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.

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.

Oh no, it’s the UPS truck again

I have spent several hours this week stripping the old “Tour of America” graphics off our Airstream. This is something I really should have done long ago, perhaps even in 2008 when we officially ended our full-time travels and settled into a house without wheels, but for sentimental and laziness reasons I kept putting the job off.

We loved the graphics.  They made our Airstream unique and a reminder of the 1,000 happy days we spent traveling America.  People would ask us where we got them, or if they indicated that our trailer was a rental (apparently confusing Airstream and U-Haul).  Many others would say nothing but take pictures when they spotted it.  Emma confessed that while attending rallies as a small child she would use the decals as a way to find her home among dozens of other Airstreams.

The graphics were custom-designed by Brad Cornelius for us when we launched in 2005, and at the time I expected they would be on the Airstream for less than a year.  The people who applied them assumed the same, and so I have nobody to blame but myself for the fact that ten years later the decals had fused to the Airstream’s clearcoat in a very stubborn way. The final impetus to remove them came last year, when the two decals that faced south began to crack and peel off like a bad sunburn.

I knew that getting them off would be a problem, because I had removed the largest decal back in 2010 and it took several days.  Back then I was going the chemical approach, using all kinds of nasty carcinogenic goop, none of which worked particularly well.  I tried a heat gun and plastic scrapers and all sorts of things, but it was still a huge hassle—and in the process I managed to scrape off the Airstream’s clear coat in two places.

This time I tried a 3M Adhesive Eraser Wheel, and it was a huge difference.  It’s basically a polyurethane grinding wheel that you put on a drill.  The wheel cost me $32.99 locally, which turned out to be money well spent.  The wheel strips off the vinyl and the underlying adhesive without damaging the clear coat at all. You can see how this works in my short YouTube video.  Then I followed up with a few applications of Goo Gone to clear up the remainder.

Unfortunately, you can also see how the graphic in the video demo is leaving behind a “ghost” image of itself.  That particular bit of vinyl was facing southwest while the Airstream was in storage, and it got the most sun damage. The vinyl actually embedded into the clear coat and caused permanent damage.  If I had removed it a couple of years ago it would have been fine—I just waited too long.

Oh well.  Now that I’ve got the entire graphic off and cleaned up the surface, it actually looks kind of cool.  From some angles it’s like a silver image cast into the aluminum.  I may eventually have that panel stripped and re-coated by P&S Trailers the next time we are passing through Ohio, or maybe we’ll just design a new vinyl graphic to cover up that spot.  One other graphic also left a mark. The others (which were in shade during storage) came off cleanly.

It’s hardly “stealth” with  AIRSTREAMLIFE.COM still emblazoned on either side and the rear, but the Airstream is much more subtle now. I think we’ll operate like this for a while, until we decide what personalization we might like next.

Fiddling with the graphics is a prelude to much bigger things.  For weeks I have been amassing equipment for a minor renovation and upgrade inside the Airstream.  Since I’ve got to head to Florida soon for Alumaflamingo, I might start the project in the next few days but won’t finish until probably late March.  The list includes:

  • replacement of the refrigerator cooling unit, with a rebuilt one
  • replacement of the Intellipower charger with a Xantrex that can handle our AGM batteries
  • replacement of the kitchen countertop
  • installation of a water filtration system including two cartridge filters and UV sterilization
  • installation of a NuTone food center
  • various other small tweaks

It’s a lot of stuff, but it looks like we will continue to use our Airstream heavily for many more years, so I’m glad to make the investment. If you’re interested in upgrade stuff, stay tuned. Every time the UPS truck pulls up at my door, another project will begin …

Pineapple season

Weather-wise this is one of the most pleasant times of year to be in southern Arizona.  It’s neither hot enough for air conditioning, nor cold enough for heat, and with abundant sunshine because this is one of our dry seasons.  We haven’t seen substantial rain in weeks.

Little wonder that this is when I find myself working the hardest on projects all over the house and both Airstreams.  The Caravel plumbing job is done, tested, and hopefully reliable.  Everything works perfectly.  My only job now is to take the trailer on a shakedown trip, perhaps across the county (potentially no small jaunt, since Pima County is 9,200 square miles) and camp in it for a night to thoroughly test all the work.  I am very confident in it but in this case I’m subscribing to Ronald Reagan’s philosophy: “Trust, but verify.”

