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Vintage trailer restorations

After work on Monday, we walked over to the beach at sunset and helped Emma build a little sand castle while the clouds turned pink and deep blue. The temperature was about 70 degrees, there was a warm breeze off the water, and hardly a soul out there except us.

So we decided to stay one more night. This place is just too beautiful right now. I want to get out there tonight and see if I can capture some of it with my camera. And Emma wants a beach day today.

Here’s a panoramic shot of the St Augustine harbor from Sunday, showing (from left to right): the Santa Maria restaurant; cranes dismantling the old Bridge of Lions; the temporary bridge in the background with steel-framed drawbridge; sections of the old bridge still to be removed, to the right; and a sailboat motoring majestically in to pass under the drawvbridge and head out to the Atlantic.

St Augustine harbor pano.jpg
Click for much larger image!

A few days ago I talked about my classification system for vintage trailer projects. Today I want to follow up with some thoughts on buying “restored” trailers. Here’s how I classify them:

“Polished Turd” restoration: These are really common on eBay. Typically the body has been polished, and some easy items like propane tanks may have been upgraded. The hallmark of these trailers is that many cosmetic repairs have been done, such as replacement floor covering (black-and-white vinyl peel-and-stick tiles are popular with eBay sellers).

Coca-Cola memorabilia, new curtains, upholstery, and countertops are common upgrades in these trailers — it makes them look good for the photos. But typically floor rot has not been appropriately fixed (many don’t know the right method, which is as bad as not fixing it at all!), household appliances have been substituted (especially electric refrigerators), non-period accessories and hardware are used, etc. Running gear is sometimes serviced, but not always. Serious structural problems may remain.

Polished turds go for big bucks on eBay, usually sold to people who don’t know what holds an Airstream together, or are who are buying their first vintage trailer. I hate to see this happen and I often get emails or calls from the regretful buyers, asking for help. Of course by then, it’s too late. eBay really means it when they say Caveat emptor.

“Amateur” restoration: Many people do their own restorations and learn as they go. This doesn’t make them bad but it does make it essential to review the work carefully. Many parts are typically replaced, including appliances, countertops, axles, upholstery, glass, subfloor, floor covering, windows, locks, propane bottles and regulator, brakes, etc. These restorations range from great bargains because the seller essentially is giving away his time and has done a good job — to great disasters, because the seller has done lousy work throughout and fixing everything the right way would cost more than just starting fresh with a new project.

If you are considering an amateur-restored trailer, get a second opinion from someone who knows vintage trailers, before you buy! Photos are not enough.

“Pro” restoration: A reputable professional shop has thoroughly refurbished the trailer. Typically such a restoration starts around $30k and goes up rapidly from there. If you are considering one of these, talk to the shop that did the work and find out what was done.

Reputable Airstream shops are not known by their pretty websites, but rather by their reputation in the community. Everyone knows the name of the owner(s) because the owner is proud of their reputation and is a public figure in the vintage trailer community. Examples include Craig Dorsey, Colin Hyde, Eric Drugge, Dave & Martha Makel, Ron & Linda Amme, and others. If they do good work, you’ll have no trouble finding plenty of people who have used the shop and recommend it. If the shop can’t point to a dozen satisfied past customers who you can readily interview, you have reason to be suspicious.

I’ve received plenty of emails about certain hacks out there who claim to be good trailer restorers but have a terrible reputation. All I can say is, ask around before you hire a restorer, or buy a trailer that was “professionally” restored.

“Show quality”: Once in a while a restoration goes over-the-top and comes out absolutely spectacular. No detail is overlooked. All components are original or much better than new. The trailer has not even a blemish. Special upgrades are often hidden in the original design, such as wi-fi, satellite TV, hidden A/C, extra refrigerators, etc. Such trailers typically cost in the six figures if professionally restored, and they don’t come up for sale often.

I’m putting all this forth in the hope that fewer people will get ripped off buying lousy trailers. If you’ve got a friend who is considering buying something without a proper inspection, tell ’em to read this blog entry before they blow their cash on what could be a nightmare.

2 Responses to “Vintage trailer restorations”

  1. abe and melissa Says:

    We are very satisified customers from Dave and Martha Makel! They did our 1976 Overlander and we love our “New Airstream”
    Thanks for the Blog Rich!!!

  2. Zach Woods Says:

    Howdy Rich –

    Good review of some of the levels of restoration. Coming from the auto restoration world, I am surprised that you don’t distinguish between what I would call “resto-custom” restorations and what you have listed as “show quality”.

    I would suggest that “Show Quality” should be all original and not include additions or upgrades no matter how well hidden (or maybe we need another sub category). Resto-Custom can include those additions and upgrades when done subtly/ well.

    Also, in the auto world, “Fluff Job” is often used for a superficial restoration – what you are listing as a “Polished Turd”.

    The auto restoration and collecting hobby has at least a bit of a head start on the trailer scene. Well worth looking into some of the thinking/ time that folks have put on in some of these questions.