Thursday, April 14, 2005

Signs of Trouble Appear

Who knows how much trouble lie beneath the calm aluminum exterior

At the end of August, 2003, the Toaster—a 1961 Airstream Safari model—joined our family. Ever since Rick and I had met another young couple traveling and working full time from an rv in Utah nearly a decade ago, I have dreamed of hitting the road with total freedom. Getting our Toaster was our first step towards realizing that dream.

Last summer, Rick noticed a panel of the frame beneath the aluminum skin was almost completely rusted away. Closer observation while painting the trailer hitch seemed to indicate that a long ago battery leak had seeped from the front battery box down to the frame. Concerned, we cancelled our planned trip out West. We just didn’t trust that the trailer could take going over the mountains. Friends found this silly—the trailer looked great—and anyways, the previous owners had taken it to Florida the previous winter, hadn’t they?

The frame is the true utility trailer that the rest of our camper is built on. I started researching. First I played—and replayed—the Vintage Airstream Club’s DVD of old Airstream movies, focusing carefully on the scenes showing the old trailer. Eventually I determined that the damaged part we saw was the thin sheet of steel at the front end of the trailer that appeared to mostly serve to hold the skin out. But I did wonder how far the damage went back into the places I couldn’t see…

So, on a fine fall day after consulting with fellow members of my local Vintage Airstream club, the Washington DC Unit (WDCU) of the Wally Byam Airstream Caravan Club International (WBCCI), I decided to drop the aluminum sheathing covering the bottom front end of my trailer. Following the advice of other Airstreamers on the Internet, I attempted this by drilling out the rivets that attached the aluminum trim strip (better known as a banana wrap) that appeared to hold the bottom on to the trailer. At the end of the day, I was dusty and dirty from rolling under the trailer, the banana wrap was off, but the belly pan was firmly attached to the trailer.

Well, at this point I felt I had earned a tiny bit of street cred for removing the rivets, but that darn pan was driving me nuts! So, I called Stuart Natof, a fellow member of WDCU who had completely overhauled a similarly aged Bambi.

“Mary,” he said, “I had that problem too. There’s no way of knowing how high the rivets go to attach that belly pan. Do what I did, just cut it away. If you do it in sections, you can use the holes later as removable access panels.”

That all made sense, but I agonized over cutting into the aluminum. I bought flashing at the hardware store to get a feel for cutting with tin snips—and quickly decided I didn’t have the hand strength for it. A friend who works as a union metal worker suggested using a Sawzall—but the idea of controlling that kind of contraption close to my face and on my back didn’t appeal either. Then I thought of using a Dremel tool or possibly a Rotozip. Before I knew it, it was rally time again…

Cherry Blossom Rally time. This is annual early spring camping gathering that draws vintage airstream enthusiasts from all over the country to the Washington DC area. Fortunately, the Cherry Blossom Rally is only about 30 miles from our house. I pulled out a deep effort on interior finishings to prepare for the rally’s open house. I covered cushions, made drapes (ok, another epic, too), sanded the tub out and refinished the interior wood. After three weeks of effort, the trailer wasn't perfect, but the inside looked pretty nice. Last Thursday we finally got packed up and hit the road in two vehicles.

I followed Rick in a second car, so he could use it to drive back to go to work on the second rally day. All the way over, I was amazed by how much the rear end of the trailer bounced up and down every time we traveled over a rise in the road. Watching the trailer from the other car, I gained a new perspective on the trailer—and it added to my growing sense of dread that something was very wrong inside. “Honey,’ I said to Rick, “the Toaster’s suspension looks bad.”

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