Airstream Restorers: Under the Skin of the Airstream Renaissance

by Tom Bentley
Copyright 2004, Tom Bentley

 



Just a glance at today’s cars and clothes tells you the phrase “What’s old is new again” is right on target. The polished gleam of that truth is reflected from all the gussied-up old Airstreams back in circulation. Whether their mirror-bright shine is seen behind moving cars, in catchy commercials or in the pages of glossy design magazines, Airstreams are big again. But in many cases, these aren’t your father’s Airstreams. Many of these classic coaches have been brought back to luxuriant life at the hands of professional restorers who have put their personal stamp on that aluminum shell. According to a leading Southern California restorer, Craig Dorsey of Vintage Vacations, the pull of the antique trailer is more than a passing craze. “The vintage trailer phenomenon is our trying to grab a piece of what represents a happier time in our history. It’s almost a mass consciousness, and not limited to trailers. Houses are retro, the clothes are retro, cars are retro, motorcycles are retro. Everything is retro—why? We’re all dying for something better than we’re getting. We want pleasure in life, beauty instead of fear.”

Dorsey seemed to have no choice in what steered him toward trailer restoration—the bug started early. “My earliest recollection of a trailer was when I was seven or eight and I was walking to the store and I saw this incredibly large Airstream parked there, and I remember saying, ‘Wow, this is like a rocket ship!’ Then, 20 years ago I was in Rosarita, Mexico and I saw a late ‘30s or ‘40s trailer that I didn’t think anything of until I walked inside, and I could see the original beauty—it was like a covered wagon with mahogany inside, and I fell in love with it and said that one of these days I’m gonna get one.”

In the mid ‘90s, Dorsey saw some Airstream sites on the Internet and put up his own site, focusing on an area that needed attention: non-Airstream vintage coaches. He figured that one person a month might stumble on it, but he got enough response from trailer owners to organize his first rally in Southern California soon after, and to expand the site to include pictures of trailers he’d worked on, which provoked a flood of calls from owners looking for someone to work on their trailers. He was art-directing television commercials, but then came a turning point, “One day I was doing a commercial with the director from hell, and after we’d worked 36 hours straight for him, he came unglued. And I just said, ‘I’m done. I’m gonna go build trailers.’ And trailers became a bad disease for me. Within three days I’d signed a building lease, and on that day the phone started ringing off the hook, like it was meant to be. It’s been five years since I walked off that set and the business has just taken off.”

For Sue Murphy, it was her father’s Airstream, or at least his Airstream business, that put her in touch with trailer restoration. He had run Iowa Boys as a trailer sales and repair company since the 1950s in various incarnations and locations in Southern California, to where it now stands in North Hollywood. Murphy’s history is deeply tied to trailers: “When my mom and dad were first married my dad was managing a trailer sales lot on Ventura Blvd. And the day my mom went into labor with me, she was standing in a trailer waiting on Gloria Vanderbilt, who was looking at a trailer. She didn’t make the sale – her water literally broke and she had to leave and go have me. The family’s been in the trailer business for a long time. I’m not a Johnny-come-lately when it comes to knowing trailers.”

Her father’s death in 1996 put her in charge of a business that was moving away from sales and more into restorations and rentals. “The market has moved that direction—there’s more people using the Internet and eBay and other places to find trailers for sale, that they then want to have repaired. It seem that people are more capable of finding things to purchase, but look for somebody to do the repair work. That change has pushed us in this direction,” Murphy says.

Andy Rogozinski of Southern California’s Inland RV has seen more than a few changes in his 38 years of working on Airstreams, first using his Air Force background in electronics in 1967 to help a friend install an air conditioner in the friend’s Airstream when the dealer couldn’t manage it. “The dealer didn’t know how to put an air conditioner on it. My friend and I worked on it at the dealership, doing a lot of cutting. First night, half-done. The second night we came in, there was another Airstream parked alongside that had gone as far as I had gone. The second night I finished it up. Then the dealer saw it, and the following day he called me and offered me a job.

“There weren’t any books, directions on how you did repairs. If you wanted to be innovative, you were dependent on your individual background. How many steps ahead of your nose can you think about in installing or modifying. Many people only think of where they’re at the moment, but when they hit step four or five it’s ‘Oh jeez, I shouldn’t have done that – I’m in trouble.’ Whether it’s a gift or what, I’ve always been able to look steps ahead in a project.

