Dilemma in Aluminum

Vintage pain without its counterpart, suffering, has engulfed us in the last month.  An elderly couple  living nearby on our remote stretch of beach, both  readers of Airstream Life, offered to sell us their vintage 1985, 30′ Avion because they were aware of my fascination for old aluminum.  In 1990 they had purchased the unit from the original owner, a Sturgis, MI dentist, and used it routinely for nearly twenty years ownership.

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They traveled frequently to winters in Florida and summers on the art show circuit (her, an accomplished artisan), but advancing age and two hip replacements for him prompted them to park it in 2004.    At an embarrassingly low offered price, I agreed to a “mercy” purchase after the five year hibernation and the unseen problems sure to arise like earthworms in a bait can, rather than see it end up on the lot of an enterprising (translation: greedy) dealer.p>So what is the problem ?  

That is it, there are none.

The trailer is absolutely original with the flocked mirrors, plush velour valances, removable sculpted deep pile carpet over linoleum flooring, mid-1980s matching upholstery, drapes and bedspreads (imagine the muted gaiety of a French whorehouse), all unmolested and in perfect condition.  The bolster behind the sofa, a base for pillows during the open bed position, is still wrapped in the factory plastic covering.


No smoking, no pets, no grandchildren to booger the interior, no dents, no hail damage, no bruises, pure anodized aluminum pewterizing with age.  The rich soft texture of the solid cherry cabinetry (not veneered) remains a virgin, never assaulted by an accessory crazed owner with a DeWalt power drill in his holster.


The first two weeks were spent evaluating every mechanical component, disassembling the interior/exterior where necessary, cleaning, making the few minor repairs when needed…..major fun.dscn3563.JPG

Now for the hard part.


Side by side to an Airstream of comparable vintage, the Avion is clearly superior; build quality, cabinetry, insulation, and suspension.  The superb quality downside, if there is one, results in a heavier unit.  Now. before the loyalists unload their quivers and begin the assault on the messenger, please be aware that since 1998 we have owned a 1986, 34′ Excella, lived in it for seven winters and towed it coast-to-coast, US and Canada, for more than 30,000 miles, so I should be able to provide an objective evaluation.    

The differences are subtle, not profound.  Most of the mechanical components are identical or similar, i.e., Atwood water heater, Suburban gas furnace, Dometic refrigerator, Magic Chef range, Amana microwave, Everpure filter, Thetford crapper, Shurflo water pump, ZipDees all around, Delta single handle faucets.

The entry assist handle at the door is much more substantial on the A/S, but the Avion outer and screen doors are a better fit, more durable, much easier to lock and unlock.  The A/S interior is brighter (more contemporary fabric design) and the larger window area allows more natural light. even without vista-view overheads.  In contrast, the Hehr jalousie style windows in the Avion provide more air circulation and are much easier to operate with fewer skinned knuckles and “aw s#its”. Storage space is not equal; the Avion ‘basement cubbyholes’ and  less severe airline style overhead bins make the A/S a clear loser by a landslide. Our Excella, however, does have the dinette which we find very useful, but at the same time, curtails the ‘pantry’ and aisle space.

With limited experience of < 100 miles, towing feels the same, weight is almost equal, and it will take me some time to evaluate the Avion’s Adjust-A-Ride independent suspension at each wheel with two split axles vs. the solid triple axle of the A/S. First impression: I like the former and I sense that there is less torque and stress to the coachwork and the interior components.

In the Avion, the exquisitely machine dovetailed drawers (solid poplar secondary wood) with the highest quality Accuride ball bearing slides, the overhead door double strut supports, all perform like they did when they left the Benton Harbor, MI, factory in October 1984.  Despite an appropriate standard of care applied to our Airstream, the cabinets, the hardware, the build quality in general is inferior and in danger of loosening from the walls; doors and drawers must be bungeed for travel, eventually doomed for an inexorable slide toward GSM or Timeless Travel or Jackson Center for re-engineering.

Minor issues; porcelain sinks in the Avion trump the plastic and stainless steel of the A/S, the standard rectangular twin beds a nice plus vs. the A/S “three squares and a rainbow” shape bed with the chronically ill fitting sheets.dscn3597.JPG

Avion features like the double medicine cabinet and nearly full size bathtub represent a + along with a 65 gallon freshwater reserve tank for extended boondocking. A looming Avion negative, the absence of a nightstand between the beds…where do you put your coffee in the morning, the Heineken at night, your latest read, your glasses, the K-Y Jelly ?  

