Writer and Researcher
Amy Gale
At Home with Antiques Writing Samples
amygale@amygale.com 212-787-5971
“Iconic Airstream Trailers Let Aficionados Enjoy Great Escapes,” Hartford Courant (September 4, 2009) When Bard and Kathy Fuller head out on the highway, looking for adventure, they tow the latest in trailer design—the latest, that is, for 1964.  The trailer is an Airstream, the tubular silver symbol of American mobility.  Airstream founder Wally Byam made his first trailer, so the legend goes, because his wife would not go camping without a kitchen.  By the 1930s, he was making trailers commercially in the backyard and later in a factory. At a time when hitting the road was associated with dire financial calamity, Airstreams exemplified the fashion for streamlined industrial design.  They were made of lightweight aluminum and had a curved form for diminished wind resistance.  While new Airstreams are in production, the vintage models are also popular. The Fullers’ Bambi 2 is a mid-century favorite.  For Bard it evokes boyhood memories of road trips with his parents in the early 1960s. He and Kathy continue the family tradition.  They live in Southington and spend their free time exploring the country, often in the company of fellow Airstream enthusiasts. Raymond and Cynthia Richard of Moodus own an Excella 500 from the late 1970s.  It’s a less idealized period in modern history, but the trailer has family value.  It was inherited from Raymond’s mother, who lived in it for many years in a Florida retirement park.  By the time the Richards towed it north in the late 1990s, the Excella was in need of a serious overhaul. “That’s when the fun began,” says Raymond. The expense, too. “That was another $4,000” is the sort of remark you overhear in Airstream circles. In many ways, fixing up a trailer is like fixing up any other historic structure. There’s no point in undertaking a painstaking renovation that is at odds with your tastes and habits.  In the Richards’ case, it meant returning the Excella to its origins as a recreational trailer. “When my mother had the trailer, she had taken the sofa out of the front of the trailer and put in two small recliners,” says Raymond. At the time Raymond saved the sofa frame, and many years later he was able to have it rebuilt. “The couch really made the trailer start to look like a proud vintage instead of an old trailer,” he says. The kitchen was modernized.  The oven was replaced with a microwave and stove top. “I did not plan to do any baking,” says Cynthia. There are also new faucets and a refrigerator. The bathroom was another space that needed freshening up. “We brought the bathroom out of the seventies,” says Raymond.  Bright white countertops were chosen to replace the original ones in harvest gold. Evidently, there are limits to period authenticity. While the plumbing and electrical work was done back at the Airstream factory in Ohio, many of the other projects were contracted out to independent restorers.  The Excella had curtains that were fitted to withstand swings and vibrations.  They were used as a pattern for the new ones.  The fabric was a Walmart special.  The price ($1/yd) helped to offset the cost of hiring a seamstress. “We saved about $1,000 doing it that way.” says Cynthia. Storage is a challenge. In a small and panoptic space there’s no getting away from the knick knacks, books, and afghans.  And all that has to be packed away en route. While the furniture is dual purpose—with drawers tucked under beds and table tops lifting open to cubby holes—the amount of stowage is limited.  Even when you add in the extra room in the tow vehicle it’s a tight fit. There is an understandable preference for durable house wares, but plastic cups and plates don’t always do justice to the occasion. For end-of-the day refreshment, the Richards take the Waterford tumblers out of the bubble wrap.  Comparisons to boat-living date back to the early days when Airstreams were called “land yachts.” In that spirit, the Fullers chose nautical fabrics and ornaments for the Bambi. “Tin can” is another nickname because of the thin insulation and metal construction. The Fullers invested in a ventilation system to mitigate the extremes of temperature. A rainstorm, everyone agrees, is an acoustic pleasure. At rallies, Cynthia jokes about returning home at night and looking for “a silver trailer with an American flag.” While Airstreams look alike, the design has evolved over the years. According to Bard, “In the early days there was not the ability to stretch and curve the aluminum, so the shell was made of multiple panels riveted at a slightly different angle.” Trailers made from the 1930s to ’50s have 13 panels and those made in the 1950s and ’60s have 7 panels. The finish is another distinguishing characteristic.  The like-new mirror finish is in fashion, as befits a Modern design icon, but it takes at least 80 hours of polishing.   “The weathered oxidized grey patina is a lot less work,” Bard says. Look, too, at the front and back for proofs of membership in the Wally Byam Caravan Club.  Members have one red star for every five years of membership and a number that corresponds with their entry in the club directory. The directory tends to be kept handy in the glove compartment, so you can look up a trailer’s owner and wave—or not wave, as the case may be.  The club is a vital social organization for people who are, at heart, escapists. Raymond is the president of Charter Oak, the Connecticut unit. In the warm-weather months, the club organizes rallies and caravans for Airstream owners.  A few “buddy” events are also planned. These are the opportunity to meet owners of non- Airstream RVs. The off-season has its obligations. There are the monthly dinners and, in November, a new club president is installed in office. Small wonder that with such a full calendar some prefer to take off on their own; a “caravan of one” is Cynthia’s phrase to describe solo vagabondage. In extreme cases, they go off the grid.  They sell the house, pass out the heirlooms, and find a state with loose residency requirements.  There are drawbacks to such a drastic step, though.  For one, once you sell the house, you no longer have a convenient place to park the second trailer.  Both the Richards and Fullers own two Airstreams. You also miss out on the friendships. “There is a definite community to the Airstream lifestyle,” says Cynthia. “Friends are made and kept for many years through Airstreaming.”