This is the story of how I found myself on a mission to find a vintage Airstream trailer. In particular, an early 1970’s single-axle Airstream. That I’m on this quest at all is as surprising to my wife as it is to me. She’s long since accepted the fact that I stumble into obsessive spirals over new-found interests, hobbies, and other distractions. Often to the point of ignoring more important matters, like life. I take in hobbies the way some people take in every lost stray that passes their door. This time, however, it was a bit different.
Last summer my family and I visited my father at home in Michigan. During the visit I found old photos that I’ve not seen in decades. Photos from my grandparents, my father’s parents, who lived in the small town of Saline, Michigan near Ann Arbor. Among them were pictures taken during a very special trip they took to Sedona, Arizona in their brand-new Airstream trailer.
They loved their Airstream and had long dreamed of owning one when they retired. My Grandfather, Maurice Doll, was the head Accounting Administrator for the City of Saline. He was well-regarded and quite capable of his duties, although he didn’t particularly enjoy dropping in on the Ann Arbor Art Festivals to remind the dealers how important it was to properly fill out their sales tax forms for anything sold that day. My Grandmother, Marjorie Doll, was a nurse at the local hospital and likely more pragmatic than my Grandfather. Both had a wonderful sense of humor, and were great company.
Confirming my genetic pre-disposition to grab hold of an opportunity when it arises, regardless of the risk, they decided to purchase an Airstream several years before either of them had retired. They arrived at our house for a visit after buying it, and I remember it parked next to our home while they stayed. It was a beautiful sight and they were thrilled. The next day they were off to Sedona, Arizona to visit longtime friends and to shake out the new silver bullet.
Many of the photos I found were from that Arizona trip, and I don’t recall ever seeing them.
After they returned, I was often invited to join them on local trips to campsites in and around the Ann Arbor area. My younger brother had just arrived, and was too young to join us. I recall many summer trips, staying at RV campgrounds populated with retirees, with posted signs explicitly prohibiting children of any sort on the site. Either I was better company around adults than I remember, or my grandparents held a lot of sway with their community of friends. Their grandchild was coming along for the trip.
During the work week my Grandfather would drive in to his job in Saline, while my Grandmother lined up swims at the beach, bicycle riding, and the usual activities reserved for grandparents and their grandchildren on vacation. She would make sure that we found as many nature talks as we could find, docents and storytellers who ran daytime classes on local animals, monarch butterflies, turtles, insects. I was fascinated, transfixed. We even made several trips to the University of Michigan’s Museum of Natural History to see their collection of dinosaurs, exhibits on human history, and the planetarium.
And at the end of each day, we’d return to the campsite and the Airstream.
If you’ve not seen an Airstream up close, they’re pretty impressive. In my mind’s eye it wasn’t a camper, it was a spaceship taking us to fantastic places.
Sadly my grandmother fell ill before they retired. She passed away in 1976. A hard lesson for this young boy, and undoubtedly a difficult time for all. Had they waited for their retirement to buy this Airstream, it would’ve been too late. Instead they had six or seven years of wonderful memories that they shared with their family and friends.
My grandfather kept the Airstream until around 1980, when he remarried and the priorities of a new life shifted.[devider type=”” height=”” no_border=””]
What did those red numbers mean?
While looking through the stack of old photos, some tattered, some water damaged over time, one picture stood out. It was a nice shot of their Airstream parked in front of the St. Louis Arch. And on the top of the Airstream, clear as day, were big red numbers 24175.
“What do you think those numbers were?” I asked my Dad.
“I’m not sure, but I’ll bet someone can find out”
It occured to me then that many older Airstreams are still on the road. On my drive from Washington State to Michigan I probably saw a hundred Airstreams of various ages. More so than any other type of RV, Airstreams have staying power. They’re valued by restorers because they’re rugged and even when reduced to a hollowed out shell rotting in the field, the aircraft aluminum holds up.
It dawned on me – My Grandparents’ Airstream is probably still out there. Airstream estimates that 60% to 70% of all the trailers they’ve sold are still operational. Could it be rotting in a field? Maybe it’s been turned into a trendy food truck, or maybe it’s been restored by someone who found and loved it as much as my grandparents did. It’s merely a matter of tracking down this particular trailer. After so many years it wouldn’t be simple, but it wouldn’t be impossible either.[devider type=”” height=”” no_border=””]
The Search Is On
It wasn’t long before I found all of the most visited and populated forums dedicated to Vintage Airstreams, Airstream restorations, and more importantly the Airstream classifieds. I even found out that the red numbers, 24175, were the Wally Bayam Caravan Club membership numbers. Wally Bayam was the Airstream founder and original designer, and club membership was a prized accompaniment to Airstream ownership.
The Wally Bayam Caravan Club is, of course, still operating, and my initial email message to them was answered promptly. As was a similar email sent to the Airstream company. They were unable to identify the actual Airstream trailer, as the WBCC numbers were assigned to the person not the trailer. For now, it was a dead-end. I was then put in touch with Joe Peplinski, a member of one of the Vintage Airstream clubs and a historian. He took a look at the photos I sent along, and was kind enough to help me identify the specific model trailer my grandparents owned:
Based upon the provided photo, I agree that the Airstream must be between 1970 and 1972. It cannot be 1969 or earlier because they used a different rear window shape and it cannot be later than 1972 because of the date on the photo. Digging further, the compartment door over the rear bumper seems to have been used more on 1969 and 1970 23′ Safari’s than on 1971 and 1972 Safari’s. This suggests to me that the trailer is most likely a 1970 Safari
Clearly I’d found the right people to help me on this search. I was thrilled. Of the 1970 Safari models, it appears as though it was a “Safari Double (Deluxe Land Yacht)” from this brochure, taken from the Airstream website archives:
So now the search is on. I’m keeping a sharp eye out for any used 1970 Airstream Safari Doubles being sold in and around the Great Lakes area. And because I cannot possibly know if its later owners kept it within Michigan, I’m even looking cross country. Joe has even sent me several links from his area, although so far none of them have panned out. In particular, their Airstream had the following features:
- 23 feet long, single-axle
- Sofa-bed in front
- Second fold-down sofa opposite the kitchen
- Rear Bathroom
- No air conditioner, no awning. They could’ve been added later
- Curiously this model doesn’t seem to have the little windows that faced the sky, these showed up the next year, 1971.
So what would I do if I find it? At minimum I’d like to know if it’s still out there. If it turns up for sale, I would be very tempted to find a way to secure it. But I wouldn’t want to harass an owner if they had no interest in parting with it. For me it’s mostly to find out where it ended up. And if I find that it has long since been wrecked, or is otherwise unfindable, I may just have to go pick up my own vintage Airstream.[devider type=”” height=”” no_border=””]
My New Wally Bayam Caravan Club Membership Numbers
As thanks for the help I received from the Wally Bayam Caravan Club, and to secure ongoing help with my search, I sent in my membership form to join the club. I wasn’t sure they’d accept me as a member, I am not (as yet) an Airstream owner. In fact, I actually own a 2003 Fleetwood Bounder motorhome. A far cry from the sleek silver bullets. Membership numbers are assigned as requests come in, with the option of requesting any previously un-assigned number. On a hunch, I requested my grandparents’ number, 24175. A couple of weeks later, a welcome package arrived with my new numbers: