There’s nothing like the mystique of the open road and exploring the wonders of America with a vintage Airstream travel trailer is a dream for many people. While it’s possible to buy a new Airstream, which offers the signature style with all of the bells and whistles of modern camper travel, for some, nothing but a true vintage model from the 1950s will do.
The trouble is that many of the vintage models for sale today are in various states of disrepair. More than just minor tears, scratches and dings, many of the vintage Airstreams have deteriorated to the point where they are no longer safe to use.
However, if you have some level of knowledge and experience in restoration and building, restoring an old Airstream can be a fulfilling and worthwhile endeavor. Before you start scouring the classifieds for a trailer that needs some TLC, keep some of these points in mind.
Restoration is Not Renovation
So you’ve found an Airstream in decent condition, for a good price, in the classifieds. It works, but you dislike the interior. You can certainly make over the interior to your taste, but that is not a restoration. A restoration is a labor-intensive and long-term project that brings the Airstream back to its original condition, paying attention to the look and feel of the materials that were used in the original construction. It’s more than just a few new cushions and a microwave.
Restoring an Airstream isn’t Cheap
Depending on the condition of the trailer you start with, a full restoration will cost at minimum several thousand dollars. If the Airstream is in bad shape, you could be looking at spending up to $20,000 or more. This includes the cost of supplies, tools and labor for those tasks that you can’t complete yourself.
Getting Parts Isn’t Always Difficult – But It Can Be
If you want to restore your Airstream using only original parts from the ‘60s, you may be out of luck. The last of the new, vintage parts were sold to a company in Ohio in the 1980s, meaning that you cannot access those parts from any dealer or the Airstream factory.
However, you might be able to find vintage parts from specialty retailers and junkyards, and most Airstream dealers sell parts designed for post-1969 models. Another option is to use parts from other brands of travel trailers. In some cases, the parts from old non-Airstream trailers will work on your restoration project.
Restoration Requires More than a Polish
When you see an old Airstream in disrepair, your first instinct may be to give it a good polish to bring back that trademark silver shine, and replace old curtains and cushions to make it look pretty. However, bringing the trailer back to its former glory requires more than just a spit and shine.
While not every trailer needs every surface and system repaired or replaced, before you address cosmetic issues, you’ll need to address mechanical issues: fixing or replacing the running gear (tires, shocks, axles, brakes, etc.) and tow lights, plus weatherproofing the exterior and addressing any electrical or plumbing issues.
Once all of the trailer’s systems are in good working order, then you can move on to structural or cosmetic issues, like fixing exterior dings and dents, replacing floors, cabinets and appliances, and finally, once all of that work is done, polishing the exterior. This ensures that your shiny new trailer doesn’t fail on you the first time you hit the road.
The Older the Trailer, the More Work You’ll Need to Do
While there are exceptions to every rule, in general, older trailers will require more restoration work. Airstreams from the 1950s, for example, will likely have outdated electrical systems and appliances, rotted floors and deteriorated exteriors, while those from the 1980s will probably require less updating. Keep in mind, though, that as long as you stay true to the trailer’s original aesthetic and take pains to hide or disguise modern systems and amenities, the restoration should not affect the camper’s value. Sure it might be easier to buy one of the new Winnebago motorhomes, but nothing is as cool as having that silver bullet behind you on the road.
Restoring Airstream trailers is more than a hobby for some; it’s an outright passion. Before you embark on such a project yourself, be sure that you have the time, patience and funds to see the project through to its completion.
If you don’t think you can make that commitment, consider purchasing a newer model that doesn’t require so much work; you can still recapture the spirit of America’s Golden Age of travel in a newer Airstream camper.
This post was written and contributed by Tim Simis. Tim has been involved with rv’s and travel trailers for over 10 years.