There is no moral to this story.  I’m not comparing an apple to an orange.  These are the same fruits…list price for the Avion when new, a princely sum indeed, $ 26,593, the Airstream at a whopping $32,109 { $53,307 vs $64,365 in 2009 dollars}; both GVWRs ~ 8550 lbs.  Both top of the market in the mid-80s.  The future is unclear, but if forced to choose one over the other….well, perhaps the readers can help me decide.  We don’t need two trailers, a his and hers, unless my wife suggests we open a “Shady Dell North” on the Indiana farm.  

There is no doubt that the Airstream brand is powerful, iconic, durable and has survived despite the volatile and cyclic history of the RV marketplace, whereas, Avion, like hundreds of other manufacturers, did not.  This is not an excuse for the Avion demise, as I recall there were far fewer Duesenbergs built (<1200) than Yugos, and you can still buy a Yugo today.

Pause for a moment to reflect; what i
f the Airstream company had, like Avion, been engulfed in the tentacles of Fleetwood (now defunct and entering bankruptcy protection as of March, 2009) and the Avion brand had instead been secured by the better managed, cash-rich Thor Industries?

It might be that your next trip to the mailbox would be for the highly anticipated fall issue of Avion Life.  dscn3572.JPG


  1. says

    I have to agree with you. I sold my ’77 Excella 500 and moved up to an ’87 Avion 34X. I find it superior in every way to my Airstream. First of all, the Avion has a proper frame. The Airstream’s frame was a POS. It was inadequate wtih a capital “I”. The Avion has an 8″ deep frame with triple rails, and a 6″ deep suspension frame to support the triple axles. There is no “sag” or “separation” with an Avion. And the tongue is a triple set of 6″ box section. Not even close. Inside, you have real hardwood and stained glass. It looks like a nice sailboat. Mine is an ’87, and in ’86 they made the big picture window standard. It is much brighter than the older Avions. Maybe not as bright as an Airstream with Vista Vue’s, but it’s not far behind. And, it doesn’t leak!

    I like all the silver trailers. Whenever I meet an Airstream snob who thumbs his nose at me, I just laugh. I say “Dude, I have a P.E. in Mechanical Engineering, I’ve owned both, mine is better than your’s. Bow to the Avion!”

    Your Dusenburg reference was pure genius.

    Rock On!


  2. says

    Well Doctor, you’ll likely be writing for the Avion News very soon after A/C Life recovers from your article. What a way to go out – I’m proud of you! I think you should swap your A/S and stand tall. Nothing is forever and you’ll probably generate a whole new circle of nomadic friends.

    Have you read American Nomads by Richard Grant? He writes so well that even you won’t put it down. He’s a hellofa travel writer and he cleverly speaks about your kind. He also wrote God’s Middle Finger which will open your eyes about the Sierra Madre and S. AZ.

  3. says

    Very, very nice… from acquiring a vintage Thonet bentwood chair, to a beautiful vintage Avion trailer, you are on a roll.

    Perhaps, one answer to your dilemma, in view of rising fuel prices, deteriorating roads, closing of parks, and the increasing stress of trailering as we get older, is to stop the roll, or, in other words, park one trailer on the north shore of Lake Huron and the other in southern Arizona.

    The time and energy you save from not being on the road could be well spent in starting up the much anticipated Avion Life Magazine as well to continue writing your fun and enlightening articles for Airstream Life.


  4. SilverAvion says

    Great to see the side by side comparison. I was in the market for an AS when I purchased my 1987 30P from its original owner, who had owned an AS previously. He described in detail why he preferred the Avion trailer, and although I assumed he was just trying to make a sale, the condition and quality made the decision for me. However, since then I have heard nothing but problems from those who have purchased _NEW_ air streams……..while my 22 year old silver bullet has been trouble free. Amazing what marketing and brand recognition can do for you.

  5. says

    I am itching to join the throngs of those who have
    either avion or airstream. Any suggestions on what
    to read before getting wet.

    Thanks for the info.