.Airstream–the Cool, New ADU

Inspired solution for a roof over one’s head

The Central Coast has run out of space. Housing is so tight; you know you’re from Santa Cruz if you’ve ever bent over in your bedroom and turned on your kitchen stove with your ass.

The University of California Santa Cruz’s 2021 No Place Like Home study concludes that Santa Cruz is one of the least affordable places to live on the planet, and housing is the main problem. We’ve exhausted our space for single family units and are turning to accessory dwelling units (ADUs), separate small dwellings next to single-family residences.

They have been called secondary units, granny flats, in-law units, man-caves, and teenager-out-of-your-face units. ADUs attempt to be a low-cost approach to infill housing, strive to be an alternative to the investment/developer’s answer to affordable housing in Santa Cruz: bigger, taller, more expensive buildings. I have yet to experience a new tall building as an improvement in lifestyle, going home by riding an elevator feels wrong on so many levels. But even building ADUs is out of reach for many Santa Cruzans. Santa Cruz Green Builders says a stand-alone ADU can cost from $300,000 to $700,000.

But I have experienced an affordable lifestyle that reveres light and vistas and freedom and a living space that is meant to be art. It was when I moved into my 1979 Airstream trailer.

A lot of people like them polished, they love seeing themselves in the trailer.”
—Watsonville Airstream guru Skye Ogden

secure document shredding
Space Age in any age French bike racer Alfred Letourneur towing a 22 foot Airstream

A Silver Bullet?

We’ve all seen the sleek, silver bullets rolling across the American landscape, a curious symbol of both our wanderlust and our love of home. The lifestyle is a return to the basic, stripped down to the essential, while in pursuit of something greater than us. When we pass Airstreams on the freeway we think, “Surely, this is a vessel of dreams.” Airstreams, and their vintage aluminum counterpart Spartan trailers, are space age Conestoga wagons that only retire to back yards as ADUs.

What people love about Airstreams starts with the materials. Airstreams have a steel frame riveted by a unique aluminum, seamless, hard shell. Strong but light, it is the same material used for making aircraft, the shell is held together by airplane rivets. They don’t rust, they don’t rot, and whether you purchase them old or new, you get a lot of bang for your buck. Granted, a lot of buck.

The new rounded and polished aluminum coachwork Airstreams start at $65,000 and go way up, fast. Tom Hanks’ Airstream that he used on movie sets sold for $200,000. If you’re well-healed, you can spend as much as you want; on a trip to Asia, Vice President Dick Cheney traveled in an Airstream trailer inside an airplane. But there is a path to owning an Airstream for those in the middle class (remember them?) and even in the lower class (those of us who are comfortable with getting our hands dirty.)

To follow this path, buy an old Airstream in as good shape as you can afford and put it up on blocks in your backyard. If you can follow You Tube instructions, you can rebuild even the old, bent ones, because they were quality built. If you get stuck, there is an underground cottage industry of Airstream restorers who will help you. Today, new Airstream Internationals like mine cost $109,000. Twenty years ago I paid $5,000 for my 1979 Airstream International and it was in great shape.

The tales in this story are of the back yard aluminum trailers, old Airstreams and Spartans retrofitted to serve as ADUs, and the people who live in them. The older the trailer, the more likely it is to quietly live in someone’s yard as an extra bedroom, bath and kitchen. To paraphrase General Douglas MacArthur, “Old Airstreams never die, they’re just out of sight.”

FRAMED If you want to customize your Airstream, Skye Ogden can help. Photo: Richard Stockton

What Planet Are These Spaceships From?

William Hawley Bowlus was the plant superintendent for the production of Charles Lindbergh’s plane, The Spirit of St. Louis. In 1934, Bowlus developed the first riveted aluminum trailer, named “Road Chief.” Wally Bynum sold these trailers and after Bowlus ended production in September 1936, Bynum created Airstream to imitate the Road Chief and in 1936 created The Clipper.

Airstream trailers are now manufactured in Jackson Center, Ohio, a division of Thor Industries. Airstream is the oldest trailer manufacturer in the business, and none approaches its quality.

A Look at My Airstream

The first vintage Airstream I noticed was the 1937 Airstream on the cover of guitar legend Ry Cooder’s 1970 debut album. Ry Cooder said, “I like an Airstream trailer. They’re real abstract to me, like bananas on wheels.”

Twenty years ago, I won the vintage Airstream lottery. I paid $5,000 for my 24-foot 1979 Airstream International, a smooth skinned beauty, garaged most of its life. It has no flat surfaces except for the floor and windows and even the front corner windows are curved. It has polished aluminum window frames, chrome window locks, stainless steel stovetop and sink, aluminum trim on all corners, stainless steel accent rivets, light gray woodwork, silver ash laminate flooring and barely off-white walls.

