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Restoring a one-off Airstream, gold-flake bathtub and all

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photos courtesy the author.

[Editor’s Note: We recently connected with Paul Lacitinola, the publisher of Vintage Camper Trailers magazine, regarding a rather unique Airstream that he recently restored, one of only two that the factory finished with gold anodizing. Here he tells us how he found it and subsequently restored it.]

The silhouette of an Airstream trailer has remained mostly unchanged since the 1950s and is thereby recognizable by most. Often described as a silver Twinkie or silver bullet, the iconic foil-wrapped baked potato shape is often synonymous with the color silver. With an exterior made of aluminum, and either left to weather to a dull gray, or polished to a shiny, reflective finish, an Airstream trailer is an iconic image on America’s highways. Airstream trailers are considered by many to be the “Gold Standard” of trailers but what you may not know is that the company also made two “gold” trailers.

In 1956 Wally Byam, the inventor of the Airstream trailer, collaborated on a trailer design with his wife Stella. The floorplan that they came up with was christened “Stella’s Dream Trailer.” Stella’s Dream Trailer went into production during the first quarter of 1957. When Stella’s Airstream came off the production line at the factory in Jackson Center, Ohio, it was far more than a typical Airstream. It was clad in beautiful gold anodized aluminum. It will be forever known as “Stella’s Gold Airstream.” That trailer is now on display at the Airstream factory in Jackson Center, where it will soon be housed in Airstream’s new “Heritage Center.”

Until now, this was thought to be the only “gold” Airstream in existence. In the Summer of 2017, I was contacted by Gary Vukich, a picker from Modesto, California. I was sure he was mistaken when he told me he knew where there was an Airstream for sale that had a gold stripe. I told him that there was no such model and that he was probably looking at a Streamline or a Silver Streak trailer. They are similar in shape to an Airstream and had gold-paneled stripes on them. Gary assured me it was an Airstream and provided me with the serial number to the coach. My wife, Caroline, was with me at the time and googled the serial number while I was still on the phone with Gary. Amazingly, the serial number turned up in a post on AirForums.com.

Fifteen years earlier, “Mark in Modesto” wrote in referring to his 24-foot Airstream trailer that was unlike any others he had ever seen. He described the trailer and pointed out some of its unique features.

I have owned my ’62, 24′ Airstream (Tradewind?) for nearly twenty years, written the company, gone to Airstream events, flagged down other owners and have never found anything about, or seen, another one like mine. Perhaps someone here can assist? The layout is similar to the ’62 TradeWind. The (bathroom) counter with porcelain sink runs across the back and there’s a small fiberglass tub (gold metal-flake, no less!) occupying the port quarter. The galley is on the port side, with a gaucho across. The settee in the front converts to a double bed. But here’s what makes mine different: It has a tandem, Dura-Torque axle (other 24-footer circa 1962 have single axles). It has Jalousie windows (like the ’64), stacked one above the other, just forward of the door and on the port side. The real oddity about this trailer is that one exterior panel (at about head-height) is a gold anodized color for the length of the trailer. I have seen Silver Streaks with this feature, but never an Airstream, yet I’m sure it was done at the factory.

Joe Peplinski, Wally Byam Caravan Club International Historian, replied to Mark:

Nothing official or confirmed by any company records, so what follows is pure speculation. The only Airstream trailers I have ever seen photos of that were gold anodized were Wally’s personal trailers, like the one he took to Africa (on which the entire outer skin was gold anodized). I’ve never seen it mentioned in any sales literature, so I doubt if it was generally available to customers. It may have been tried on a few trailers, maybe test units that were used by company officers. Streamline Trailers had gold anodized stripes, but your photo is of a Tradewind tandem (it appears). I have no knowledgeable explanation but would guess it belonged to some Airstream higher up at one time. I never heard of WBCCI officials getting special trailers, but maybe this one was special ordered by a very good customer or by a close friend of Wally?

A decade later in 2012, Joe followed up with Mark after seeing some photos that Mark posted that showed a ghost WBCCI member number 100 on the trailer.

#100 is VERY Interesting! This number was assigned to Airstream President Art Costello and his wife Caroline in 1962! #100 had been theirs since the 1957 Membership Directory. This number remained assigned to the Costellos thru 2001 (when I assume Caroline passed away). Whether or not this Airstream may have been originally designed and built for Wally Byam or for Art Costello, we may never know, but I will bet the first people to use it were the Costellos. BTW, the Costellos lead Caravan #29 – Eastern Mexico Winter 1962. It seems extremely likely that they used your Airstream to lead that caravan, since it was built in October 1961. One can only guess how long the Costellos used the trailer, but I would guess that it was eventually sold to someone with the number 7238, which by the way was first assigned in 1962 to R.H. and Bernice Colson of Houston, TX.

