Our yet to be named, '56 Safari
After countless hours reading blogs written by folks restoring vintage Airstreams, I think it is probably time I add our story to the collective consciousness.
My wife and I are the proud owners of a 1956 22’ Airstream Safari. I am an engineer by training but have always been sort of a motor head. When I was younger, it was old english sports cars. More recently it has been motor cycles, currently old BMW Airheads. Both in cars and bikes, I got great enjoyment of “rescuing” forgotten machines and restoring them to their former glory. I had occasionally thought it would be fun to get an Airstream and do the same. Well, now we have done it.
My wife and I have never really toured the US. Flown all over it, but not really toured. Initially I thought we should do it in a conversion van or a truck camper and was very seriously considering building a truck camper from scratch. Then I happened to look at the local Craigslist. And there she was a ’56 Safari, all of three miles from our house!
We couldn’t imagine dragging a 61 year old trailer all over the country, but it was so close, we figured we would check it out. And so it begins. My wife actually fell in love with the layout of the Safari. I loved all of the windows and the 13 panels, just so cool. The trailer was fairly complete, the skin was very good and it just had the floor replaced. The biggest things we thought it needed was to replace all of the screens, add a black and grey tank and do something about the smell. The previous owner, having a minor case of Aluminitis, owned the Safari, a 1960’s 25’ Airstream and a 1970’s Argosy. He originally bought the Safari from a seller in Kansas and had it shipped to Vermont. That was two years ago and he hadn’t yet done much to it, instead focusing on his 25 footer. Anyway, a deal was made and we towed it the 3 miles home without incident.
My wife and I hung around it for a day or two plotting our plan of attack. We found this was only possible if all of the windows were open for an hour or two before we went in. Truly we had to figure out what was going on with the smell.
I don’t have a shop as such, although I have taken over one garage bay year round and the second bay from May until November. Problem is that it is filled with 6 motorcycles and 2 side cars. In the basement I have a small wood working shop where I can work in the winter. We also have a barn good for storing non-mouse edible things such as aluminum skins.
What I plan to do with this blog is post to it as if I had started when we took possession of the trailer last September and then bring everyone up to speed as to where we are now. I know this is a huge project, but we would really like to camp in her the end of next summer or early fall.
So here are pictures as she first appeared at our house on September 25th, 2017.
Congratulations and looking forward to tuning into your adventure. Friends of ours that camp with us acquired a 55 Safari last year. They gave me the opportunity to do some upgrades they wanted. We really like the layout and bank of windows. Good luck and have fun. Bubba
One of the fun activities when buying an old Airstream is figuring out what modifications previous owners have made over the years and just what they were thinking. Being new to Airstreams, it also was an excuse for lots of time on the web trying to figure out what the original really looked like.
We found three major changes:
First, a very large vent was added above the refrigerator. What I believe is the trailer was delivered as a Park model which only would have 115v for cooling. When propane was added later, this big hood was added. A couple of things tipped me off it wasn’t original; half the window was covered by the duct work, half of the upper cabinet was lost to ducting and the vent to the roof was very rough cut with exposed fiberglass.
The second mod was to the dinette. One of the benches had the back hacked off and the cushions modified to fill the gap. I suppose it opens up the space more, but makes for lots of little cushions if you wanted to turn it into a bed.
The last modification is the curb side bed was made so that it could go from full size to 6" narrower. The bed frame was moved toward the curb and dropped two inches. Then movable legs were added to the bed platform. I am guessing the idea was to make it into a kind of couch, narrower and lower than the bed with the ability to transform it back into a bed. The transition from the lowered portion to the normal height would tend to be very uncomfortable as the two inch rise was about where your shoulder would be. And there also was a bunch of cushions needed to come together for the bed. I don't think I could get my wife Lynne to sleep on that side.
Let the Disassembly Begin
Disassembly began in earnest on September 28th.
And looked like this by October 2nd.