The Starship Enterprise control area above the wrap-around front windows matches the sweeping contours of the sink and shower in the rear. Mister Spock would feel at home in my Airstream.

Recycle, Retrofit, Reincarnate

In 2016, on Windsor Street in Seabright, my wife Julie and I were put out on the street by out-of-town investors. Fueled by anger and desperation, I gutted my Airstream down to the walls and floor to rebuild it from scratch.

I have two music buddies who are brilliant artists with wood and metal. Rhan Wilson, Rick Zeek and I talk for hours about how my old trailer can be retrofitted to fit my life.

I let them know that I’m not broke, I’m just having an out-of-money-experience. So, the first job is mine. I tear out the old flooring, pull all nails and screws embedded in the walls and ceiling, scrape the metal walls with knives, drill out the holes that have raised edges, pound the metal flat.

For weeks I fill over one thousand tiny holes that had been punched into the interior aluminum walls and ceiling. When I get the walls smooth and primed white, the beautiful curves and contours of the inside skin come alive. What’s cool about old Airstreams is that you can retrofit them to fit your life.

We double the closet space because Julie has clothes.

We double the size of the bathroom because Julie has makeup.

We line the closets with cedar because Julie has an incredible sense of smell.

The floor of the nose is left open because Julie has a yoga mat.

We design a couch that turns into a bed because Julie has me.

Work on your Airstream will continue as long as life keeps changing; I’m building a bed in the nose beneath the wraparound windows, so me, Julie and her beast can sleep under the stars.

HOME SUITE HOME Spartan or luxurious, there are infinite possibilities for your home on wheels. Photo: Richard Stockton

Tales of Lust and Aluminum at a Felton Rally

Whether you buy a new one for megabucks, or you get a worn-out vintage trailer to work on, you have purchased your way into a club. Airstream owners can’t stop talking about their trailers and they snap together like magnets.

There are hundreds of Airstream rallies every year in the U.S.

Airstream Club International has a rally every month and I attend the one at the Redwood RV Resort on Highway 9 in Felton. Forty Airstream trailers converge from all over the country to party for five days in the redwoods. It has people of an age you think of in assisted living centers, but these 60, 70, and 80-somethings are rocking.

It is like Woodstock if the headliner was Lawrence Welk. Upon revealing that I live in an Airstream trailer, I am handed food and alcohol and lured into the party. I’m in a cult.

I’m talking with Glen and Paul, two 60-somethings with Day-Glo sneakers.

“We are all different, politically right or left, straight or hip, poor or wealthy, it’s all across the board, we are all bonded for life. What bonds us is the trailer.”

I comment that this sounds serious and ask if an intervention is needed.

Paul says, “Too late. We all have terminal cases of aluminitis.”

Glen and his wife Marta own a new 27-foot Flying Cloud, their third Airstream. “I bought all of them new and sold the first two for more than I paid for them.”

I meet a formidable woman named Mary Ann who tells me that five years ago she wandered over to Michael’s Airstream at an Airstream rally and five weeks later was living in it as his wife.

“He had an 11-car garage, full of cars, and I used to own a wrecking yard with over 2,500 cars. I had never gotten over losing my wrecking yard in my divorce. This man with 11 cars and three Airstream trailers healed me.”

She makes a fist and punches Michael in the back. Michael grunts from the blow but does not turn around, he is talking to another man about his Airstream trailer.

Bob Frist says he heard Mike Tyson’s manager say, “To find your way to your greatness, you need to find another room in your house.” Bob went looking for another room and found the love of his life, Chris and her Bambi trailer, the smallest Airstream. Chris says, “I love the Airstream, it’s your kitchen and the bathroom in the middle of the night. All your hominess goes with you.”

Bob whispers to me that Airstreams “may be chick magnets.” Chris thrusts her head out of the trailer, “I heard that. Chick magnet? I’m the one who owns the trailer. Maybe it’s a dude magnet.”

Bob grins. “You nailed me, baby.”

He turns to me and shakes his head, “Lust and aluminum.”

A 60-something woman named Betty says, “I met a really cute dude with mine! I was living in a Santa Cruz trailer park in my ’64 Airstream and I saw this really cute guy staring at me and my trailer. He was the groundskeeper for the trailer park, and he walked up and introduced himself in Spanish; he doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Spanish, not one word. No sharing life stories, no blah, blah, blah.

We were lovers for six years and then the trailer park fired him for having an affair with me, ’cause I was a park resident, and he disappeared.

I left Santa Cruz for a year, came back to a different trailer park and he was the groundskeeper of that one! It’s great to be in love. Yeah, my ‘64 Airstream is totally a dude magnet.”

Going all the way

Skye Ogden, my Watsonville brother-in-aluminum, retrofits Airstreams and Spartans, some for travel but mostly to be used as ADUs.

