vintage Airstream Overlander 1966 and on the right a 1950's one fully polished - now THAT's what we need for our sno-mobile!
After looking for the perfect vintage Aluminium (Aluminum if you’re American) caravan (travel trailer) for an age, we found the perfect one in the middle of the Arizona desert …
… so I jumped straight on a plane from London UK to Phoenix AZ and bought it from a marvellous American chap who thought I was a ficticious e-person invented by an internet scam artist… he was more than a little surprised when I rolled down his dusty drive the following night in an enormous U-Haul truck!
(use these shortcuts if you’re looking for ski holidays or a ski resort guide)
I could try to write in some joepardy about how my internet search took me down a few bling alleys and also about the bonkers American “dealer” who advertises vintage Airstrreams for sale which he hasn’t actually bought yet…
… but the saga is long and considerably less interesting than the final 5 day adventure to buy my vintage Airstream and drive it 1500 miles to the container port in Texas, to put it on a boat back to England…
Falling back on the old adge that a picture is worth a thousand words, here are a few images which document what happened when I went to meet retired US marine veteran “Arizona Bill” in the desert, with thousands of dollars cash in my pocket, to buy a caravan which was 6 years older than I am.
Bill is an old-fashioned kind of young guy - hospitality like you used to get...
This is Bill – in this picture he is the second owner of a 42 year old vintage aluminum travel trailer - soon to become the former owner of a 42 year old vintage aluminum travel trailer.
I found his particular Airstream after many weeks of online and on-phone searching. I’m glad it took so long because there are really no short cuts to learning the in’s and out’s of vintage Airstreams. They are things of beauty and rarity here in the UK, but they really are two-a-penney over in the good ‘ol US - so you need to learn a lot if you’re going to buy one yourself.
If you can afford to have it done properly, have a real expert do it for you. If you need to DIY, like me, then take your time… because there are some absolute shockers out there!
1 2 3 4 U S MARINE CORPS !
Arizona Bill is a former US Army infantry captain (don’ t know why I keep thinking marine - perhaps because Bill’s a bit of an anglophile and worked with our Royal Marines). Having served in some really very difficult circumstances and unpleasant places, Bill has seen things that he would really rather not have… and is more than a little thankful that he is now retired from the armed forces, back into civilian life. He was selling his Airstream because he used to take his boys camping in it but now has a VW combi for that purpose (much more like camping, than the Airstream “home on wheels” approach).
Understandably, it seemed not entirely credible to Bill that someone might fly eight thousand miles to buy a two ton trailer, which he could not possibly fly back with. After more than a few emails and phone calls to convince him, Bill seemed to accept that I wasn’t going to ask him to deposit money into a Nigerian bank account – he agreed not to sell the Airstream until I arrived fresh off the plane the next evening.
I decided not, at that stage, to get into a long winded explanation of our clever ski holidays website which is designed to also work on all cell phones… or that his Airstream was about to become a sno mobile on a Grand Alpine Tour of three dozen Swiss & French ski resorts… from Bill’s perspective, the story was already weird enough.
My longish flight was delayed almost to the point of all the rental companies in Phoenix closing but, after literally running around them all, I found not a single one willing to rent me a pickup with tow hitch… once they knew what I wanted to tow… and how far…
… so I rented a U-Haul lorry (truck) and told the nice chap that I was taking my friend’s little boat-trailer down to go sailing in the port of Galveston (next to Houston TX 1,500 miles away) and required a (double the cost) one-way rental.
I finally pulled into Bills yard, up a dirt road amid cacti and wagon ruts (embellishing slightly for effect) – it was dark and Bill was understandably surprised/concerned that the Nigerian internet fraudster had actually materialised and was affecting a British accent and red-eyed cheeriness.
All credit to Bill – he was busy re-attaching the Airstream curtains which he had washed and ironed (!) and even gave me a full set of fresh bed sheets, so I could “test-drive” the Overlander, overnight in his yard. He even had a cable hooked into his house to show me the vintage fridge freezer was super cold on that hot desert evening.
everything is perfectly formed and it all works! gas & electric fridge, 3 stove gas hob, gas oven, gas hot water tank, electric water pump, shower with mini-bath, vintage loo (hmm, not sure about that), plus all original furniture
Cutting a long story only slightly shorter, after a hot but comfortable night, Bill helped me look around the Airstream and all of its facilities and foibles. We basically spent the day teaching me how to “Airstream” (lighting the water heater, runinng the fridge on gas instead of electric, using the stoves, oven and grill, purging gas, emtpying the black water tank, etc). I should explain that I have neither owned a caravan before, nor even stayed in one (not since I was 7 anyway).
Bill's favourite local bank teller signs to say I bought the Airstream fair and square
After a visit to the local bank to pay in the cash and get the title notarised, we returned to Bill’s place where I showered, enjoyed something spectacular in an omelette (what did you call that Bill?) and with a wave and many thanks… I was off!
