A longtime Airforums member and regular contributor. Kevin has restored several Airstreams and is a knowledgeable Argosy historian.View all articles by overlander64
Most older Airstream will need some refurbishment to update systems and make repairs. As a rule of thumb, with each decade of age, the authentic OEM parts become more difficult to find. As you look for your ideal Airstream, you will find particular design elements or floorplans that you prefer; then you will have your search parameters set. This list will give you some idea of points of demarcation for features and some things to consider:
Frame: Through sometime in the early 1950s, Airstream utilized a "pipe frame" on many of their coaches. A coach with an original "pipe frame" that hasn't been replaced or modified for structural integrity, is going to be a candidate for a complete new frame. While extremely lightweight, they were particularly rugged.
Holding tanks are a variable with Vintage Airstreams. The blackwater waste tank became "nearly" standard in the 1950s while the graywater waste tank didn't become standard until 1975 (it was offered as an option in 1974). With 1950s era coaches, you may run across one described as "park model" this term is most often used to describe a coach without holding tanks, requiring full-hookups if you plan to use the "facilities" you will be faced with utilizing a "blue boy" to contain waste or retrofitting wastewater holding tank(s). Generally speaking, newer trailers have larger capacity tanks.
You may find that certain features find themselves on your list of desires:
Door-within-a-Door. This feature was standard beginning sometime in the 1950s and was discontinued after the 1964 model year. With this feature, you have a single door that serves as the entry door and screen door. There is a hinged panel in the center of the door that hides the screen panel and is secured by lever locks on the inside of the door.
Jalousie Windows beside Door. This feature was standard in all of the larger trailers (all of the tandem axle coaches had this feature as "standard", but not all of the single axle coaches had this feature). There are two camps, those who like these windows and those who don't and they do require more maintenance to keep them leak free. This feature seems to have begun in the 1950s and was last used as a "standard feature" in 1964. During the run of these windows, a customer could "special order" jalousie windows in other openings. I am aware of several Ambassadors and Sovereigns have these as side windows in the living area and one in the bedroom area as well. Despite the maintenance needs of this feature, it is one of the reasons that I am so well satisfied with my '64 Overlander.
Corning Tempered Windows. This was a short-lived feature that was "standard" within the line from 1966 through 1968. Depending upon year, these windows could be "framed" or "frame-less". Until quite recently, if one of these windows were broken, your only choices were to find one from a salvage trailer or to replace with acrylic material. Today, reproductions are available from at least two sources, but the cost can become significant if more than one window needs new glass.
Univolt Electric System. I believe this was an option for a few years before it became standardized in 1964. Prior to 1964 all or most of the interior lights had both 120-Volt AC bulbs along with 12-volt DC bulbs. There were several versions of the Univolt available during the Vintage era, but none were even closely comparable to today's modern power converters.
Pressure Water Systems. The pressure water system was the "standard" prior to sometime in the 1960s. With this system, you relied upon the city water input to provide pressure, and when this wasn't sufficient, you could add air through a valve next to the filler or add air via an on-board pressure pump. These systems usually relied upon a galvanized steel pressurized fresh water tank, and if original, these tanks are usually full of pinholes along the bottom creating likely rot issues in the floor below. It is difficult to find a "pressure-type" water tank in today's market that is small enough for use in an Airstream. Most of the people I know with coaches that had this system have converted over to a modern demand system with a modern acrylic/plastic tank and demand pump. I am not certain of the date when the demand system became standardized, but I am nearly certain that the large majority of 1964 coaches had the demand system.
Front Window Arrangement. During a portion of the 1950s, the large front window was flanked by smaller side windows. Sometime in the late 1950s, this arrangement was replaced by a single front window that would continue in varying sizes and glass types until 1968. In 1969, Airstream began the use of a large center window with fixed wing-windows on both sides. Sometime in the 1980s, Airstream began utilizing the single large front window flanked by deep-wrap wing-windows (first used in the Argosy trailer line-up).
Electric Trailer Brakes. Sometime during the 1950s, electric trailer brakes became available. Prior to the availability of electric trailer brakes, the coaches were equipped with trailer brakes that tapped into the tow vehicle's brake lines. A coach that has these brakes will require conversion to permit towing with modern tow vehicles as modern braking systems are not compatible with additional fluid displacement that this system used, and it would also totally confuse most of the anti-lock braking systems on modern cars. During a "flex-period", the option of having one axle with hydraulic brakes and a second axle with electric brakes was available as a special order option. I don't have the breakdown for these "flex" years, I do know that my '64 Overlander originally had one axle with hydraulic brakes and one with electric brakes . . . this was ordered by the original owners to accommodate their already setup tow vehicle, a 1957 Mercury Monterey that they had used to tow their 1955 Airstream. My coach was converted by the original owners by the time that they purchased their third tow vehicle for my trailer, a 1970 Mercury Monterey. During a portion of the 1970s, Excella Hdra-Vac brakes were offered on Airstreams and seemed to have been "standard" or "near standard" on all tandem axle coaches.
