Introduction: Restoring a 1967 Airstream
The oldest daughter bought a 1967 Airstream trailer sight unseen from across the country. She had it delivered to a halfway point, then towed it home. Then she enlisted my help to “fix it up”. Hmmm. It turns out this was the most complex, longest running, and most challenging project I’ve ever taken on. It was complex because it involved many different skills and a lot of learning on the way. It was long running since it all took place at her house and I only worked on it a couple of days a week.
At first glance the “shell” looked pretty good, and that of course is what gives Airstreams their character and value. But inside was something else again. The daughter had the idea of using the trailer not just as a camper, but also as a catering wagon, where she would prepare food and serve it to the public via a window. This added some constraints, and the dream was only partly realized in the end.
This Instructable spells out the many steps involved in the restoration.
Step 1: Discovery and Demolition
The plywood floor was rotten in many places where water had leaked. So it had to come up. This of course exposed the steel frame. It was mostly solid, but with rust all over and rusted through near the entry step. The plumbing and electrical were original and needed attention.
The Shell Game
If you read about Airstream restorations/renovations they talk about removing the shell from the frame and only putting it back on when the frame and floor are ready. We didn’t have the space to do this so work was done with the aluminum shell “in place”. The catch here is that these things are built with the plywood floor sandwiched between the frame and the shell, with the wood floor holding it all together. Believe it or not, the shell is not directly attached to the frame. So removing a rotten floor involves pulling the “meat out of the sandwich”.
With the floor gone we could see the frame was rusty all over. I had hoped to avoid it, but we had to remove the belly pan pieces for access to the bottom of the frame. Most belly pan pieces were good enough to re-use but I bought some extra aluminum sheet to replace some ripped portions.
With the fame exposed, I cleaned it up and painted it with POR-15 rust preventative. I‘m not sure what dangerous stuff is in it, but it seems for cover and seal in the rust pretty well. It took quite a lot to cover all the frame.
The wheel well covers were rusted out so I had replacements made at a local sheet metal shop.
The step and the frame holding the step were rusted to the point of being unusable. I enlisted a son-in-law to weld on some support structure and we installed a replacement folding step.
Step 2: Bathroom
The bathroom consists of several large fiberglass pieces including vanity and a small bathtub. In the 60’s they liked icky yellow, but we agreed on white. I disconnected everything and took the fiberglass pieces home for cleaning and painting.
In the original, the bathroom was separated using a pocket door. This was no longer operable, so I went with a pleated vinyl door – much simpler.
Step 3: Floor
It was obvious that the replacement floor would NOT be tucked between shell and frame. It would fit within the shell and be bolted to the frame. This meant that the shell would have to be attached directly to the frame. In many cases, the shell didn’t even rest above a frame member, so I (with my new welding skill) added tabs to the frame to project under the shell for attachment points.
The new wheel well covers were installed on the frame, and the floor was cut to fit around them. The new floor went into place in sections and we put in many “elevator bolts”, to hold it to the frame. Elevator bolts have wide flat heads that fit flush to the floor. With completely flat heads, it something of a challenge to put the nuts on from underneath.
After the plywood floor was down, I installed linoleum (vinyl) checkerboard flooring.
Step 4: Catering Requirements
Sink versus Frig
Oddly, the daughter didn’t want a stove. But she did want a compact commercial frig. She ordered a small frig that required 120v. Another requirement she had is that the sink be a triple and she ordered one she that seemed compact. When the frig and the sink had both arrived, together they were wider than the space available (bathroom wall to entry door). Hmmm. I ended up building a platform to get the frig high enough to clear the wheel well covers and having the sink flange rest on top of the frig.
Another requirement was for a large shelf to be deployed as a catering work space. I found some very sturdy hinges that would give firm support or allow the shelf to be folded out of the way. I found some “boomerang” formica I used for the shelf and for the dining table. Both shelf and table I trimmed with deco aluminum.
Step 5: Dinette
I drew up in Sketchup a dinette that would convert to a bed. I used my new-found welding skills to make a steel frame for the seating. I attached wood pieces to the steel verticals and added plywood slats to hold the white sheet plastic for vertical covering. I cut plywood to fit into the frames.
