Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Scenes from the Airstream rehab

Considering I have a hard enough time doing lower skill tasks like painting my house (just had a rough go of it this past weekend), and considering that my time is limited, I am having pros do most of the rehab work on my 1962 Airstream Safari.

Here are some scenes from the shop, Camper Reparadise, in Salt Lake City:

The glamour shot

New seven-prong connector and cord

Astradome and Fanstastic Vent via Vintage Trailer Supply

Belly pan recreated and installed after the new axle was in place

Some of the underside repairs

Next up, 12 volt electrical system getting overhauled. Hope to have this back by July 14.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

New axle and Colin Hyde's hypnotic manner

Ten years ago in Georgia, I met a guy named Colin Hyde. I was standing there with my 1973 Airstream lined up with the other vintage Airstream people, minding my own business. We were prepping to caravan in to the 50th annual Wally Byam Caravan Club International's meetup. Many hundreds of Airstreams converge each year at different locations for this event. They still do it today. This year's will be in Michigan.

The next thing I know, as I stood waiting in line, Colin is laying on the ground inspecting the underside of my trailer. He informed me that I needed new axles.

It had never occurred to me that it was an issue. I was living full-time in my Airstream and had more than 4,000 miles on my trailer by that point and hadn't noticed anything amiss as I rolled down America's highways and byways. And yet meeting this guy Colin, he almost immediately convinced me I needed new ones and before I knew it I had driven to his shop in Plattsburgh, New York--way up north, not far from Montreal.

I got my axles replaced.

There was something hypnotizing about Colin's manner. I never doubted him.

In production year 1961, Wally Byam, the founder of Airstream switched all new Airstreams to torsion axles. He did this after leading a caravan across Africa from Capetown to Cairo. Prior to '61, Airstreams had leaf spring axles which I am familiar with from farm equipment my family has had over the years.

Leaf spring axle.

Leaf spring axles date back hundreds of years and are still used today in some heavy trucks, SUVs, and a variety of vehicles and trailers--though not too often in modern travel trailers. 

During the 1959 Capetown to Cairo caravan, Wally Byam had torsion axles on his Airstream. This was experimental technology for Wally and Airstream though torsion axles date back to at least the 1930s. Wally had no problems on that epic 1959 trip, whereas many of the other people in the caravan had all sorts of problems with fractures and breakdowns in their leaf spring axles. Hence the switch for 1961. 

My new-to-me 1962 Airstream Safari had its original torsion axle. With the Colin-embedded-in-me fear of old axles, a new axle was high on my list for my newly acquired trailer. But why?

Torsion axles provide the suspension for the trailer (most Airstreams also use shock absorbers to reduce bounce). When you buy any old trailer the old axles often still work, but they don't work as they were designed. With no suspension left in the axles you drag your trailer around and it feels every bump and gets bounced all over the road. For Airstreams, rivets can--and do--pop out. The body can become separated from the frame. Appliances and built-in furniture take a beating. All of this is really, really bad for a trailer. The worst case though is axle failure including a wheel flying off--which is especially bad on a single axle trailer like my 1962 Airstream Safari. In the case of my Safari, when I first brought it home it bottomed out on my not very steep driveway because the arms in the torsion system had collapsed. 

So a new axle was coming my way. Here's my original axle which we had to cut off since it was welded on. On later models the axles were bolted on which meant much less work in switching them out. 

For Airstream and other vintage trailer people who want to read more about this, check this article out by Andy Rogozinski. I am borrowing this image from Andy's article because it illustrates what failed on my original axle:

And another photo of my now retired axle:

As you can see I'd attained the negative angle on my torsion arm. As a result my trailer rode lower and had no suspension. 

Here's my new axle, just before we welded it on:

It's now got a positive angle again which you can see will raise the trailer and give it suspension. With this system each tire has independent suspension and the trailer enjoys a smooth ride. 

So thank you Colin for putting me under your spell and making me a believer in the value of updating my axle. Thanks to my new amigos at Camper Reparadise here in Salt Lake City for doing the hard work of removing my old welded-on axle and installing a new one. A special shoutout to Airstream/vintage-trailer enthusiast and Chad of Camper Reparadise who cut off the old axle. Thanks too to Evan for welding on the new one. 

You can follow Chad here on Instagram, he's a true craftsman who loves his work and does an excellent job of showing his work in photos. 

If you are back east, look up my friend Colin Hyde who you can also listen to and get tons of great vintage trailer advice from on the Vintage Airstream Podcast (the VAP). There, you too can experience his mesmerizing voice!

I didn't attempt to explain why torsion axles don't last--it has to do with the rubber used in them. Andy discusses that in more detail (see link above). One thing Andy doesn't come out and say in his article is that all torsion axles are at or near the end of their life after about 20 years. That doesn't mean they'll outright fail, but they are no longer performing as designed and your trailer will pay the price if you drive with older axles. 

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Airstream production in the early 1970s

My May 28 blog post, and an accompanying Air Forums post this past weekend yielded some answers about the historic Airstream production numbers that I was curious about.