“In terms of restoration, I feel I’m the guy that started it, because I stuck my neck way out to get involved enough to know what makes this animal tick, how I can keep it ticking like Airstream wants it to without getting myself in trouble, my company in trouble or Airstream in trouble. Because of all of this, Airstream has no problem with these restorations. It’s not true with other restorers: some yahoo in Arizona had put a household washer and dryer on the back of a 22-foot Airstream with a single axle. What do you think happened? They had to have a jack on the back of the trailer. You don’t do that!”

What you can and can’t do in trailer restoration is an open question, but what’s been done covers the gamut. Craig Dorsey took a ’61 Airstream Globetrotter back to the basics and then worked from there. “There’s a four-foot aluminum panel of the roof, and then there’s segments on the front and back—that’s basically all that we left. We replaced all of the remaining metal, changed out the side windows with older windows, and altered every orifice on the trailer for their needs. High-tech insulation, enough wire to go to the moon and back, every kind of cabling you can imagine, holes with wire pulled through, for light switches, receptacles, speakers, whatever—72 wire holes in that trailer.

“These people told me they weren’t going to be doing RV-park camping, but remote camping, and the husband says, ‘I don’t want a shower inside, it takes too much room. Let’s put a shower on the outside.’ We put a standard shower box and I made an aluminum lid with rivets that looked like it came from Airstream. There are a couple of brackets outside the trailer and a half-round stanchion pole that hangs from the side with a shower curtain so you take a shower on the side of your trailer. But the wife wanted to take a bath somewhere, so we ended up taking the tub and putting it underneath one of the dinette benches so she pulls the cushion off, lights her candles and she’s now sitting in her trailer taking a bath. All for $137,000, and the people are so tickled they gave me the biggest tip I’d ever received.”

And that’s not the most expensive trailer Dorsey’s worked on. “The one I’m working on right now, a trailer for the actor Billy Campbell, is a 1956 Silver Streak Rocket, and this thing has a 20-inch Panasonic flat-screen TV that’s buried. It took $10,000 in engineering to just make the proper bracket for it so the TV folds up into a 4 1/2-inch box cabinet on the wall. It will be $180,000 to completely build this Silver Streak.”

Andy Rogozinski seen his share of high-priced projects as well. “We did a 1965 17-foot Caravel, and could have done more, but didn’t. That lady spent $46,500 and is considerably happy with it. Sheet-metal work, cabinetry, appliances, carpeting, upholstery, furniture, suspension system, silver-metallic paint, all kinds of stuff. Some of our projects are two, three, four years long in that some people might not have a need for the trailer now, but they are planning on retiring and they budget to these phases.”

Airstream painting techniques are something Rogozinski takes particular pride in. “Anybody can paint, but what is a paint job? You can have a quality paint job that goes from A to Z. The way I do it here it bonds to the metal like no tomorrow. All Dupont materials, chemist-approved formulations, but the color of our paint is proprietary. I’ll sell the mixed paint to somebody, but there’s no Dupont number for it, because they don’t have that color—it’s mine. I’ll sell the paint to anybody and I’d tell you how to use it, but it’s the surface preparation that’s the basic key, along with the kind of materials—there are eight coats, two primers, three colors, three clear.

“I’ve done a wild paint job using DuPont’s ChromaLusion paint. When you walk by it, depending on the angle between the paint and the sun and you, a color will change, say from copper to purple. This trailer has three different colors midway through the trailer, three small stripes down below, and three larger stripes. It catches your eye, and then it hits your brain, ‘What did I see?’ and you do a double-take. But it’s very expensive. The paint material alone was two grand, and I’m not talking about the silver, I’m talking about the three colors. Basic sticker price is about four hundred dollars per pint.”

Sue Murphy’s Iowa Boys see their share of interesting and pricy restorations as well. “When you get into the custom work, it can run into the $30,000–$35, 000 price range. Usually the customer starts out with intentions of doing something with existing interiors, and then ends up gutting the trailer and putting in all new. The customer sometimes does some of the sourcing for things that are exactly what they want, and they either bring it in or have it shipped here for us to install. We’ll do work on just about anything.”

Iowa Boys has done their share of deep customization, says Murphy. “We installed a flat-screen TV on the wall in a ’62 Tradewind. The guy did not want onboard propane, so we put solar panels on the roof and a 12-volt refrigerator, with a generator on the front end in place of the propane tank. It has a high output inverter and extra batteries. The cabinets turn into lift-up tables that extend out to make an L-shaped workspace. We made the cabinets so they flip-flop open: the front drops down and then becomes a bed. We put in a bamboo floor. The guy wanted an office feel, but so that it could still accommodate him using it with his family.

