Extreme RV Makeover: 1976 Airstream Argosy Renovation

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Before launching the adventure of life on the road, one couple began their journey by transforming a vintage Airstream Argosy

A few years ago, my husband, Chad, and I sold our business, a riverside bar in Asheville, North Carolina. With our status as empty nesters rapidly approaching, we began to plan our great escape. We had always aimed to leave town once the kids became adults, but only in recent years had we decided to downsize from a stick-built house to a home on wheels.

Because of Chad’s skill set, we knew it would be cheaper to renovate a fixer-upper than to buy a used trailer in road-ready condition. We also liked the idea of customizing our future home and the freedom of options it offered.

husband, Chad, enjoy the view of Lake Tahoe with their pet goat, Frankie, and pup, Maggie.
Author Cate Battles and her husband, Chad, enjoy the view of Lake Tahoe with their pet goat, Frankie, and pup, Maggie.

After a few months of scouring Craigslist, classified ads and online forums for an inexpensive trailer with a solid frame, I came upon a 1976 Airstream Argosy. The listing was for a 22-footer that was in decent shape, at least on the outside, and it was just around the corner in Forest City, North Carolina. Priced at a mere $2,000, it seemed too good to be true.

To make the interior of their rolling home feel warm, inviting and comfortable, the Battles decorated it with a Southwest-Midcentury Modern flair.
To make the interior of their rolling home
feel warm, inviting and comfortable, the
Battles decorated it with a Southwest
-Midcentury Modern flair.

We weren’t the only ones hunting for classic Airstreams, and I knew I had to be quick. The ad was posted early on an October morning, and I replied 20 minutes later. The following week, our future home was delivered. The size was a perfect fit for the two of us, our dog, Maggie, and our goat, Frankie.

Buying the Airstream was a gamble. Neither of us had any experience with RV remodels. For all we knew, our trailer could have been a hump of aluminum junk. The interior needed to be completely gutted. The skins were moldy, the floors rotten, and mummified mice were hiding in the insulation. But despite its lackluster facade, we saw the Argosy’s potential.

Before getting started, we needed to make sure the trailer wasn’t a money pit, so we took it to a shop for inspection with our fingers, toes and eyes crossed. Although it seemed like an eternity, fewer than 10 days passed before we got the call back from Mark Coyne, owner of RV Services, an extremely busy shop in Asheville. Had we made the right choice or a $2,000 mistake? Fortunately, Mark told us that, despite its advanced age and dingy appearance, the trailer was in good condition. What a relief!

With the Grand Tetons in the background, Cate adds details to the Argosy’s mural, including the solar eclipse the couple witnessed while visiting the national park.
With the Grand Tetons in the background, Cate adds details to the Argosy’s mural, including the solar eclipse the couple witnessed while visiting the national park.

It was time for the real work to begin, but where to start? Everything on the inside needed replacing, but the foundation, frame and shell were intact. Considering that this was our first time renovating an RV, the task was going to be an adventure in and of itself.

Cate stands in the doorway of the Battles’ 1976 Airstream Argosy moments after it was delivered.
Cate stands in the doorway of the
Battles’ 1976 Airstream Argosy
moments after it was delivered.

Chad has an electronics degree and is one of the handiest guys I’ve ever met. If he isn’t familiar with something, he studies and masters it. He has experience in many fields, from theater-set design to insulation, roofing, plumbing, cabinetmaking, even building a sofa from scratch, and he knows his way around a sewing machine. He researched Airstream forums and Youtube videos for instructions and listened to Mark’s great advice.

After getting the green light from the shop, our first task was gutting what was left of the inside and taking down the remaining cabinetry, interior walls, sinks and toilet. Removing the rotten floor and 40-year-old insulation was the nastiest part of the project. Once that was complete, Chad cleaned off and primed the frame, and laid down new insulation and a vapor barrier. With the subfloor finished, he mapped out where everything would be placed, from the plumbing, electrical wires and LP-gas lines to cabinets and appliances.

Chad stripped the vintage travel trailer down to the bare bones in preparation for the remodeling project. The couple spent the following six months fixing the Argosy up before finally hitting the road.
Chad stripped the vintage travel trailer
down to the bare bones in preparation
for the remodeling project. The couple
spent the following six months fixing
the Argosy up before finally hitting
the road.