Here is when we started to discover the hidden secrets of the “New” floor. The previous owner had the floor replaced before he took delivery. Turns out it was only most of the floor. They kind of forgot about under the bathroom, arguably the most likely place for rot. And it was rotten.
Turns out they forgot a couple of other things as well. Like removing the mouse infested insulation under the floor. I just can’t imagine ripping out the original floor, seeing and smelling that mess and not cleaning it out. Even if it was just to make your life easier putting it back in. The previous owner even asked for pictures with the floor up, but somehow they were never delivered.
And they forgot to set the circular saw high enough not to put large gashes in the frame rails.
And to make the floor extend all the way under the U-channel. Notice it is only ½” to ¼” under the channel. In some spots it didn’t even reach the channel. Glad I didn’t pay for it.
So here is what she looked like by October 6th, just nine days after we started.
We also found something I didn't expect, slight buckling in the front frame rails. There will be many posts about these next spring when I fix them.
Moral of the story, trust but verify or just do it yourself.
The Rush Before Winter
Our initial plans were to weatherize her as much as possible before it turned cold, which can happen early where we live in northern Vermont. But this year was different as it was warm a couple of weeks into November and we got a bunch done.
For the past two years, the Safari was stored outside covered with a large tarp. Since we had turned it into a big aluminum tube, leaks don’t much matter. So we stopped on the shell and spent our time stripping the finish off of doors and furniture, stuff that had to be done outside. I figured we would have the winter to work in the basement.
We ended up getting a lot further along than we thought. I did most of the stripping and my wife Lynne was a real trooper putting 2 coats of amber shellac and 3 coats of poly on everything. Sound familiar Shari? We spent many hours pouring over your "Birdie" blog.
Here is where we are now on January 14th, 2018.
The first piece I rebuilt was the night table/dresser. I had to replace the top and both sides.
Here’s Lynne hard at work
All of the doors, drawers, the closet and the bathroom were stripped and refinished. Here are the closet panels.
The upper kitchen cabinet needed to be completely fabricated with new wood to undo the modifications made for the vent install.
For the furniture, I ended up using most of the panels as templates and just re-skinned the frames. Here are most of the pieces positioned together. Kind of ran out of room in the basement.
The only piece of furniture we didn’t get refinished before the cold set in was the closet. It needed a lot of work as it was partially destroyed when it was removed during the earlier floor replacement. Next warm day...
Congratulations! Welcome to the vintage front kitchen club! Hope you get as much enjoyment from yours as we have ours! I think your#O-6305 is a bit earlier than ours (#O-6421), but who knows, they may have been in the factory at the same time...
Good luck with your restoration. Having "been there, done that" on ours, let me know if we can be of any support or encouragement. It's a big job, but very rewarding when it's done!
Cabinets look great!
Hello from another vintage Airstreamer in Colorado. I have not done the level of renovations that you are doing, but I have done extensive work on four different vintage Airstreams. I had a 66 Trade Wind (photo below), my son has a 69 Globetrotter, I now have a 75 Overlander, and my wife has her 86 Limited. I enjoy the vintage Airstream hobby; maybe a bit excessively.
Like you, I have enjoyed the sports car hobby for many, many years; from the Healey 3000 in college to the S2000 I recently sold. I enjoy motorsports, but the only motorcycle was a '74 Norton Commando 850. I now enjoy ATV riding here in the Colorado mountains.
There is an old 50s Safari sitting in a yard not 15 miles from me. Someday I may get the urge to make an inquiry.
I'm going to tag along in your renovation thread and make peanut gallery comments now and then. You have found a very nice vintage Airstream, and it will be sooo much nicer when you venture out on your first trip in it.
Love the front kitchen! The cabinets are looking amazing! Great work!
All, thanks for the kind words.
Bubba, thanks for encouraging me to do this.
Shari, after looking at your finished trailer, we made the decision to buy this one. You set a very high bar.