Joe Peplinski, the historian for the Wally Byam Caravan Club International (WBCCI), responded with information regarding production in the early 1970s. Airstream was producing a total of 175 trailers per week (in Ohio and California), or about 8,750 per year based on a 50 week production schedule. These are his estimates, not official numbers, but I suspect they put us very much in the ballpark of Airstream production circa 1971.

That's substantially more than are being produced in the current boom. It seems like Airstream must be producing 3,500 to 4,000 trailers this year (my estimate based on the sources I found for my previous post, and consistent with what I was told at the Idaho dealer last Saturday).

Joe's information came from interviewing two longtime Airstream employees for "Airstream Plant Tour Guides," an article he wrote for Blue Beret, March 2016. If you follow that link scroll to page 21. Blue Beret is WBBCI's monthly magazine.

Thanks Joe for this information! This still leaves the 1950s and 1960s as a big void regarding the production numbers I'd love to see. Peplinski makes reference to 1980s production numbers in his Blue Beret article too.

It would also be great to see yearly totals for Airstream's full history. It's fun to piece together what we can all the same.

My 1973 Airstream Trade Wind, photographed in Nevada. December 2007. 

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Boom times for Airstream and the entire U.S. RV Industry

Today my mom, sister, nephew, and I stopped by Idaho Airstream in Caldwell, Idaho near my sister's ranch. We had fun looking at the new Airstreams--which are awesome! They are also expensive. I asked the sales guy about hitches as I am trying to pick a hitch for my new vintage Airstream.

One number he mentioned stuck with me. He said Airstream will manufacture about 3,400 trailers this year.

3,400!! That's all?


The number sounded low so I did some quick and dirty research.

The first number I found online was from 2.5 years ago when they were said to be producing 50 Airstreams per week which would be 2,600/year. Source: Washington Post, "Airstream can’t keep up with demand for iconic silver trailers," January 1, 2015.

The same article said they are on track to increase production by 50%, but didn't give a timeline. An April 2016 Dayton Business Journal article said they were up to 72 trailers per week and on track for 77 by the end of 2016. That's all consistent, and even ahead of the the 3,400 number I heard today.

These would likely be their highest numbers since at least 1979-1980!

"That's all?" wasn't the right reaction. These are boom times!!

This photo, from the Airstream website, is the 2017 International Serenity, it was our favorite today.
I am curious how many they were producing per year from about 1955 to 1978.

After reading the history of Airstream it was likely 1974-75 when sales really began to plummet during the 1970s because of the OPEC induced spike in gas prices that shocked the whole economy.

I've heard from a few sources, including Colin Hyde on the Vintage Airstream Podcast (The VAP), that Airstream is in the midst of a big expansion. You can read more about it in the Dayton Business Journal, November 2016.

In 2016, U.S. RV shipments totaled 430,691 units. These are big numbers! This was a gain of 15.1% over the previous year and the biggest year in 40 years according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA). That number is for all RVs including travel trailers and all motorhomes. Source: RVIA, April 2017. Here is another RVIA link with some historical data, but it only goes back to 1978!

2016 was also the best year ever for Airstream's parent company Thor. Thor was founded in 1980, the worst year in the RV industry in 40 years. The company began when it's founders acquired Airstream in a fire sale deal from Beatrice who owned Airstream since December of 1967. Since 1980 Thor has grown to become the largest company in the RV industry by acquiring and growing a variety of different RV brands.

Source of Thor's 2016 results: "Thor Announces Record Results for Fourth Quarter and Fiscal 2016."

The industry is highly cyclical and we here we are in the midst of a historic boom. Of course booms don't last, but we can enjoy it while it's here. More RVs for Americans! For better and worse. I've grown to love RVing and especially Airstreaming.

May 30 postscript: I am catching up on past issues of Airstream Life, today the Winter 2016 issue arrived. In it, Publisher Rich Luhr wrote: "Airstream is blowing out sales records every year--and this is the fifth year in a row . . . . the Airstream community is getting stronger. I doubt if it has been so healthy and enthusiastic since the 1970s. The Wally Byam Caravaner Club International (WBCCI) is gaining members again. . . ." Of course Rich is more in tune with the Airstream world than I am, so it's not surprising he scooped me on this observation. His letter was titled It's a Great Time to be an Airstreamer. Of course I couldn't agree more!

It would still be nice to see actual numbers from Airstream, especially historical ones.

Posted from Kuna, Idaho

Update: Read my June 1 post with information on production circa 1971. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Airstream Calling . . .

I am--almost--back in the market for my next travel trailer, and it will likely be . . .

I'm headed toward my next RV. 

This past weekend I came very close to buying a cool 1954 canned ham. The guy was asking $4,000. I had him down below that, but realized, I wanted something bigger.

My delay will mean waiting longer, but that's OK. I am now focused on a new vehicle. Currently I own a Volkswagen TDI (their dirty/cheating diesels) and a 1997 Dodge Ram 1500. I am likely to sell both of those to buy a Chevy Colorado with Duramax.

I've resubscribed to Airstream Life and hope to have my new trailer no later than next March.  Time will tell.