“And then, for a ’57 Flying Cloud, we did under-cabinet lighting, birch cabinets with maple trim, and a laminate floor. This is one where the guy said ‘I’d like to use this floor plan, and it would be nice if, and why don’t we, and could we,’ and by the time we got through all of that, he said, ‘You know what, let’s just start from scratch.’ The countertops, tabletop and bathroom walls and shower pan are all done in stainless steel, and it also has solar panels.”

Murphy does try to meet all of her customer’s requests, no matter their needs. “Every restoration has its own quirkiness. One customer wanted a special enclosure for her cat box so that the cat could come and go, but the box would be out of sight. Interesting, but really not a bad idea. Every owner has their own funny little things they want that might not be practical, but are important to them. Once somebody’s willing to put the money into it, and they’re not doing the work themselves, they’re looking for something more custom. I think the people that want Airstreams close to original tend to be people who are more hands-on, doing the work themselves. Each customer is different, and every job is interesting: we work with a customer to get what they want done.”

Dorsey is emphatic about customer satisfaction as well, with a custom twist. “We find non-typical solutions. I don’t just order the parts from Airstream to put something back the way it was from the factory. I use boat building, airplane building, car building, set building—all these skills all rolled up in one to make things that never existed before. The people that come to me are coming because of the fine detail. I put my style and mark on things. I’m not like the repair guys. I become friends with my clients. It’s like you’re commissioning me to do a piece of artwork for you. I get to know them, I have them go through kitchen magazines, and have them send me photographs of their house and living environment, so I can see where they live and what they own, I can tell a lot about them and what they like. It’s like being an amateur archeologist and psychologist. By getting to know you I can create an environment that’s exactly you, built around you, for you. I feel that I’m an artist, but it just so happens that my art is on wheels.”

At Inland RV, Rogozinski also aims to please his customers, but he lets them know his limits. “Say I tell a customer that the right cabinet’s going to cost $800, and they say they want a $400 cabinet. I tell them fine, go find someone else to make it—I won’t. An Airstream’s like an airplane—it’s flexible. If you want to put teak furniture in this thing, you better design it so it has a degree of flexibility. If it doesn’t, and you fasten it to the floor and walls, you’re going to damage the floor and walls and the furniture, or spit it out into the aisle. Unfortunately, all too many times do-it-yourselfers who are quite capable of doing very nice work don’t think about that before they even get involved with the project. They fasten something down very rigidly like it’s in their house. Do that in an Airstream and watch it come to pieces first trip out. If you take a cabinetmaker who can do fine, fine stuff for your home, it doesn’t mean he can design it and put it in an Airstream and make it work.

“Do-it-yourselfers want to have the prestige of owning an Airstream, but they want to buy parts for it at K-Mart. It doesn’t work that way. The sad thing is, people don’t know much about Airstreams, but they get a taste for them, get the hunger pangs, and they see one and say ‘let me grab it,’ only to find out from A–Z, name it and it’s bad. Now you’re stuck – what do you do? I try to forewarn people that if you want to buy one, suggest to the seller to bring it here and have a safety inspection and then negotiate. ‘Oh no, I already bought it.’ Now it’s too late. You buy it for a helluva deal. If some particular Airstream should sell for five grand and you get it for fifteen hundred, you got a helluva deal. But if it’s costs $15,000 to get it going, is it a helluva deal? People are getting taken to the cleaners buying this stuff on eBay. I’ve been involved in three lawsuits as an expert witness in that area.

“Some people have some wild ideas. People want to put a catalytic heater on a closet door and use clear plastic tubing for a gas line – I beg your pardon? That’s a permanent liability: it wouldn’t matter if that trailer were sold to ten different people—some things we do carry a forever liability. To a large degree I agree with that, because it should put a damper on some of the butchers out there, but it doesn’t stop all of it.”

