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. 

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Boise Road Trip

Memorial Day weekend this year was a road trip to Boise, or specifically: Kuna, Idaho and my sister's place Whiskey Creek West.

The occasion was my nephew's high school graduation--a big moment! Mom flew out from Ohio and we had a nice time hanging out together.

Here I am sipping whiskey with my mom who is 78 and amazing:

My sister, nephew, and mom squinting in to the setting sun . . . we're standing on a foot bridge over the Boise River which was in flood stage:

Memorial Day was my last full day there. We'd already ridden that morning, on Archie, my sister's three year old warm blood. I was restless to get out and we couldn't agree on where to go so I decided to do a mini road trip. The Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area stood out when I looked at the map. It's just south of my sister's ranch, and I had been to part of it before, but it was such a big area that I thought I'd explore more. 

Despite the map showing little roads, they turned out to be mostly private country lanes. My anticipated 90 minute excursion (I planned to include some kind of short hike) turned into a solid three hour, 135 mile driving loop around the whole area. This included some long stretches of dirt roads. 

Mostly it was fun and it's always nice to be out with my puppy Jake. It was a gorgeous day. 

The Snake River and my furthest point on the three hour loop at Grand View, Idaho:

The most surreal thing I saw was at the Idaho Army National Guard's training center in Orchard, Idaho--which isn't much of a town, just a few buildings.

I have no photographic evidence but I saw some big army trucks, humvees, and two tanks. And when I say I saw these things they were all operational and rolling down the road. It felt like I'd stumbled into a war zone, or the scene from a bad novel. Seeing the tanks rolling along was jarring. 

Other sites along the way:
  • Shooting ranges
  • Free range cattle
  • An old Spartan trailer, in the town of Kuna
  • And a lot of wide open space
I was in my VW TDI which I plan to write about separately as I turn it in to Volkswagen in less than a week thanks to VW's cheating software.

Huge congrats to my nephew John on reaching this big milestone.

Monte, my sister's Cleveland Bay colt in front of the setting sun at Whiskey Creek West.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Transforming my front yard: The new walk

Last summer and fall I designed and personally completed some major new xeriscaping in my back yard.

This spring it was time to focus on my long neglected front yard. The photo below does little justice to how bad the walk was. The bricks were uneven--dangerously so in spots. Weeds were a constant battle (I seemed to have been winning when I took this photo). The curb appeal was, well there wasn't much curb appeal, and not just because of the walk. But one thing at a time.

I took the plunge and rehired the contractor who did my patio. It was expensive, but what the hell right? The contractor ended up making a couple of major mistakes, which I won't elaborate on here, but the end result is a massive improvement:

The concrete is stamped and colored and looks so much better. 

The next photo is a closer to the house after I added more weed barrier and rock two days ago. 

I love this stuff . . . just wish it didn't cost so much. And yes, it's also time consuming and back breaking, but that's not all bad. Note the two surviving sage bushes of the three that I planted--five years ago. They are looking strong. 

Posted from Kuna, Idaho

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. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Truck Porn: My new Tundra

Americans and our trucks. We're quite the pair.

I am someone who thinks continuing to burn oil as we are is a very, very bad thing for our planet. And yet . . . here I am with a new gas-guzzling truck and I am pretty stoked about it. I may not be quite as thrilled when fuel prices spike again, but I'll deal with that when it happens--as it surely will.

I bought the VW TDI (diesel) in 2013 precisely because I wanted to lighten my environmental footprint and save on fuel. The TDI is a fuel sipper and I've loved it. But for those of you who haven't heard (which includes more people than I would think) the VW didn't turn out to be the clean diesel it was billed to be. Read more about that here if you don't know the story.

Last night I had fun driving with my puppy (he's almost 13) and taking some photos of my new-to-me 2013 Toyota Tundra, built to suck fuel.

I can't wait to pull my new Airstream with it!

Update: I loved this truck, but not the mileage. I sold it the following February and got a RAM EcoDiesel. Four plus years later I am loving the RAM. 

Sunday, May 21, 2017


Well, I am on a roll.

Yesterday I bought a 2013 Toyota Tundra! It wasn't part of my day's plan when I woke up, but I have been looking and researching trucks. In buying the Tundra I saved $10,000-$15,000 versus the vehicle I was planning to get: a new, or slightly used Chevy Colorado with Duramax (diesel).

Those are serious savings.

The Tundra is certified pre-owned and is under warranty from Toyota for 12,000 miles or one year. It will be more appropriate to pull my new vintage Airstream. It's a gas hog but I figured it would take 12-18 years to make up the fuel savings vs. the $10,000 price cut. Of course who knows what will happen to the price of fuel, but the point stands.

Here it is, with Jake (it looks kind of creamy here, it's actually a bright white):

Friday, May 19, 2017

An Airstreamer Again!!

I am the happy and proud owner of an Airstream again! A 1962 Safari, 22 feet long.

I love it!

So much for waiting (see my post from Monday). When this trailer was posted on our local classified ads two days ago, it felt like the right one. Wish me luck as these vintage trailers always have quirks you have to deal with (and pay for!). This trailer is older than me but it's impeccable inside and out--very cool given its age. Airstreams cost more than other trailers, but they tend to last and last and last. And yes, they are still in business and they still make them.

Thanks Elise for your support and encouragement, and thanks Bryn for being my first guest. We played Yahtzee, had a drink, and along with Jake we soaked in the ambience of vintage trailer life.

It's so good to be an Airstreamer again. It was the fall of 2009 when I sold my 1973 Tradewind.

Photos from the first night:

My Safari's first evening at my house. 
With Jake. I am so glad he's here to see a new chapter of Airstreaming. 
Bryn, my first guest. 

Additional photos:

Monday, May 15, 2017

Airstream Calling . . .

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

An Airstream of course.

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 a bit more.

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.