Tim Shephard, who lives in Northern California, was in Florida last year on a month-long cross-country vacation in a 1960 Airstream travel trailer when the air conditioner went out. Not that long ago that might have meant a long hot, trip home for him and his family or precious vacation time wasted searching out a repair shop and waiting for someone to do the work. But that’s not necessary these days. Instead, Shephard logged onto an Airstream forum website, found a technician, e-mailed a description of his problem, got an answer, bought a $50 part, crawled onto the roof of his trailer and fixed the air conditioner himself.
This is the sort of thing that wouldn’t have been possible before the Internet revolutionized communication and made it possible for strangers to freely share information and knowedge. In this case, Shephard was the beneficiary of someone’s expertise, but often he’s the one sharing his knowledge. For the past eight years, he has been producing podcasts about restoring vintage Airstreams and now he has written and published a book on the subject.
Shephard knew very little about Airstream trailers in 2001 when he acquired his first. He knew only that he liked the aluminum look and wanted a trailer that he could buy cheaply, fix up, and resell without a loss if it turned out that his family didn’t like RVing.
He bought a 1971 Airstream Safari that needed plenty of work. “Excitement about the prospect of owning an Airstream allowed me to overlook the metal patches duct taped to the front of the trailer and venture inside,” he writes in his book, Restoring a Dream. “There was yellow shag carpeting, faded laminate countertops, plastic bulkheads (walls front and rear) and cabinets in dark walnut. Every appliance was broken and the plumbing leaked like a sieve. But, for whatever reason, none of this mattered. After all, this was an Airstream. Everyone wants an Airstream.”
On the Internet
As he encountered problems during restoration, Shephard wished for a way to talk to others doing similar projects. From that, came the idea of a podcast modeled after the “Car Talk” radio program. Podcasting (putting audio or video programs on the Internet) was new in 2005, but Shephard, who works as an information technology analyst, had the skill to set it up. On the hour-long podcasts produced every other week, Shephard chats with a professional trailer restorer and other Airstream enthusiasts and together they answer questions from listeners.
A podcast on vintage Airstreams seemed like a natural thing to do, Shephard said, because he is both a computer geek and an Airstream geek. Publishing a book was more daunting. Shephard needed the help of an editor, which he found among his podcast listeners, and then he had to learn how to layout pages, size photos in different formats, etc. Publishing a book yourself years ago required going to a vanity press and agreeing to buy a certain number of books, many of which would probably wind up sitting in your garage unsold. Today, if like Shepard, you have the urge to become an author, you can create a book yourself, make it available in a variety of e-book formats and arrange for Amazon.com to print copies on demand. Order a paperback version of Shephard’s book from Amazon and it will print a copy and get it to you in two days.
Taking full advantage of today’s technology, as Shephard does, requires a curiosity about new things and a willingness to learn.
Shephard’s philosophy is that if one man can do something, another man can learn to do it, too, and that’s the kind of confidence you need when taking on a big project like restoring an old trailer. You may have to learn about plumbing, woodworking, electricity and more. But you can always get professional assistance if you need it. Shephard, for instance, leaves the welding to others.
In his book, Shephard says he made many mistakes during the restoration process on the Safari: “I installed cheap blinds that faded and fell apart, put in an easy flooring system with cheap tiles that came loose, and added more patch repairs of the plumbing instead of doing a proper repair. Take my advice and spend a little more money and time to do it right the first time, or you will end up doing it again.”
A Larger Airstream
Shephard, his wife and two children, had many happy vacations in the restored Safari, but then with a third child on the way, they decided they needed a larger trailer. So they sold the 23-foot Safari at a profit and bought a 28-foot Airstream Ambassador that was built in 1960 and was in worse shape than the Safari had been.
Most of Shephard’s book is a detailed account of restoring the Ambassador. He worked on it for a year, averaging 15 hours a week. He paid less than $3,400 for the trailer, but spent $33,200 on new appliances and parts.
The book has solid, practical advice on what to look for if you want to buy an old Airstream, what parts are sure to need replacing and much more. One section is devoted to questions and answers taken from more than 170 hour-long podcasts.
In the book, Shephard notes that there are different approaches to restoring vintage trailers. Some owners strive for authenticity, wanting to make the trailer look like it did when it rolled off the factory floor decades ago; others opt for modernization. Shephard prefers the modernization approach: treat the inside of that polished aluminum shell like a blank canvas and design it to meet your own needs, which in his family’s case includes air conditioning, flat screen TVs, a microwave oven and other conveniences.
Shephard’s advice in his book is this: “Take your time throughout your restoration. There is usually a hard way to do something and an easy way. The hard way is almost always the right decision. Spend a little more to buy quality, and take the extra time to do it right. When you’re lying down to sleep in the trailer at some nice lakeside, you’ll think back of all the work you did, and be glad you did it right.”
The ultimate goal, of course, is to enjoy the RVing lifestyle, and Shephard and his family have done that, taking their Airstream to see Mt. Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, Graceland, the Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton presidential libraries and more. As Shephard writes: “It’s not really about the aluminum at all, but being on the road with family. The aluminum provides the means to be on the road. Our family has grown closer in our Airstream. Together we discover new places, share smiles and memories. All thanks to our vintage Airstream.”
Restoring a Dream is available in multiple formats, including an iBook version with photo slide shows and videos. Outlets include Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble and iTunes. You can find out more at restoringadream.com.
Write to Mike Ward, editor at RV Life magazine, 18717 76th Avenue West, Suite B, Lynnwood, WA 98037 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Find First Glance online at rvlife.com.