Dorsey sees space utilization as a primary restoration request. “I take pride in my ability to get the optimum storage space out of the new trailer. We put three trunk doors on the ’61, including a four-foot wide trunk door that opens up. It’s got the bed at the back so it’s got all the storage under there, a 40-gallon freshwater tank under the bed. All the stuff stored underneath the bed and still room to store all their camping gear, through this little door. We put a spare tire rack on the back that pivots down so that while the tire’s on the rack you can pivot the thing down and still open the trunk. We put two more doors on the nose cone on either side, where they open up and there are 30-inch long drawers that roll out. One side has all the hoses and electrical cords for all hookups. On the other side are barbecue stuff and other things you’d use outside. I ask them what they carry, and I make the best use of their space.”

For people who are interested in returning a trailer to something approaching its original state, Rogozinski tells them, “I can put your Airstream back together as good, if not better, than the way it was built. From ’60 on back the suspension was a regular axle with leaf springs. We can retrofit that to the newer-style Durtorque axle so the trailer has a much softer ride. We’ve made single-axle trailers into tandem axles. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s complicated. But if you know the product, it’s different. It’s hard for me to tell you that nobody’s better than I am, but I’ve done a lot of interesting things because I know what you have to do in order to make it work correctly. That’s why if somebody calls Airstream in Ohio and says they want to do all these crazy, wild kind of things, the factory will tell you no and gives you my 800 number. The factory won’t do these far-out things. The other problem for everyone else not associated with Airstream is that you can’t buy Airstream parts. You can go to the factory and buy them, but if you call the factory, they are not permitted to sell you stuff. You’ve got to do that through your local guy. All too many times your local RV guy won’t know what you have, let alone tell you what part you need. The longevity of people in the RV industry is not what it used to be. Fortunately I’ve been around a long time.

“For ’74 and older trailers, there are a tremendous number of axle failures. I have a contract with the axle manufacturer as well as with Airstream. If you have a 1980 or older Airstream, you have to buy the axle from us. I have the data and the specs—Airstream doesn’t want to fool with you. I stay very busy just getting the data from you, the serial numbers, dimensions, and get it created for you and have it shipped directly to you. It made some Airstream dealers mad, but I’m the guy that stepped up and salvaged the program from being totally abandoned by both Henchen as well as Airstream. They’d had enough of the nonsense. I still enjoy coming up with new replacement parts for people with vintage coaches. Nobody else has done it. I’ve got a lot of them, and it’s made some other people jealous. Why me and not them? Maybe I had the forethought to go do it, put my neck in the noose and get it done. Some of these things I make here, personally, some I have made someplace else. Sometimes I find an exact replacement or a reasonable replacement for things. It keeps it going. What’s on the website is a fraction of what we have. I carry over 3,000 different Airstream parts.”

Murphy has also found challenges in restoration because of self-restoration efforts of the owners. “It seems that the older owners have a tendency to want to tinker with things themselves. Sometimes people can get somewhat creative in how they solve problems or make adjustments to suit what they think the design should be, rather than what it is. Restoration sometimes depends on how creative somebody got. It can be complicated if you got a trailer from someone who tinkered with it, and greatly modified the original.

“In terms of trends, there’s definitely a lot of interest in the 50s, retro materials and countertop materials. A lot of people are interested in Swedish flooring called Marmoleum, made by a company called Forbo. Armstrong makes a line of linoleum called Marmorette that has a marbled design that’s reminiscent of the 50s that’s also popular.”

Since Iowa Boys also has a rental business, Murphy caters to entertainment industry clients who need the trailers for movies and commercials. “MTV rented an Airstream this year for a backdrop for the SuperBowl’s MTV music awards pre-show interviews. Claritin rented one for a commercial where they painted it in wild colors and showed it in a field with a bunch of hippies dancing around it. We get calls for some of our older funky stuff for studio rentals, showing shady trailer-park type characters. We rented one for the movie Volcano. They had it forever, and it came back with all of this fake volcanic ash all over it that we had to clean off. There’s also a really bad Airstream in a PlayStation 2 commercial that I was ready to cut it up anyway. They rolled it over and over across a fake lot along with a bunch of other metal trash with a special dolly to make it look like it like it was being drawn by a tractor beam to advertise one of their games.”

Celebrities and Airstreams have made it into more than a few magazine columns in recent years, and all of the restorers have had their brush with famous clients. Murphy says, “Colin Ferrell wanted a fireplace put in his 34-foot, 2000 Airstream. We removed the carpet, put in a nice laminate floor, and a 30+-inch plasma screen in a cabinet with an electric lift. We installed bullnose stainless-steel countertops, converted the twin bed to a queen and upgraded all the cabinet door finishes. He started out wanting a smaller and older trailer, but he saw something with a slide-out and he wanted that for the extra room.”

