to see a few early picks, check out “Airstream Upgrades.”

As part of the new site, we are updating a list of favorite blogs. If you’ve got an Airstream-related blog and update it frequently, send me the RSS feed link and it might get added to the list!

In the meantime, let me know if you have any feedback about the site, leave a comment. Thanks!

Fridge and charger upgrades

I don’t have to look at the calendar to know that time is running out to get my annual Airstream repairs and upgrades done. I lost a lot of time this winter with other projects, plus Alumafiesta and Alumaflamingo, and now I can feel the looming deadline of mid-May. That’s when we have to hit the road to go to Alumapalooza, and begin our summer of travel, and so that’s when the Airstream must be in top shape.

Some of the projects just aren’t going to get done this year, but one that could not be passed by is the replacement refrigerator cooling unit. It arrived on time (from the second vendor I chose, one that performed reliably) but then I was too busy to get to installing it until just last weekend.

Replacing the cooling unit isn’t too bad of a job for two people, but doing it solo it would be a giant pain. First, you’ve got to get the entire thing out of the Airstream, and my fridge weighs about 120 pounds, plus it had to be lifted over the countertops. I called on my friend Patrick to come over and help out with the job, which he was kind enough to do. Fortunately, he’s also quite strong, so while it wasn’t a picnic to hoist the refrigerator, it wasn’t too awful either.

I set up a nice little work space in the carport behind the Caravel to do the actual surgery. The “operating table” is a painter’s tarp, so we could lay the patient face down and not scuff the doors. (That’s the new cooling unit in the box.)

New cooling unit and work spaceAlthough the new cooling unit came with directions that did point out a few handy tips, I wouldn’t say it was a slam-dunk sort of job. There are lots of small differences between models, and the directions could only give general advice. A few parts ended up being unneeded on the new unit, such as the Dometic “recall box,” and we had to slightly modify the mount for the burner assembly, and drill a hole for the thermistor wire … and drill a few other holes as well. You definitely need to have a good toolkit to do this one. Moral support from a friend helps, too.

We ended up getting it done in about six hours. I would expect that if I had to do the job again it would take about half as long, now that I know how it goes. Overall, I’m glad to have tried this. The repair shop was going to charge $1,500 for this job, whereas my cost was about $600 plus six hours of labor. So I basically paid myself $150/hour to do it. (Patrick got paid with some of Eleanor’s fresh cannolis.)

In the photo below, you can see the old cooling unit, complete with the yellow stains of refrigerant that leaked out when it died. That residue sticks to the metal and corrodes it. We chucked most of the contaminated metal and cleaned the burner tube.

Refrigerator ready to gut

Re-installing the refrigerator includes four screws on the front, two large screws on the back, an AC plug, two 12v wires, and a gas line. Not too bad after you’ve pried the guts off the fridge and replaced them.

We were careful, so I was pretty confident the refrigerator would work when we finally re-installed it, but still it was nice to stick my hand in the freezer door a couple of hours later and find it already cold.

Alas, it was around that time (long after Patrick had gone home) that I discovered my mistake. During re-assembly we had noticed that the condensate drain was too old to use. It kept breaking apart, so we finally removed it and made a note to get a replacement drain later. This seemed like a fine plan until later that evening when I realized that it is impossible to install a new drain tube while the refrigerator is installed—at least on my particular trailer.

So sometime next week, Eleanor and I will disconnect (four screws, two large screws, AC plug, 12v wires, gas line again) and pull the refrigerator out partially so she can skinny her way into the fridge compartment from the outside and try to attach the new condensate tube. I hope she can do it, otherwise we’ll have to remove the refrigerator entirely.

Xantrex remote panel installed

While the refrigerator was out, I took the opportunity to run a final line for the Xantrex TrueCharge 2 that I had installed the week before. The TrueCharge 2 was my answer to some battery charging issues I’ve encountered, which I’ve discussed in prior blog entries. The Xantrex TrueCharge has an AGM mode, ideal for the giant Lifeline 4D battery we are using. Since it came with a remote panel, I decided to install that on the wall by the refrigerator, since having the fridge out made it easy. The remote panel doesn’t really do anything that I need, or provide much information that I can’t get from the Trimetric right next to it, but it looks cool.

I’ve written a full review on the TrueCharge 2 which will appear in an upcoming issue of Outside Interests. If you are wondering about that, go to the Outside Interests site and subscribe (free). We’ll send you an email when the next issue comes out.  But if you want the bottom line, I like the TrueCharge 2 a lot and would definitely recommend it.

Xantrex ready to install

The TrueCharge 2, by the way, fits with room to spare in the space of the factory charger. I did a little surgery to remove the heavy metal tray of the old charger, and then just slipped the Xantrex unit in and screwed it down to the floor.

It’s a great unit but I’m not sure if it’s in time to save the battery. The battery doesn’t seem to want to take a full charge anymore, and if it doesn’t start acting normally after a few charge/discharge cycles this summer, I’ll be shopping for a new one. We’ve gotten five years out of it, which is less than I would expect from an AGM even in fairly heavy use, so it’s a little disappointing.. I suspect the chargers we had installed before the Xantrex had something to do with the short life—they weren’t giving the battery a full charge sometimes.

Oh, one other thing: I ordered a set of aluminum Worthington propane tanks, and they finally arrived after months of backorder. They have replaced the original steel tanks that were starting to get rusty.  I like the aluminum tanks even though they cost a lot more, for their lighter weight, and their long lifespan. The propane tank hold-down required some slight modification to accommodate the tanks, but otherwise it was a simple upgrade. The old tanks got sold on Craigslist for $30 each.

With the mandatory repairs out of the way, I can concentrate on the little things and the “nice to have” stuff over the next four weeks. I’d get into some bigger projects, that’s all the time I’ve got to get the Airstream ready for the road. Come mid-May, we are outta here and the Airstream won’t come back home until September, maybe October.  We’ve got some big travel plans this year. You’re invited along, of course.