Reading these posts, we realized that this trailer may be something very special. Arrangements were made to buy the trailer and within the week I was on my way to Modesto. Mark had passed away and his brother was clearing his property which was overgrown and neglected. Along with a set of wheels, I took a chainsaw, pruning shears and a shovel. The trailer had not moved in a decade and was in a trash-filled side yard of a dilapidated craftsman-style house in a well-established neighborhood. Less than 100 feet from the street, you would have never seen the trailer if you didn’t know it was there. After grooming a pathway through the overgrowth and digging the rotten tires out of the soil, I was on my way home. The trailer was not in great condition, but I greased up the bearings and headed home.

I contacted Airstream Inc. to see what they could tell me about the trailer. Justin P. Humphreys, Airstream’s COO, connected me with Samantha Martin, the Airstream Corporate Archivist and Historian, who provided me with the following information:

I have not been able to find any definitive record of Art owning a trailer with a gold panel. However, our serial number records match the attached photo; this particular trailer was made in October of 1961 and it is listed as “Special-Art”. We also have the Warranty Registration which lists Eugene Gwaltney (facing page). I can’t completely rule out that this trailer belonged to Art at some point since he is connected to the serial number but since he is not listed on the Warranty Registration I have to wonder if it wasn’t a prototype that Art was in charge of but was sold to Eugene Gwaltney.

I searched through the Board of Director minutes from 1959-1962 to see if I could find any mention of Art having this trailer built but no luck. What I did come across is that they were still experimenting with the Easter Egg trailers in 1961 which were trailers made with anodized aluminum in different colors. I also found in the September 1961 minutes that they were working on a plan for a Golden Caravan. The notes about the Golden Caravan read: “It is to be an Airstream with distinctive external identification as a Golden Caravan; offered in a limited number of floor plans….it is to be built to the principle that no cost shall be spared in providing the finest and most advanced mechanical contrivances and materials for both world cruising and domestic pleasure travel; it is not to be customized for individual customers but shall be signed by Airstream.

This leads me to believe that this Airstream is likely the prototype for the Golden Caravan. It would make sense for this line of trailers to match the model type of Wally’s gold trailer. The fact that it has a gold flecked bathtub also matches the description that no cost shall be spared. I know that in 1961 Art was working on a prototype for the Easter Egg in California so it’s reasonable that he would have been working on a Golden Caravan prototype as well.

I documented the history of this 1961 Airstream (as we know it) in Vintage Camper Trailers. The experts have helped us piece together what we do know. Tim Brown and I spent the better part of three months taking the trailer down to the bare floors and starting over with Zolatone Paint and Marmoleum flooring. Most of the cabinets were refaced with black walnut veneers. Fortunately, when we got the trailer it was complete with all the original light fixtures, sinks and stove. They have all been refurbished and returned to the trailer. All the sink fixtures are new for trouble free operation, but are nearly identical to the old fixtures that had done their duty for almost 60 years. Fabrics that mimic the originals were used and with the exception of a TV/DVD hidden in the extra space at the end of the galley, the trailer is a glimpse of 1960s Americana.

The trailer restoration was finished in June of 2019 and shown at the Trailerfest Rockabilly Rally in Hollister, California. We towed the Airstream with our 2500 Ram truck outfitted with a new Capri Camper.

The Airstream was a crowd-pleaser, with the compliments being on the spaciousness of the floorplan and the clean, period-correct restoration. We left the rally and set out on a cross-country road trip to the Airstream factory in Jackson Center, Ohio. The Golden Caravan Road Trip took us across 15 states over 6 weeks. We camped with fellow vintage trailer enthusiast, met with business associates, and displayed the Golden Caravan at museums while exploring the Midwest. The only problem that we had was when we rolled into Minden, Nebraska, after traveling in high winds. Our “skylight” vent cover and controllers had caught the wind and been torn out of the ceiling. We used our neighbors’ “waterproof” shopping bag to get us through that night and the rain. In the morning, we crafted a new vent cover from plywood, carriage bolts, and aluminum-colored paint. A small local lumber store let me use their tools and some scrap plywood to craft a makeshift cover. It wasn’t perfect or pretty but it did the job for the rest of the trip.

No sooner did we return home to Elverta, California, then we were contacted by a collector from Arkansas. He had seen the trailer in Vintage Camper Trailers and wanted it for his collection. After a bit of negotiating we agreed to a price that included delivery. The trip to Arkansas had to be postponed a couple of weeks while we filmed the final segment of a documentary on the Airstream’s restoration for the TV show, Ultimate Restorations. We also had a commitment to show the trailer at the Hot August Nights car show in Reno, Nevada. The trailer was again well received and won Best of Show in the trailer category. Just a few short weeks after returning from a 7,000-mile road trip, I towed the Airstream almost 2,000 miles back to Arkansas. The trailer is now a part of a private collection of more than 60 trailers. It is in the good hands of someone who has a connection with the brand that spans a lifetime. The trailer is stored safe and sound indoors, a far cry from where we found it just a couple years before.

Our yougest fan at the Terry Bison campground in Wyoming, wanted a photo with the shiny trailer