I had an unusual job come my way in the recent past and I thought it was worth writing about. A local Phoenix art, design, and crafting firm, 26 Letters, purchased a 22 foot 1963 Airstream Safari about a year ago with the intention of transforming it into a small backyard artist’s studio. After the purchase I was implored, and then employed, to undertake this remodel, restoration, re-purposing. In much the same way that the city of Phoenix has made it a bit easier for entrepreneurs to reuse historic downtown structures as commercial establishments, I intended to turn this self sufficient travel trailer into an open floor plan studio space. The fancy construction term for this sort of thing is “adaptive reuse.”
Almost all of the interior furnishings and accoutrement were already missing when the Airstream was purchased from it’s last owner. This made the first step in this project, gutting the interior, much easier as there was almost nothing to remove. As the 46 year old electrical wiring was looking tired and dangerous, a total rewire sounded like the best bet. In order to get access to the wiring the interior paneling, or skin, had to be removed. The interior skin of an old Airstream travel trailer is much the same as the exterior.
There are thin sheets of aluminum riveted to the structural aluminum ribs that attach to a plywood floor, which is in turn bolted to a steel frame. Removing the interior skin involves drilling out all the rivets so the panels will come loose. Fortunately for me the previous owner had already drilled out quite a few rivets and made my job faster. Once all the interior skin was removed I got rid of the old fiberglass insulation that was sandwiched in the 1.5″ space between the interior and exterior skins. This gave me complete access to the nasty old wiring and also revealed a rather disturbing structural issue that needed to be dealt with.
Back in 1963 Airstream did not make any provisions for a roof mounted air conditioning unit. It is my understanding that they didn’t begin reinforcing the roof structure to accommodate this until 1969 or so. When the air conditioning unit was mounted on this particular Safari, probably in the 1970’s sometime, they did very little to support the extra 100+ pounds of weight. 100 pounds doesn’t sound like that much, but unless you’ve seen an old Airstream up close, especially with the interior skin removed, it’s hard to describe just how flimsy and insubstantial the whole thing is. The tin can descriptions are very accurate, and since virtually everything above the plywood floor is aluminum you can literally bend the frame and panels with your bare hands. So before I tackled the rewiring I had to fix the structural problem as air conditioning is a must for spring and summertime use in Phoenix.