So you want to find a vintage trailer but you’re not sure where to start?
First let’s talk about the different styles, years, and sizes. It is important to narrow this down before beginning your search.
Style/Model - Controversy exists in the travel trailer community about which is superior: the Avion or the Airstream - you could get very technical about this if you wanted. They have a similar aircraft, inspired construction with the classic curved aluminum shell, and buck rivets galore. Similar vintage trailer models include SilverStreak and Argosy, Spartan, and Streamline.
Size matters! Depending on your travel needs, it is best to have a trailer that is lightweight and versatile to fit into those state and national park campgrounds (19-26 ft). If you are mainly staying still and need the extra space a 28-31 footer might suit you better! Keep in mind trailer weight for a tow vehicle! Also consider the stability of your trailer on the road - although that smaller trailer will be easier to get around and lighter on gas you will likely have more sway than a dual axel rig at highway speeds. Also in the case of a blowout at high speeds with a single axle you are in for a much tougher day than their dual axle counterparts.
Year - Some years are more desirable than others! The more vintage the trailer, the more work, but the better investment. 50s-60s have that beautiful mirror shine when polished and stand out in the vintage community and hold their value/ increase in value well, but 70s-80s might have less rust and deterioration.
Okay, now you have a general idea of style, year, and size but where do you start the search?
Dry states! Less moisture means less rust, mold, and overall breakdown of materials. Check craigslist in states such as Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Southern California. Avoid the rainy, coastal states if possible!
Alright, you found a good one that fits the criteria above and now you want to check it out - what do you look for?
The most important part when checking out a vintage trailer is the shell. Do a full walk around 10,20, maybe 100 times and notice these things:
Dents, scrapes, rust. Small dents might be easily popped out but larger ones are extra labor and cost! Small blemishes in the exterior can be patched with aluminum and rivets or worked out with polishing, but large breaks in the exterior wall can cause problems depending on size and location.
Windows. Do they open? Are any broken? Are they all glass or are some plexiglass? The curved windows on airstreams are $$$$ and leak-proofing windows can be one of the hardest parts of a renovation so keep this in mind! Add up the cost of replacement - its pretty easy to conceive spending over $1,200 if you had to replace all the glass now imagine paying someone to do it for you…
Get dirty, lay underneath! Check out those axels and the bellypan! Axels may need to be replaced for safety if they are rusty or sagging - this can be an extra $2,500 per axle. Is the belly in good shape, does it need a few patches, or do you need to completely replace that old original tin alloy with a tougher aluminum?
Shine on! Polishing a vintage trailer is well worth the money and time but keep in mind that it will be about 300 hours of labor intensive work for a good polish, or about $4,000-$10,000 to hire someone depending on your trailer size
Emblems, exterior fixtures. Most of these are replaceable but some little things can go a long way. Airstream specific parts can fetch a pretty penny, especially rear hatches or vent doors or anything with the airstream name attached to it. Does the doorknob function correctly? Check ebay or Vintage Trailer Supply if you have something specific that will need replacing.
The interior is less important, unless the owner is claiming that he/she has done a full or partial renovation. For the purpose of this post I am going to assume that the interior is all original or slightly modified. In this case, you are going to want to gut it and re-do EVERYTHING except for the wall skins. Yep, you read that right - GUT EVERYTHING! So if the owner is boasting about working plumbing, or a fully operational electrical system just nod and smile. You are going to want to take off those wall skins one rivet at a time and find out what’s underneath. Many renovators will paint the walls and call it a day - this is GROSS. The insulation is most likely riddled with mold, dead animals, asbestos, filthy stuff. Rip that out and replace it with better insulation, a more efficient (safe) electrical system, and clean plumbing pipes and tanks. Of course you may want to salvage some things other than the wall skins, and that is a personal decision but not necessary for picking a sturdy vintage trailer! Layout might matter if you want to keep the end-cap plumbing openings but otherwise the joy of renovating is that the design is totally and completely up to you! A blank slate… roll with it!
You found it! a Beautiful vintage trailer that will make all your wildest travel dreams come true! But how do you know if it is priced right?
First of all, make sure it has a title! How many previous owners? Have they replaced anything (tires, wheels, ect)?
Compare to others on craigslist of similar model, size, and year.
The condition of the shell is extremely important and if you get a good one it will save you tons of money during the renovation process. Sure, you could get a $1,500 trailer and pour $30,000 into fixing it up or you could get a nice $10,000 one and pour $10-15,000 into it (and a lot less hours of work). This is your call, but I would choose spending more money up front!
Everyone thinks their vintage trailer is worth a million bucks in its current state which is laughable at best - although these airstreams can boast high sale prices it takes thousands of hours and thousands of dollars to make them valuable so don’t be fooled into paying more than something is worth - be practical - keep searching - and hold out for the RIGHT ONE - not the FIRST ONE !