(I’m also thinking of another less-famous Reagan turn of phrase: “I feel like I just crapped a pineapple.”  This wasn’t a fun job, but it feels great now that it’s done.)

The Safari, to its credit, is hanging in there just fine. Good for you, Safari.  I tweaked a few things after we got home in September, and while there are other projects in the wings, it needs nothing at the moment.  We are free to go camping.

And we might, if we had the inclination.  But when we were full-timing in the Airstream we found that in some ways this is the least interesting time of year.  The short days, even in the southernmost reaches of the continental US, meant that after about 5 p.m. we’d be back in the Airstream for a long dark night.  In the desert southwest, the temperature plummets after dark and so on those nights when we were in a national park with a ranger program to attend at 8 p.m., we’d have to bundle up like it was Alaska, in order to sit through an hour-long talk in the outdoor amphitheater on chilly metal benches.

So instead we tend to stay home in November and December, except for a break around New Year’s, and I try to get things done so that we can take off later in the season.  It’s also a good time to catch up personal maintenance, so this month I’ve had the full experience afforded the average 50-year-old American male, including a flu shot, a Tdap booster, (Tetanus, Diptheria & Whooping Cough), a examination here and there, dental cleaning, orthodontist, and the threat of having a sigmoidoscope shoved up where the sun don’t shine.  Yee-ha.

(OK, having written that, I do have to wonder why I’m not hitching up the Airstream and driving as far away as I can … Then I remind myself that I’m trying to set a good example for my daughter.)

One use of the time has been to read several very interesting books.  One has been “The Great Brain Suck” by Eugene Halton. Don’t read it if you are thin-skinned (because he skewers a certain group of Airstreamers) or if you can’t stand wordiness.  Halton could have used a good editor to trim down his prose, but his observational skills are razor-sharp.  I would hate to have him review me.

Another one has been “Salt: A World History,” by Mark Kurlansky.  Admittedly, you have to be a history buff to really love this one.  It’s not a foodie book.  He takes the common thread of an ageless essential (salt) and shows how it permeates most of the major events of world history. Salt has caused and prevented wars, changed governments, nourished some societies while crushing others, and literally enabled society as we know it today.  I picked it up while visiting the Salinas Pueblos National Monument in New Mexico, where salt trading was a crucial element of survival for the Ancient Puebloans.

Mercedes 300Dx3

I’m sure I can blame the nice weather for this next item:  I have joined a gang.  We’re not particularly scary, but we do clatter around town in a cloud of diesel smoke.  Not exactly “rolling thunder” but at least “rolling well-oiled sewing machines.” Like Hell’s Angels Lite.

We are small but growing group of old Mercedes 300D owners in Tucson who share knowledge, parts, tools, and camaraderie periodically.  In the photo you can see the cars of the three founding members, blocking the street.  We call ourselves the Baja Arizona W123 Gang.  Perhaps someday we’ll have t-shirts and secret handshake.  Probably the handshake will involving wiping black oil off your hands first.

The rest of my time has been spent working the “day job.”  At this point I am glad to say that the preliminary event schedules for both Alumafiesta, and Alumaflamingo have been released to the public (and that was two more pineapples, believe me).  There’s still quite a lot of work to be done on both events, but at least now we have an understanding of the basics.  To put it another way, we’ve baked the cake, and now it’s time to make the frosting.  If you are interested in getting involved with either event as a volunteer, send an email to info at randbevents dot com.

The question now is whether I will tackle a major project on the Safari, or just lay back and take it easy for a few weeks.  The project would be to remove the stove/oven, re-secure the kitchen countertop (it has worked loose), and cut a hole to install a countertop NuTone Food Center.  On one hand, this isn’t an essential thing just yet, but on the other hand, I’ll be glad if it’s done before we start traveling extensively next February.  I only hesitate because it might turn into a bigger project than I bargained for.  You know how projects have a way of doing that.

Hmmm… pineapple, anyone?

 

 

Lessons from the Caravel

This past week I’ve been digging back into the Caravel, in an attempt to get it back in fully-functioning condition by mid-November.  You might remember that last February I was working on that project, and abandoned it because I had to switch over to working on the Safari.  Those Safari projects (re-flooring, building new cabinetry, etc.) took all spring, and then we went on the road in May.  Now that it’s fall and we are back at home base, I’ve finally got a chance to finish the plumbing.