Inland RV has seen high-profile clients as well. “We did a lot of work for Matthew Modine, and one for Kyle MacLachlan,” says Rogozinski. “Modine was probably the furthest-out we’ve done, because of the stainless-steel bathroom. It’s a double-walled stainless steel where you can sit on the john and take a shower at the same time. The trailer’s basically for him to rest in on location, take a quick shower, and read his lines for the next scene. And we’ve got three of Tim Burton’s trailers here, one a ’36 Airstream, and also one from the ‘40s and one from the ‘50s.”

Dorsey even makes celebrities of the trailers themselves. “I did a 1989 Airstream motorhome for the Simple Shoe company. This gal came to me and I could tell right out of the gate she was a funkadelic gal. She wanted to get rid of the interior and she had a certain look in mind: 70s red-velvet with a mix of all this other funky stuff. I told her I could build her something that Richard Roundtree would feel at home in. They were sponsoring the arts for underprivileged children, and were going to travel around and go to events and donate shoes to kids. So I wanted to do what I could, even though they had a limited budget.

“The contract even spelled out that we’d pull from 1930s art deco, ‘40s kitsch, ‘50s atomic, ‘60s mod, ‘70s funky soul brother, and a kind of Mexican-modern two-tone crushed-velvet and plastic over that. She read that contract and lost it with laughter. Everything was thrift store. We took the upper cabinets out and upholstered all the walls and the ceiling in red crushed-velvet velour. We put two-inch purple shag carpet down. I did the seats on the dinette bench in a dirty red diamond-tuck naugahyde with big brass buttons, and the table we covered in black naugahyde like the seedy, smoky Del Ray Lounge. It’s all done in real sixties and seventies fabric—I got this harvest gold and avocado fabric for the real look on the sofa. We put in this cheesy, beaded plastic-formed cabinet from a thrift store, just the right length and we had a gold-veined mirrors made for all the upper cabinetry, and burnished them with gold paint and great funky ‘70s gold-bronze burnished drawer handles. We upholstered them on the inside and put little lights so they could use the upper cabinets for shoe displays.

“When she went in it, she went up the steps and she was bawling, tears were flowing down her face, she said, “It’s perfect, it’s perfect!” I didn’t make any money off it—I did it just for the thrill of doing it, and the charitable purpose behind it.”

All of the restorers find customer satisfaction to be their greatest reward. Murphy says, “It’s seeing the finished product and having the customer like it. People that come in to take a peek at a restoration in progress are often really surprised and interested in what’s being done. In a lot of ways, they are nicer than what a brand-new Airstream would be, because they are totally custom. We work with a customer to give them exactly what they want. The one with the under-cabinet lighting, we had to re-do a front cabinet to hang a little animal skull with horns on it from the front. The way the cabinet was there wasn’t enough room to put it up there. He wanted this rustic look because it was going to be his getaway, portable, fly-fishing cabin. He walked away happy.”

Dorsey is happy when his customers are happy. “What does it for me is the glow of the people’s faces when they get their finished product. The smile, the heartwarming smile and the energy these people produce when it’s done. I’m not gonna get rich doing what I’m doing; I would have stayed in film if it was about the money. It’s about creating a special piece of art for somebody. It’s all about positive energy and love in creating these things. I want to create something that just excites you when you use it. The ultimate thing that does it for me is other people’s pleasure. That’s my fuel in life.”

Rogozinski too finds his solace in his customer satisfaction. “Watching the smile on your face when you see the final product, up to and including the smile on your face when you write that last check. When you smile and see the coach, if it’s ‘Oh my goodness, oh my gosh’ and you’re still smiling when you write the check, you’ve got to be happy. The gal that spent $46,000 couldn’t smile any more—she was like a kid with a new toy. People have offered to buy it from her, but she says it’s not for sale. She’s hauled it all over the place, and it’s stood the test of time.”

Dorsey puts his finger on what Airstream’s been, what it continues to be, and why restorers are happy to be a part of it all: “Airstream has been there for so long. It’s Kleenex, Chevrolet, apple pie, Harley and Airstream. Airstream isn’t the best thing ever made, but it has that great shell that’s an icon. It represents that incredible piece of our past. That’s why I’m digging being where I am, because I feel I’m a part of that. I can help create a better future that is representative of our past.”