“I restore from the bottom up, wheels, bearings, tires, safety stuff, like a jack, a coupler, a hitch. We polish too if they want it, $3,000 to $6,000 depending on the size of the trailer.”

It started out as a hobby for Skye, a ravenous student of restoration, and he turned it into a family business, buying, restoring, selling, or transporting vintage campers.

          “I just put new windows in two Spartans, a ‘46 and a ’48. I want to become an expert in making and installing polycarbonate, curved windows for Spartans. It’s an old-school glass glazier art, not many do it anymore. I go to vintage trailer rallies and am blown away by the restorations. Some are mid-century modern, some classic vintage, and others have ultra-modern finishes, polished metal accents, high end carpentry. One thing I’d like to try is to partner with someone with land to create a vintage glamp-ground. Nice view, the ocean, or a hill… and my trailers.”

“Who buys these from you?”

“Usually, it’s people who want to use them for an ADU, a guest house, office, or studio. They make them their own, fix them up, give them their own character. Some take a crane and lift them over their house to their backyard. It becomes an extension of their home.” Check out Skye’s work at SilverCaravanner.com.

Santa Cruzan Joe Shewmaker has been living in his Airstream for 40 years, “If your electrical system is original you will eventually want to upgrade that, but your foundation, walls, ceiling, roof and windows aren’t going anywhere. It’s all aluminum. It’s one of the few, if not the only living structure that will be just as solid 40 years from now.”

Is an Airstream for you?

Living in a retrofitted vintage Airstream is like having a hot rod car; you have the coolest ride on the block… and you never stop working on it. Maintenance is constant and parts can be challenging to get. But for most repairs, you can work on it yourself. There are guys like Skye Ogden you can hire.

To live in an Airstream, there is a universe beyond downsizing. Nearly all of the stuff in your house or apartment is not moving into the trailer with you. Look, if you want a bigger house, get smaller furniture. Deflate your yoga ball and sit on a basketball. A love seat becomes a self-love seat. Your Welcome mat may just say “Wel”.

Your WiFi needs to be strong, your little house is made of aluminum. The upside is that Chinese satellites and balloons cannot steal your ideas.

Your aluminum trailer can change temperature rapidly. At night the walls transmit the cold temperatures to the inside and as soon as the sun hits the Airstream it turns into a solar oven. Last summer my Mexican neighbor called me Ricardo Asada, but then I got a whole house ceiling fan that cools it down in minutes.

Finally, do not expect your kids to approve of your move into an Airstream ADU. My children think I’m crazy and my Airstream is just further proof. My daughter does not want to hear about my unfulfilled dreams, she wants me to fill my prescription for lithium. Whoever I am turning out to be is not what she had in mind.

Freedom

The vintage aluminum trailer crowd is partial to second chances, “We’re not trailer trash, we’re recycled.” We dig it that these old aluminum trailers need to be repaired, repolished, re-wired, re-plumbed, re-screened, and reincarnated. Even given the limited living space, no one I know who owns an Airstream regrets buying it.

Whether you model the Silver Surfer, for whom freedom is everything, or just want to develop a place for people to crash, an Airstream ADU has the potential to find freedom from banks, freedom from scarcity fears, and freedom from needing a six-figure income to live in Santa Cruz.


View Richard’s video of his trip to Waypoint Ventura Vintage Trailer Hotel

Special thanks to Contributor Julie Flannery for her editing assistance during the development of this manuscript.

Want to try out an Airstream?

One way to sleep-test a vintage Airstream is to spend a night at the Waypoint Ventura Hotel, a vintage trailer hotel by the beach in Ventura, California. Go to waypointventura.com and check out the 50 vintage aluminum trailers they offer for rooms.

Scan this QR Code to watch a 2 minute video of Richard’s visit to the Waypoint Ventura Hotel.

Waypoint Ventura Hotel Travelogue video:

1 COMMENT

  1. As much as I agree with you that vehicle shelter is a path to low cost affordable housing for all right now, I wish you spent some time discussing the barriers to this lifestyle that the city of Santa Cruz has artificially crafted, namely the Oversized Vehicle Ordinance.

    Right now the OVO, which started enforcement 12/4/23, criminalizes public parking of detached trailers like Airstreams 24/7 365 days a year, with no permitting available. If you attach your airstream to your car, now it’s an oversized vehicle, criminalized for overnight parking. At best a homeowner can get a residential permit for 12 days/mo. But the point of this way of living is that you are NOT a homeowner and can’t afford property.

    As for parking an airstream in a trailer park? Most are trailer parks are full, have incredibly restrictive gentrification rules (can’t be too old, can’t be too ugly, etc) and have exorbitant monthly land rental costs similar to renting a room in a house.

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