Crash Course in Recycling a Vintage Airstream

By the end of June, I’d started moving forward with my new contractors, Éamon and Paul McMahon. We’d placed orders for replacement parts for the chassis, and agreed on the following scope of work:

  • To supply & install five new outriggers for replacement on the chassis
  • To sandblast and paint the entire chassis, including the A-frame and bumper
  • To fix the entry stairs (which were wobbly in part due to rusted outriggers)
  • To re-certify and fill two 30 lb. aluminum propane tanks I’d purchased on Craigslist
  • To test the existing air conditioner for repair or replacement
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1969 Airstream Trade Wind raised on boat stands to make work on the chassis easier. (Vergennes, VT)

Some preliminary research indicated that the original Armstrong air conditioners that were installed on both of my 1969 Airstreams (Safari & Trade Wind) were worth keeping or repairing, basically because they are commercial grade and anecdotally, several vintage owners have been happy to keep using them. Considering that I had a number of other parts on my “parts trailer” (the Safari) that I wanted to potentially install on my “full-time trailer” (the Trade Wind), Éamon and I agreed it would be a good idea for me to bring the Safari to Vermont so that we could cannibalize it for any parts we needed for the renovation.

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Éamon on the roof of the 1969 Airstream Safari, preparing to remove the old Armstrong air conditioner for possible re-use or cannibalization. To the right of the trailer is Paul’s metalworking shop.

I arrived late on a Friday, so we got to work first thing on Saturday morning. By noon we’d removed the air conditioner, the entry door, and some door hardware from the Safari. After lunch, we swapped out the entry doors and door knobs (the Trade Wind’s door has a long scratch on it), then Éamon went back to the Safari and salvaged the toilet and some of the original plumbing hardware that was missing or in very poor shape on the Trade Wind.

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Éamon removing the original Armstrong air conditioner from the 1969 Safari.

A sudden wind and rain storm kicked up late in the afternoon, so we called it a day. The next morning, our final order of business was to remove the water tank from the rear of the Safari because it was a) hanging precariously low to the ground and b) it might be in better condition than the one on the Trade Wind. We’d wrapped everything up basically in a day’s time, so I was very happy. After this very productive weekend, I hitched the Safari back onto my tow vehicle, and headed back to New York feeling accomplished and looking forward to the work ahead.

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Some of the parts we removed from the 1969 Safari: black water tank, entry door, and the Armstrong air conditioner.

And then.

Two days later, I was running an errand with the Safari. I was at a major intersection in the middle of my town on Long Island at the tail end of rush hour. I slowed down for a stop light and looked into my rear-view mirror, and saw my nightmare: The trailer had somehow detached from my tow vehicle, broken the chains that I’d connected to my tow vehicle, and was headed in the direction of several cars perpendicular to me on the right.

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This sign my trailer knocked over was oddly prescient: I went one way and the Airstream went off in other direction just like this…

The trailer ran into a signal light post (which slowed it down), that then fell onto the front bumper of a SUV. The trailer came to a halt about 30 feet away from where it became detached, blocking off a street. My tow vehicle was undamaged. No one was hurt.

I traded insurance information with the other driver, and had to pay about $700 to have the trailer towed back to the lot where I store it. I filled out accident reports for the police and insurance company. Speaking with my insurance provider over the next few days, I discovered that they were going to assess the trailer to its condition & value and potentially classify it as a junk or salvage vehicle. In that case, they would either cut me a check for its value and tow it away to be sold at auction, or I could keep it – probably just to strip for parts and not for use as a vehicle.

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Damage to the 1969 Safari: The light post caved in the right front curb-side panels and window frame. The original wing window was long gone and was filled with plexiglass, so only the frame was damaged. The A-frame jack was bent from dragging on the street, making it difficult to attach to or remove from a ball hitch.

I negotiated for the appraiser to come at the end of the following week, buying me time to strip the Safari of every possible part I thought I might ever want to use, sell, or keep in my inventory for a rainy day. I figured I might get a few hundred dollars for whatever remained, wouldn’t have to pay for it to be towed away, wouldn’t have to pay insurance on it anymore, and wouldn’t have to worry about parking it while I traveled with the Trade Wind cross-country.

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Removing rivets: I did a loooot of this.

Having a general sense of how much vintage Airstream parts cost from my research and 5 years of ownership, I was able to remove parts essentially in dollar value order. Over the course of about 4-5 days, I was able to get all of the work done by myself. I was grateful for all of the experiences I’d had with my Airstreams (and construction / demolition in general) up to this point, because I realized they’d given me the confidence and know-how to get this work done.

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Some salvaged parts (L-R): Stack windows, rear bath mirror frame, rear window and side windows, entry screen door, miscellaneous lights and outlets.

By the end, I’d removed:

  • Entry main & screen doors
  • All of the windows and window frames (except one damaged wing window frame)
  • All of the compartment doors and frames
  • Window hardware
  • Interior & exterior outlets
  • Bathroom vent fan
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Stripped Airstream.
  • Interior & exterior light fixtures
  • Signal light housings
  • Bath hardware
  • Airstream letters and badges
  • Entry stair
  • Copper pipe & a few pieces of sheet aluminum from the belly pan
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Stripped interior.

Those of you who own vintage Airstreams know that several of these items go for hundreds of dollars on eBay or from shops that sell vintage parts. The few pieces of copper pipe and aluminum sheet metal I removed from the belly of the trailer brought in an extra $85 from the scrap yard. So, then it was time for the appraiser to come and take a look.

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Stripped tail end.

He confided with me that he hadn’t dealt with a vintage Airstream case in recent memory, so he’d have to do some research, speak with his supervisor, and get back to me with the appraised value. To my pleasant surprise, a couple of days later he got back to me that they’d be willing to cut me a check for nearly twice what I’d originally paid for the trailer off of Craigslist (of course I didn’t tell them that).

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The 1969 Safari being towed away.

So all in all, it appeared that I was coming out ahead in what initially came off as a rough setback. I made arrangements with the towing company to pick up the Safari, and in a couple of days I watched it roll off the lot – presumably to be auctioned off somewhere. Who would buy it next? For how much? What would they do with it? From a green building standpoint, the hopeful and likely outcome is that it would either be stripped for any remaining scrap metal, or sold for parts. Anyway, I’m curious, but not quite interested enough to do any sleuthing. Time to move forward.

Up Next: Vintage Airstream Chassis Repair (Pt. 2)

Visit the Little Green Airstream’s Facebook page for many more photos of the recycling process. To see a video of the 1969 Safari being towed away, you can visit my new YouTube channel!

2 Comments

  1. Happily, a curious example that proves “all is well that ends well”…with emphasis on the last two words! A very intelligent orchestration of outcome after a tough incident.
    Hope the insurance rate is kind.

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