Airstream resuscitation

I’ve always been attracted to the idea of owning a vintage Airstream travel trailer — an aerodynamic marvel with a pop-riveted, high-gloss aluminum shell. The problem with the vintage models becomes apparent once you step inside. Masonite as far as the eye can see. Barracks-style bunks and utilitarian kitchens with delaminating countertops and little hand pumps used to prime a pencil-sized faucet. The fact that most of them are in outrageously bad condition is actually a good thing, because it limits my likelihood of making an impulse bid in an online auction.

But that never stopped Phil and Wendy Cervantes, winners of this year’s Airstream Life “Best in Modernism” vintage trailer award at Palm Springs Modernism Week, a celebration of mid-century esthetics held in February.

A marvel of Art Deco interior esthetics, the story of the Cervantes’ 1954 Silver Streak started with a camping trip gone bad.

“I was raised camping in the boondocks, as far from an organized campground as my father could get us,” says Phil Cervantes. “I was on a similar camping trip with my wife and two kids inside a tent and it began to rain. We were just sitting there miserable and I see a truck going by, the open flap towing a vintage 1960s 16-foot Airstream Bambi trailer. My wife had been bugging me to get us ‘off the ground’ while camping and this looked really cool.”

For two years, Cervantes plied the Internet looking for a budget vintage trailer. The family finally settled on a 1954 Clipper produced by the Silver Streak Trailer Company in El Monte, Calif. The winning eBay bid: $2,365.

Cervantes had little to work with.

“The trailer wasn’t roadworthy,” he recalls. “It sat in a field for years and was used for target practice. All of the windows had been shot out and the interior was destroyed. Sheep herders had used it last and they’d built some beds out of two-by-fours, then bored a hole through the middle of the floor to use as a toilet. It was a nightmare.”

Cervantes towed the trailer to his father-in-law’s house, gutted the interior and then began the painstaking process of measuring every facet of the Clipper and transferring the numbers to an AutoCAD program.

“I started work on the outside, replacing about half the aluminum skin panels that had been shot full of holes,” he recalls. “On the interior, I wanted to see rivets and metal and get the feel of something mechanical, like the inside of a vintage airplane — something like a Boeing B-314 Pan Am Clipper. Even though it was a 1950s trailer, I didn’t want it to look like a typical 1950s soda fountain. Since the exterior was a 1930s design, I started searching Google for Art Deco images and was inspired to create the interior with its rounded corners from there. I wanted modern amenities and creature comforts in period style.”

He first drew up plans showing the interior in dark mahogany, but his wife put her foot down, noting that the small windows and lack of natural light would create an atmosphere not unlike a coffin. Instead, he opted for lighter birch-veneered plywood with mahogany trim and a bamboo floor.

Cervantes completed all of the wood and aluminum trim metalwork himself over a period of six years, building components of the trailer in a tiny home shop, then installing them one at a time.

“Someone showed me a place where I could buy curved plywood to make the rounded drawers, but it turned out to be 500 bucks a sheet,” he says. “I was walking out of the store until the guy behind the counter pointed to a pile of seconds for only 20 bucks a sheet.”

The tiny sinks and backsplashes are stainless steel, with drawer fixtures in nickel. The final touch is a shiny model of a vintage Boeing airplane.

“It’s not an antique,” notes Cervantes. “We bought that at a Target store. I have no idea what it was doing there.”

When the couch is converted to a full bed and the cushions are rearranged, the trailer sleeps four, as long as those four don’t mind sleeping in fairly close quarters.

All told, Cervantes figures he’s devoted 6,200 hours and spent $30,000 on tools and materials used in the project.

I ask him about the various trailer contests he must have entered before claiming this latest prize.

“None,” says Cervantes. “This was our first. It was so cool that we won!”

Airstream trailer owners Phil and Wendy Cervantes.
Photograph by: Courtesy of Phil Cervantes, National Post