Henschen Dura-Torque Axles. The Henschen Dura-Torque Axles became standard in 1961 (certain years of the Bambi appear to be an exception). Prior to 1961, most if not all Airstreams were equipped with leaf spring axles. An as found Vintage Airstream that is equipped with Dura-Torque axles will almost certainly need new axle(s). A coach with leaf spring axles may need little more than rebuilt springs, new shackles, and bushings to remain safely serviceable.
1972 -1979 | Argosy - Ahead of it's Time.
Offered along side the regular Airstream line, Argosy travel trailers (with motorhomes being added to the 1974(?) lineup) were manufactured by Airstream generally using standard Airstream construction methods. Various features (some now standard) were first rolled out on these coaches. They include deep wrap (Panoramic) windows, Aluminum floors, steel, one piece end caps and more. During some point, there were a few Argosy Fifth Wheel travel trailers produced. I have only seen photos of one, and it appeared to have the traditional monocoque construction technique.
1977-1979 | Argosy Minuets were offered in three lengths: 6.0 Metre, 6.7 Metre, 7.4 Metre. These coaches were "unique" for a number of reasons. All of the Argosy trailers were equipped with Panoramic Windows in the front, and rear bedroom trailers had Panoramic Windows front and rear.
The floor width was 7.0'Mid 1970s through 1995. Airstream offered the "Classic Motorhomes". These were available in a large variety of lengths from 24-feet to 35 feet. Most of these came from the factory with a Chevrolet P30 chassis with the 454 V8 and a 400 series TurboHydramatic. Near the end of this period, a diesel pusher was offered, but it was produced in small numbers so it is unusual to encounter one today. 1980.
Many of the 6.0 Metre Minuets had composite aluminum floors.
Some of the 6.7 Minuets had the composite aluminum floors.
None of the 7.4 Minuets seem to have been produced with the composite aluminum floors.
The side windows were acrylic for weight savings rather than glass. The front and rear windows were the typical glass units.
Both the 6.0 and 6.7 Minuets were single axle trailers while the 7.4 was a tandem axle trailer.
For one year, Airstream offered a series of three trailers in the Caravelle line (note the spelling difference between this model and the Caravels of the 1960s). These were narrow body trailers, but only the 20' model was a single axle. The Caravelle could be had in 20-foot, 22-foot, and 24-foot models. 1986-1989. Second Generation Argosy travel trailers were offered as pioneers for the "Square Streams". These trailers had bonded side walls rather than the curved aluminum design.
Not Your Average Twinkie
Over the years Airstream has offered several coaches that step outside the standard aluminum, moncoque construction. These include:
Early 1950s: The Byam Traveler was offered, and it was of a "canned ham" type trailer. These were offered for a very short time period and have survived in very small numbers.Weight Gain | Towing Concerns.
Mid 1980s through Mid 1990s: Airstream offered the Integrity Fifth Wheel travel trailer. They also offered a bonded side wall travel trailer that is usually referred to as a "Square Stream"
Beginning in the mid 1970s and more notably in the 1980's and 90s, Airstreams began to weigh more. This was due largely to the introduction of new features and changing building materials and techniques. Those with a desire for a very light weight trailer may want to give extra consideration to trailers from the 1950's and 60's or the light weight Argosy line in the 1970s
Any vintage trailer purchase should be made cautiously with an eye towards intended use and personal repair skills. While many, many parts are still available, making repairs can be time consuming or, if contracted out, expensive. When in doubt be sure to take an experienced Airstreamer along with you to shop. Here are a few of the more serious problems found in vintage trailers.
Floor rot is the greatest enemy of most Airstream products followed by rust perforation of the frame. Any coach should be carefully inspected for floor rot and excessive rust on frame.For more information about Airstream trailers and motorhomes as well as discussions about these issues and problem solving solutions, please visit www.AIRForums.com. This vibrant community of Airstream enthusiasts may be able to help with your selection or answer questions about a specific model.
Tail Sag or Droop: There is only one era that had a common structure problem, and that was the early 1970s coaches in the longer tandem axle models. The first is frame droop where the frame actually wears out of level behind the rear wheels, and stress cracks may form close to the rear axle. The factory offered a retrofit "stiffener" that was field installed when this defect was discovered (the kit is still available from Airstream from what I have heard).
Rear End Separation: Rear end separation that was first identified as a problem with the early 1970s coaches, but is now known that nearly any Airstream can suffer from this malady. Rear end separation is identified at the rear bumper when someone stands on the bumper or places a heavy weight on the bumper, the gap between the bumper and body should not change. If that gap changes, rear end separation is likely present that is usually accompanied by rotten floors in the rearmost portion of the coach. Airstream has a service procedure to address rear end separation.
Good luck with your search!