Actually there were three general areas of work to be done on the Caravel, of which the plumbing was only one.  I also started building a new dinette table to replace the heavy one we have been using, and there was the super-annoying propane regulator job that morphed into complete replacement of the regulator, hoses, mounting bracket, and hitch jack.

The hitch jack was still needing to be done when we got back.  It turned out that the original manual jack on the Caravel was welded into place, so I couldn’t remove it myself.  (Someday I plan to learn welding.  I’ll be checking the local community college for courses.)

I hate calling tradesmen, because (a) it’s hard to find a good one; (b) few of them return calls; (c) even fewer will actually show up.  My historical success rate has been to get one good worker for every five or six calls.  So I was geared up for the worst when I started seeking a mobile welder to come over, but got lucky this time and got a guy with only four calls.  One other said he would come over “next week,” but that was in July.

Caravel welding hitch jackJohn showed up and right off the bat I could see he was very experienced. Over the phone it took 30 seconds to describe the job, and since he owns a travel trailer himself he knew exactly what was necessary.  He   got the jack out in 20 minutes, and the new one went in pretty quickly too.  It is bolted in place, not welded, so I can get it out myself next time.

Caravel safety chainsWhile we were at it, John torched off the old—completely inadequate— safety chains and welded up a new set.  The whole job took about an hour, plus a few minutes the next day for me to wire up the power leads.

So that ended the saga that began with a new propane regulator.  One down, two to go …

I left the plumbing in what I earlier described as an “80%” state.  This turned out to be pretty close to the truth, as long as you remember that the last 20% takes 80% of the time.  I was hoping to complete the job in about 10 hours.  After a week of tinkering with it, I think I’ve already using up my allotment of time.

The problem is rookie mistakes.  I learned a lot of things doing this job, but chief among them are:

  1. Don’t ever re-use anything from the original plumbing.  I had set out to avoid that mistake (see photo below of some of the old plumbing I threw out), but then I went and re-used just one piece, a brass winterization valve that was screwed into the water heater, because it was so firmly stuck in the threads that I couldn’t get it out.  And guess what piece leaked when time came to pressure-test the system?Caravel old brass
    Well, necessity is the mother of invention, so I did eventually get that brass valve out, and if you enlarge the photo you can see quite clearly that the shutoff has been leaking for some time.  All that green corrosion is the tell-tale, and that brings me to the next lesson:
  2. Buy good quality parts.  I can’t see any way that it pays to buy cheap plumbing fittings.  All the stuff I removed was low-grade and it was all failing after a decade.
  3. PEX is great stuff, but it only works if you remember to actually crimp the fittings.  Last February I left a few of the first crimp rings un-done “just in case” I needed to disassemble later because I’d made a mistake.  By November, I didn’t remember that.  You can imagine the spray of water that occurred later.  (Doug R gave me the advice to pressure-test with compressed air instead of water.  I didn’t take that advice, and I should have. It’s not fun chasing leaks with a towel.)
  4. You need a LOT more of everything than you think.  I bought 100 feet each of blue and red PEX tubing, 100 crimp rings, eight swivel fittings, a box of brass elbows, six shutoff valves, and many other bits.  I ran out of swivel fittings, crimp rings, and shutoffs, and nearly ran out of elbows.  Why?  Because I didn’t realize exactly what was going to be required (and I wasted a lot of crimp rings making mistakes).  It’s astonishing to me that I used most of the 200 feet of PEX tubing that I bought.  It’s only a 17-foot trailer, for cryin’ out loud!
  5. It’s a lot easier to re-plumb if the cabinetry is out.  I would have had this job done in a fraction of the time if the trailer were bare, instead of fighting to crimp copper rings inside a closet!

Caravel old plumbing The job still isn’t done, but it’s getting close.  Eleanor has been squeezing herself into the closets and under-sink area to do some of the tricky crimps.  We spent most of last Saturday together in there, and we may yet spend a chunk of this coming Saturday in there too.  The plumbing is fully assembled, so the next job is to do more leak-testing, re-assemble the interior furniture that we removed, clean up, and then in a few weeks we’ll take the Caravel out for a road test and shakedown weekend.  The third project, the dinette table, can wait until later.