I May Have OFFICIALLY LOST MY MIND: I Bought a Vintage Airstream to Renovate!

I May Have OFFICIALLY LOST MY MIND: I Bought a Vintage Airstream to Renovate!

I’ll fully admit I have a (borderline unhealthy?) addiction to rescuing both animals and inanimate (usually older) objects that need some love.

My animals have always been my children. I’ve had a variety of rodents, dogs, cats, horses, and even fostered a prairie dog as a kid. For a short (and hectic) time recently, I had 5 rescue dogs at once! I’m a nurturer by nature and have a hard time saying no to helping someone or something in need.

As a kid, my parents were quite handy and almost always DIY-ing something or other around the house. I was usually there right alongside them, helping out and getting valuable hands-on experience. I suppose wanting to have a project to complete and be proud of is just part of who I am by this point.

I spent the past two years renovating my badly-outdated 1990’s condo, followed shortly thereafter by most of the systems and finishes in my 1920’s Craftsman-style home, but I’ve never had a fixer-upper house on wheels.

So why an RV?

I love to travel and found myself craving a method for easier trips with dogs. An RV appeared to be the “logical” next step in my travels and renovation adventures.

Dogs posing at Dogfish Head brewery
The 3 current dogs that will be part of this new adventure!

There is, however, the tiny fact that I’m also a first-time RV owner. I’ve never driven or even slept in one, unless you count the travel trailer permanently mounted on blocks that I rented for a weekend with friends once, in an amusement park’s campground.

A well-timed – and slightly inebriated – Craigslist search for “travel trailer” one night led to “just going to look at this fixer-upper Airstream”. Like all things you intend to “just go look” at, it of course was love (and purchase) at first sight. Thus began my plunge into first-time money pit RV renovation and ownership!

Where others might see a run-down disaster in this vintage Airstream, I saw the ultimate blank slate to build out an ideal trailer for my future travels. I may be a glutton for punishment, an ambitious dreamer, or both – I guess it just depends on the day!

My 26-foot, 1965 Airstream Overlander International
The original floor plan of our 1965 Airstream Overlander International
The original floor plans of my 1965 Airstream Overlander International from the Airstream sales brochure
The original exterior model number plaque. They called them Land Yachts, but it was said they were so lightweight you could pull them with a bicycle!

The sellers were a camping enthusiast couple who’d bought it three years prior with the intent to restore it themselves, but they just had too many other things going on. After already disassembling most of the interior, they decided to pass it on to someone with more time and energy. They were looking for just the right buyer (primarily someone who wouldn’t just scrap it!) and I couldn’t have been more thankful to be that lucky recipient.

I “adopted” it for a very reasonable price and was given the original 1965 paperwork for the trailer (title, owner’s manual, warranty certificate, appliances’ manuals, and adorable handwritten notes and “tips” from past owners). The owners included all the cabinetry and other parts that had already been removed, in the hopes of reusing them. Minimizing the environmental impact of my renovations is very important to me, and I was so grateful to them for this. 🌎

Partially gutted already, but the cabinet wood was disassembled carefully for reuse ♥
It should also be possible to save most of the solid mahogany wood cabinetry after a good cleaning. You certainly don’t see that quality in many RVs anymore!

If it’s not obvious from the photos yet, it’s in need of a total stripping down and interior rebuild. The trailer seems to have been smoked in, which was common back then – the inner walls are stained with a sticky brown residue that will need to be removed prior to painting.

It also has extensive water damage from various leaks over the years, and being left open to the elements more recently.

The bad news is that the floor is rotted all the way through just inside the entry door, likely from the leaky door gasket that looks like it hasn’t been replaced since ’65. The rear bathroom’s water damage is even worse, leaving a lot of the floor totally rotted away from leaks in the plumbing and rear access/storage hatch. It’s surprising the toilet didn’t fall through the floor!

Thankfully, the steel frame and aluminum body seem to be pretty decent – the most important thing in a trailer this age.

Watch your step (and maybe get a tetanus booster while you’re at it)!

Very little was ever modified in this trailer, too, which is rare in a vintage Airstream. No new paint, flooring, or appliances, from the looks of it. Demolition should be easier because of that, and most of the original fixtures are still in place for possible re-use.

The heavy original oven stays up front to keep the tongue from lifting off the ground, now that everything in the front has been removed! I also put a heavy punching bag on the tongue. 😆
A time capsule of 1960’s RV bathroom plumbing – a cigarette lighter next to the toilet, an actual bath tub (that only a tiny person could sit in), and a sink that drains directly into the tub! That’s the behemoth of a water heater to the right.

As for the exterior, there’s a few big dents to the front end corners that can hopefully be smoothed out after the inner walls are taken out, some missing exterior lights and covers (that I plan to replace with LEDs for safety), a broken window (all the glass will be replaced with newer safety glass), many scratches, a heavily-rusted trailer tongue, step, and bumper, and a badly peeling clear-coat that will need to be stripped off. The plan is to polish the outside to a nearly mirror finish, since the aluminum on these older trailers can be stripped and buffed to a shine.

I wouldn’t advise putting your full weight on that step if you value your life
She’s just a little crinkly around the edges – now where’s my rolling pin?
Have these tires ever been replaced?? 😱 It’s amazing we got the trailer home in one piece after driving on these for several hours (backroads only, of course).
Two different Wally Byam Caravan Club International numbers – 14982 and another I couldn’t quite be sure of, but looks like 13338. The back hatch is held on with tape.

So what’s the next step, now that this giant tin can is in my backyard on blocks, getting weird looks from all the neighbors and hungry eyes from metal scrappers?

Well, first comes scouring the web obsessively, trying to fill in any gaps in my DIY knowledge when it comes to the differences between renovating houses and travel trailers. Air Forums has been a huge wealth of information already.

I can’t wait to get started on the interior demolition – removing the rest of the cabinets and fixtures, ripping up flooring, and removing the inside aluminum wall skins. I’ll try to post my renovation pictures and accompanying narrative as I go, but since this is a hobby while I’m working full-time, they may be a bit intermittent.

I fully anticipate begging for help from family and friends now and then, and here’s hoping it will be as hugely rewarding an experience as my home renovations have been. Hopefully even more so, because it represents the freedom to travel more often, and with many of the comforts of home! ♥

And so the adventure begins!

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1 Comment

  1. May 22, 2019 / 11:58 am

    I like that you mentioned that you had such a good experience renovating your own home and decided to take on the next project of renovating your airstream. I would imagine that seeing your camper get a whole new transformation would be rewarding and am interested in renovating one myself. I will have to look into used airstreams that would be perfect for remodeling into my dream camper!

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