U-Haul was the only company who would rent me a tow vehicle to pull the vintage Airstream - I thought a cheap 4x4 would be perfect but nope... it had to be a truck! 14ft U-Haul plus 26ft Airstream equals the first 40ft vehicle I've ever driven - still, only 1500 miles across the US driving on the wrong side of the road!
first time driving a 40ft articulated vehicle?
1500 miles across the desert?
in a foreign country?
on the wrong side of the road?
… piece of cake!
Inexplicably, I actually asked Bill to drive it out of his yard and to the nearest hard surfaced road… as if that was going to be the trickiest section of the 1500 mile trip!
And then I was on my own…
The road from Bill’s place to the highway had a 3 mile cone-lined narrow section which was almost exactly as wide as my new “rig” – so the first 10 minutes at the wheel were often sphynctre clenching – but I got to the highway as the sun went down… and started truckin’
convoy (right click this link and choose “Open in New Window”, to listen to “Convoy” while reading the rest of this post)
The 3 day and night drive from central Arizona to southern Texas was an exercise in ignoring the clock. My body/brain wasn’t on local time anyway and all that really mattered was to maximise the mileage, rather than to be awake or asleep at the correct local times… so I alternately drove until I was tired and then slept until I was not… repeatedly… for 3 days.
America is PERFECTLY geared up for travelling by road – a road trip is written into the DNA of an American… it’s second nature.
But the US is deceptively big by road, if you’re from a small island, where you can drive the length in a day and the width in half that.
The highways aren’t different from ours in Britain and neither really are the stops/service stations, its just that its much more normal to be “on-the-road”. Its normal to drive until you need to sleep and therefore its normal to sleep in a service station car park (you’d have PC plod knocking on your window at 3am if you were found sleeping in the Scratchwood services car park on the M1).
I slept in the Airstream sometimes by day and sometimes night – mostly alongside 18 wheelers, because my “rig” was too long to park with the other RVs and caravans. It was interesting to note that most people didn’t stop and stare or come to look/talk – interesting because I knew they would do in the UK and Europe – that was the whole point of travelling in it on the sno ski holidays “ski resort tour”, to get SNO noticed.
Airstreams – even beautiful vintage ones – are utterly unremarkable in the USA and that’s why mine was just $8000 (approx £5300) from Bill - it would cost over £30k to buy in the UK (well beyond my budget).
I’m ashamed to say it now but that lovely old trailer of mine was bounced along behind the U-Haul truck at 80+mph for most of the trip, because time was tight and I kept telling myself that American miles, like their gallons, are smaller and therefore I wasn’t really do a proper 80!
That night I shared the price of a motel room with El Paso Airstream Guy
met Mark on the last leg to the port - he was shipping his to Japanese clients
On the final night before reaching the sea port of Galveston Tx, coming to the end of my driving wakefulness, I passed a slightly older and beautifully polished Airstream cruising along behind a pickup. I honked as I barrelled past and thought no more of it until, parked up that evening the owner/driver pulled in at the same station/motel area. We got to talking and I discovered that Mark was a retired preacher who funded his homeless charity, across the border in Mexico, with a little Airstream dealing on the side… as one does.
polished 50s shows patinated 60s the way forward
Mark’s trailer was an empty shell so he needed a cheap room to sleep in… and my trailer was for camping only (I was determined to put no water or anything else into the tanks before dropping it off for the 4 week boat trip home) …
… Mark needed a place to sleep and, after 3 days on the road, I needed a good shower and shave…
… so we split the price of a room and I used his shower before retiring to the car park outside.
The following day was a comedy of errors as we tried to keep charging Mark’s pickup battery from my U-Haul truck…
… eventually swapped out his alternator…
… then went on a hunt for someone to “purge” (ie empty) my lovely polished aluminium gas tanks, so they’d be allowed on the boat.
Fortunately Mark knows a lot of people (he has shipped a lot of these trailers), but no one could do the job and also give the newly required certificate (its an insurance thing – they’d be sued beyond the horizon if they exploded on a container ship).
In the end we resorted to opening the valves in an industrial area and hoping no one would smell it – very naughty – but it didn’t come out nearly fast enough so I had to give up on those lovely polished tanks.
quite a loss these, but I later discovered you can't get UK/Euro adapters to fill them anyway and they're not legal (must be steel over here)
Since Mark had been such a cracking chap, I gave them to him to “get what you can on eBay” – which turns out to be rather a lot!
With all of the faffing around, we got Mark’s trailer on the boat before the yard closed for the day, but not my sno-mobile - I would have to return in the morning – so Mark and I said our goodbyes and I drove to the beach to spend my last night in the US…
… and end the road trip…
… as is fitting…
… where the road ends…
can't drive no further, the roads run out
… at the ocean…
… with a beer.
NEXT: the dash to get ski holidays website, caravan and life ready for the Grand Alpine Tour…