We were lucky to find and download the 1976 Argosy manual, but several details weren’t mentioned, and we had to figure them out on our own. Altering the original floorplan, we moved the bed to the front bay and created a convertible dinette. We also wanted to shed as much weight as possible, so we picked lighter weight materials than were originally in place and created as many dual-purpose areas as we could, such as hidden compartments, shelving and storage space.

Another unique addition to our Argosy was a porthole from a decommissioned ship, bought by our family in Nantucket as a “camper warming” present. We love having the extra window in the door. The porthole has since framed many landscape photos on our travels and is a favorite feature of our website, www.argosyodyssey.com.

o save space, the couple opted to build a convertible dinette bed in the front bay. This was a change from the original floorplan, which placed the bed across from the kitchen.
To save space, the couple opted to build
a convertible dinette bed in the front
bay. This was a change from the
original floorplan, which placed the bed
across from the kitchen.

With the framing in, paint on the walls and the flooring laid down, the Argosy started to feel like home, and it was time to paint the exterior. I wanted a two-tone retro theme, but after pricing out a professional paint job, a friend suggested that I paint a mural myself. Not only would that save us thousands of dollars, it would cover the imperfections that came with the trailer and result in a one-of-a-kind Airstream. As a bonus, it also hides scratches that result from our travels down narrow roads full of branches and sagebrush that would make owners of polished Airstreams cry.

I saved one of my favorite tasks — decorating! — for last. After months of sleepless nights caused by Pinterest-induced insomnia, I began collecting vintage items from light fixtures to glassware. Keeping our dream home on wheels affordable was key, so finding thrift-store items, salvaged materials and other cost-effective solutions was a must.

As the renovation neared its end, Chad installed the kitchen appliances and cabinetry, and Cate worked on the decor, shopping for items like vintage glassware and light fixtures.
As the renovation neared its end, Chad
installed the kitchen appliances and
cabinetry, and Cate worked on the
decor, shopping for items like vintage
glassware and light fixtures.

While brand-new Airstreams this size can cost $45,000 or more, we completed the remodel for less than $10,000, including some contracted work. By sticking to a tight budget and doing almost everything ourselves, we were able to personalize the Argosy and save money we would later use for travel.

Renovating an old Airstream, or any vintage camper, is a ton of work, but it’s an incredibly rewarding experience. As time goes on, we continue to add and amend things that could be improved. That’s just part of the journey. The important thing is that we now have a home that provides the freedom to travel with ease.

The benefits are endless. It takes only 15 minutes to clean the whole house. We aren’t bogged down with material clutter, and because we boondock, we are constantly surrounded by beautiful countryside, which also makes Maggie and Frankie quite happy. Reconnecting with nature and living a self-sufficient lifestyle have changed us in so many ways. We appreciate the little things that we took for granted back in Asheville, like a hot shower or a beautiful sunrise.

After traveling nearly 30,000 miles around North America, we are pleased to say we love this lifestyle and are grateful that it has taught us to live in the present rather than wait for the future. Every day is a new adventure, every place and experience bring us new knowledge, and we’re excited to see what awaits around the bend.


This Argosy Is Our Argosy

Unlike its silver-bullet siblings, our vintage Airstream rolled out of the factory already painted and was the perfect subject for a mural. As an artist, I found the Argosy to be one big, blank canvas. Choosing the theme “This Land Is Your Land,” I created a landscape around the trailer based on the eternal words of Woody Guthrie — from the California redwoods to the sparkling desert, waving wheat fields and ribbons of highway.

Perched on the bed, Maggie takes in the view of the Sierra Range through the Argosy’s screen door.
Perched on the bed, Maggie takes in
the view of the Sierra Range through
the Argosy’s screen door.

After lightly sanding the Argosy’s exterior and giving it a bath, I mapped out the painting. I used Valspar Anti-Rust Armor oil-based enamel in a rainbow of colors and applied an enamel clear coat for extra durability.

The mural is an ongoing project that I expand upon as we venture to new places, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop working on it as long as we own the Argosy. In August, we were lucky enough to experience the total eclipse in the Tetons, and I made sure to add that to the scene as well.


 

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