I then made cushions of vinyl using the plywood as a base for each cushion. I used 4 inch foam cut to size using a sharp chef's knife. I sewed the vinyl into "boxes", wrapped the boxes around the foam, and stapled the vinyl edges to the plywood. The plan was also to make vertical cushions that could also be used to fill in the center space to make a bed.
The dining table is suspended on an adjustable stand. The table has Art Deco (boomerang) style formica and deco aluminum trim. to convert to a bed, the table is lowered onto lips protruding from the seat sides. The adjustable stand I installed was replaced later with one to let the table be raised and lowered mechanically.
Another requirement that popped up was for extra sleeping accommodation. I finessed this using back cushions with foldable supports attached.
Step 6: Storage
The original over-sink cupboard stuck out far enough that it was a head bonking hazard. I cut it down by two inches. I fancied up the front cupboard door with mirrored acrylic. The driver side cupboard we just painted and put back with no change.
The closet/pantry got a shelf for a microwave oven and doors for tall stuff and short stuff.
Step 7: Plumbing
During the time we were working on the frame and floor, the old plumbing was left in place. After the floor was in, we did remove the old copper water supply pipes. But we left the ABS vents and drains in place and ended up using them with almost no changes.
The nylon water tank seemed fine so we reused that. But we replaced the very old-fashioned water pump. For water supply, I had thought to use Pex, but then decided on PVC braided flexible tubing. This made life much easier.
I built a manifold for all water supply and mounted it where it would be somewhat accessible behind bathroom panels. I replaced the water heater with one that runs on shore power (120v) or propane.
The black water tank was intact but the valve was not good. I epoxied a new valve and repaired the straps that suspend the tank under the trailer. There is no separate gray water tank. Gray water from sinks and shower drains into either the black water tank or a hose connection.
We bought a couple of 30 pound propane tanks and rigged up brackets to hold them on the trailer tongue. Black iron plumbing was led back close to the water heater, at this point the only thing that used propane.
Step 8: Larger Window
The 1967 windows have actual curved glass! I guess this is consistent with the curvy Airstream look. The company only used curved glass for a very few years (1966 through 1968 I believe). Still pursuing the dream of having it be a catering trailer, the small window next to the door was deemed insufficient. The daughter found a larger window of the same vintage on EBay so we installed it in place of the original smaller window. I learned all about rivets. There are gizmos called clecos you put in temporarily to hold stuff in place before putting in the rivets. We even bought a pneumatic riveting gun since there were so many rivets to install.
Step 9: Polishing
This vintage Airstream has the kind of aluminum that polishes to a wonderful mirrored effect. The more modern Airstreams use a different alloy and they don’t get as shiny. Polishing is a horrible mess however and I left it to the ladies to do most of it. Pretty smart huh.
I also noticed that the corners with compound curves polished shinier that the flat portions. Different alloy probably.
Step 10: Electrical System
Mains Power (120v)
The 120 volt wiring is in the walls, and for the most part we left that alone and it still worked fine. We did remove the huge wart of an air-conditioner from the roof. Alone, this made the trailer look much more graceful. There was no battery charger in the original system, so I have to assume the battery was charged from the tow vehicle. In any case we bought a battery charger and installed that to keep the battery up when attached to “shore power”.
Low voltage system
We installed two 6 volt deep cycle golf cart batteries. Also, for off-grid camping, I installed one 100 watt photovoltaic panel on the roof. The solar controller, tank level indicator, and 12v switch panel are mounted near the batteries. All this is under one of the dinette cushions.
Step 11: Torsion Axle
No we're not done yet. These Airstreams are suspended on torsion bars of rubber which are inside the axle. This old trailer was sagging down noticeably due to weakening of the torsion bars over the years. Also, the electric brakes were very old and I thought it prudent to replace them. I was able to order a replacement axle which included wheels with brakes. This is heavy work and it took some planning to jack up the trailer, remove the old axle, and lift the new HEAVY axle in place and secure it. I was too occupied to take many pictures of this step.
Step 12: Conclusion
She uses the trailer more than I would have ever thought. It never became a catering wagon. But she does rent it on Air-B&B, billed as "glamping" (glamour camping). Miscellaneous modifications and tweaking have been done since I completed the project, mostly to make things not shake loose when on the road. All in all, pretty successful.
I should mention the awnings. We replaced the fabric in the main awning. She then had the idea of individual awnings for the windows which snap on and off. She had those made, and they look great!
Second Prize in the