David, like minds think a like. I also had a 100-6 Austin Healey and have restored a couple of Norton's, an '70 and a '74. But I really don't know if I will end up with more than one Airstream. We will see what happens when this one winds down. Going to be a while.
Welcome to the Airstream restoration/renovation world! Your engineering background will serve you well with your Safari project.
I am renovating a 1956 Flying Cloud, and it has gone very slowly, but it has been a very interesting process for me. I started with almost no background for the tasks required, but I have learned a lot!
My thread (in my signature line) shows what I have done (through early summer 2017). I did no posting in late 2017, and I have some catching up to do in my thread (which I hope to do that in the next several weeks).
Good luck. I think you have a great size and great vintage trailer.
You have a GEM!
The front Galley Safari is a perfect layout floor plan...basically. Look at Sherrys' coverage for an in depth rebuild. My rebuild, much less comprehensive....Red Barn Safari...might give you some ideas. Here a a couple pics from mine. Note...I travel alone, therefore I feel that space taken up by beds is a waste. I have replaced the beds in mine with a living area....couch is perfect as a single bed, and it will pull out for a double. Oops...can't upload pics...but, you can see them in Red Barn Safari.
I think Melody Ranch is a mid fifties Airstream expert. He has built some beautiful pieces of history.
You have probably seen this, but if not, I thought I'd post the link. It is a 56 Safari for sale in Oregon. Maybe it's your next trailer? Oregon isn't too far from you, is it? It has a rather interesting write up about the history of this model.
Great fun, looks good so far, keep us posted.
You are creating a how to manual in Vintage Trailer repair, which is what I think you started out to do. Reading through it I answered at least a half a dozen questions. I will be going down many of the same paths.
Your safari came out beautiful. Quite a pleasant change from the modern white on white to the more subdued wood and burgundy. I hope ours turns out half as nice.
Thanks for the link, but it is a little far, like 2950 miles far. Besides I am way out that market for now. I have longed suffered from MBS (Multiple Bike Syndrome) and trying not to catch MTS!
He Shari: I don't know who owns it, but I'm positive is isn't your beauty.
But a person has to keep their eyes open for possibilities for future projects....right?
Did Someone Call a Furnace Repair Man?
Since most of the furniture is done and its too cold to do anything outside, I decided to get started on appliance evaluation/refurb. I would like to use the original stove, refrigerator and furnace, if they are safe and reliable. The original water heater was 115v and is gone so that will be replaced with new propane. I also am thinking about adding a small under bed air conditioner for those hot days of summer.
The “Day and Night” furnace is such a simple thing, I love the color and I like the thought of no electricity. I’ll have to try to find that color again when I repaint.
First I took it all apart, cleaned the pieces and then spayed it with silver high temperature engine paint.
Here is the burner. I will attempt to fire it up on the bench when I figure out how to connect it to a propane bottle. Not sure where the large bulb on the small copper tube goes, it was just loose under the burner. I am guessing it is some sort of thermostat controller that goes behind the radiant shield.
Does your furnace have a fresh air intake up through the floor or does it burn air from inside the trailer? I have a similar heater for our 55 but wasn't sure if it had a vent hole or not.
Scott, not sure I can definitively answer that. The floor was replaced, rather poorly, just before I got it and there were no holes. There were however some strange things in the belly pan under the furnace. It looked like someone went crazy with an 1/8" drill inside of a 3" circle. Maybe that was to provide venting?
Looking at the base plate of the furnace, there is a 1" hole, guessing that would be for the gas line and a 3" hole directly in the center. I bet that was to match with the perforations in the pan.
I image the reason for a floor vent would be to assure that there would be no possibility that the flue could back draft. The design of the furnace would make it tough to separate the combustion air from the trailer air. I like the idea of a vent, but I don't like more potential mouse entry points. Maybe I will attach a 3" vent hose to the belly pan and up to the floor. That way I can insulate the rest of that bay around the vent.
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