Just off the main drag in Heber City, a team of craftsmen works on rows of long-neglected, beat-up Airstreams, coaxing these nostalgic icons back to their former glory. “It’s a fun day for us every day here,” declares Gene Magre, who, with his thick cowboy mustache and broad-brimmed cowboy hat, looks as quintessentially American as the travel trailers he renovates. His current calling is a far cry from a former career building and remodeling high-end homes in tony Rancho Santa Fe outside of San Diego. Whereas once he toiled on massive, expensive houses for the likes of Sandra Bullock, now he concentrates his energy inside an aluminum trailer no longer than 16 or 20 feet.
“My niche is 1931 to 1969—the vintage years,” Magre says. His company, Vintage Airstream Restorations, does just what the name says. With his wife, Jacqueline, he roams the back roads of the West, scanning fields with binoculars, looking for the telltale curve of metal that gives away the shape of the trailer Wally Byam designed and first built in the early years of the Great Depression.
It was a time when art deco was the style, and airplanes—delivering passengers across the country in luxury-laden vessels skinned in bright aluminum—epitomized the modern era. Byam was a backyard tinkerer who wrote and published magazines and built camping trailers for himself and his friends. He published a book on how to build the trailers and sold 15,000 copies at a dollar each. An idea was born.
Byam looked to aviation as his inspiration. He adopted aircraft design principles and built trailers that looked like airplanes without wings. At Vintage Airstream Restorations, aluminum craftsman Chris Parrish, who spent 20 years as an aircraft mechanic, points out the similarities. “The structure is pretty much the same. Rivets, frames, stringers, and skin—it’s the same technique. It’s lighter weight, simpler, and sturdier than the wood and fiberglass new trailers are made of.”
The Magres’ scouting trips secure some of the old Airstreams, abandoned in fields surrounded by tall grass, or parked inside of a crumbling barn. He’s also enlisted a corps of scouts—UPS and FedEx truck drivers—who get a finder’s fee when Magre buys one they’ve reported.
When the trailers are hauled to Heber, they’re in bad shape. Open roof vents, broken windows, and torn aluminum skins let in water and critters. The Heber restorers strip each back to the frame, check axles and frames for safety, replumb, and rewire. Old aluminum oxidizes, and it takes the team 200 to 250 hours of polishing to restore the shine.
Restoration work doesn’t begin until the trailer is sold to a customer. “We get the buyers involved,” Gene says. “We want them to be with us when we sit down to design the new trailer to meet 2014 expectations.”
And each restoration is unique. A current project is for a man in Georgia whose son plays football in the Southeastern Conference. After the trailer receives a $75,000 transformation into the ultimate football tailgate party on wheels, the new owner will pull it from game to game throughout the SEC region. Another customer is an athlete from Minnesota who wants to be able to take a nice shower after competitions and workouts. Instead of a tiny trailer shower, the team is outfitting her trailer with a house-size version.
“We’ve made them into tattoo parlors, a fabric shop, a muffin stand, and a golf shop,” Magre says. “This unique look is compelling—it draws people in.” Most buyers are baby boomers, and the majority are women. “They want to get out and travel,” Magre says, “and there’s something mystical about owning an Airstream trailer that goes along with Americana.” Besides, what could be more American than a bed, a tiny kitchen, and an even smaller bathroom on wheels—a shiny, head-turning, aluminum portable abode that promises a new adventure around every turn, and a new view out the window every night.
For info on vintage airstream restorations, go to vintageairstreamrestorations.com.