The Astro Van Returns: 1984 Airstream Excella

If you are a fan of NASA, then you are likely familiar with their historical reliance on Airstream trailers and motor homes for transporting and quarantining astronauts before and after their spaceflights.  After Apollo 11’s capsule splashed down, the astronauts were quarantined in a modified Airstream trailer to make sure that they did not bring back any scary lunar pathogens.  Later, during the space shuttle years, NASA ordered and started using a 1983 Airstream Excella motorhome to transport astronauts around.  In use since STS-9 in November, 1983, the Astrovan (spaceman slang for Astronaut Travel Van) is still in service.  It seems that the astronauts want to keep the van around as part of the traditions honored within the space program.  While you cannot currently purchase the Astrovan on www.govdeals.com, you can get this 1984 version of the Airstream Excella off of Craigslist for a cool $20,000.  The good news is that it can be found in Orlando, Florida, which is just 50 miles from where the original sits at Kennedy Space Center.

Above, for reference, is a photo of the original Astro Van.  While this 1984 Excella is not a perfect copy, you could get close by adding an air conditioner, painting a red, white, and blue stripe down the side, and adding the NASA meatball logo.  A set of hubcaps, some bumper guards, and some dark tint would make it an almost indistinguishable twin.  From there, the sky is the limit.  You could take the family for a trip down to Florida to see a rocket launch (sadly, still unmanned), and you could aggravate other drivers on the interstates by dressing as angry aliens for your trip.  Just imagine the looks of passing motorists if they looked in and saw the Predator wheeling this stainless steel rocket down the road.  Oh, the places we’ll go!

Houston, we do have some problems.  First off, this is a 33 year old motor home.  If you have never owned any kind of recreational vehicle, then you need to understand the first rule of recreational vehicle ownership: they age in dog years.  The materials used in making a travel trailer or motorhome have to be lightweight and inexpensive for both the vehicle to not be a tank, and for the manufacturer to make a profit.  These materials have to endure the bouncing and shaking associated with travelling down the road, the effects of sunlight and temperature swings, and the full frontal assault of children and pets.  Add to that the scrapes, dings, and dents that any recreational vehicle will accumulate over the years, of which this motorhome has a few.

On a positive note, Airstream is one of the best RV manufacturers.  The fans of these rolling shiny structures are almost like an army unto themselves.  The world’s largest Airstream club, the Wally Byam Caravan Club International, pride themselves on camping in large numbers anywhere they can take an Airstream.  This popularity is due to the quality of construction and the high survival rate of Airstream products, and they are one of the few recreational vehicles that hold their value.

Inside, this couch picture kind of gives you a clue about both the style and condition of the interior.  This motorhome was made in 1984, so the interior style and colors will reflect the Max Headroom era of design. The other enemy to a recreational vehicle of this age, sunlight, has caused the couch material to fade and likely be prone to tearing. While the cushions would be easy to remove, the couch might be a bigger problem. A friend that worked on recreational vehicles told me that he hated Airstreams. When asked why, he said they were hard to work on because the interior was installed first, then the ribbing and skin were added over the top. He may have been wrong on that, but working on a vehicle like this will never be easy, and removing something the size and shape of a couch doesn’t sound like a job I really want.

The rest of the interior looks dated, but in good condition. Before purchasing a recreational vehicle of this age and price, it would probably be a good idea to take it to an RV mechanic and have him go through the thing to make sure you know what you are getting into. I’d really be on the lookout for propane gas leaks, and that the electrical wiring hadn’t been feasted on by an army of vermin. The last thing you want in one of these is a fire, and recreational vehicles have an accidental fire incidence rate second only to financially struggling restaurants. If you make it without a meltdown of some sort, plan on the refrigerator and freezer being inoperative, and expect the water heater to at least need an element.

The owner does not give us any pictures of the drive train of this vehicle, but he does state that the engine is a 7.4 liter GM big block V8 (454 ci), and it has a Turbo 400 transmission. This is a sturdy drive train, and it is cheaper to maintain than a diesel. However, despite having only 68,000 miles, these engines and transmissions have to work hard to push a heavy, non-aerodynamic vehicle like this down the road. While Airstreams are usually more aerodynamic than their competition, there is still a lot of air to move out of the way at 70 MPH. Hopefully the owner has kept maintenance records on this vehicle, and used it fairly often. Sitting for months at a time is a good way to ruin an automatic transmission and to flat spot expensive tires.

You could have an out of this world time with a vehicle like this.  If you are not into trying out my angry alien plan, you can still use this monster for a lot of car-related activities.  It would probably be strong enough to tow a good sized car trailer and collector car combination to a meet or show.  You could also use it as a base of operations for going to races or even taking your race car to track days and vintage events (provided you have a vintage race car).  Most of all, this is a rolling chance to spend time with your family whether they like it or not.

Fast Finds

Comments

  1. Rick

    That’s a big a$$ dent in that back quarter. Expensive to fix correctly….

    • Jim Clark

      There is no pounding out an Airstream body panel. Hopefully they would still be able to make one for you. They even have proprietary rivets and rivet tool that would have to be obtained for that repair. Expensive is correct!

      • Dave Wright

        We can make those panels, can’t be the only shop in the country that can get it done. NASA stuff is sold direct by The GSA, they have a special category for it.

    • jdjonesdr

      Aw hell, just paint a big “OUCH!” on it and be done with it.

  2. Fred W.

    Excellent, down to earth writeup Jeff. Thanks for the honesty about RV ownership. Much like buying a VW bus, potential owners often have a fantasy version of reality when it comes to buying one.

    • David Frank David Frank Member

      Down to earth??? (sorry, couldn’t resist, perhaps he didn’t planet that way)

  3. whippeteer

    Prior to 1983, NASA used a Clark Cortez modified motorhome. http://spaceksc.blogspot.com/2012/11/the-rv-astrovan.html

  4. ccrvtt

    Ten kinds of cool! Sam Elliott’s mustache cool. If I ever got an RV I’d want this one.

  5. Will

    Here’s the saved ad with all the images and description http://www.craigslistadsaver.com/view.php?name=1984AirstreamExcella

  6. Howard A Member

    Gonna ride like a truck. Flat tire on RRO.( right rear outside) I’d say there’s better motor homes for 20g’s. Not a bad unit if you drop a zero.

  7. Bob Hess

    I live in Florida. I have an RV that we haul our race cars with. Chasing rust on a unit built in ’06 has been part of periodic maintenance since we bought it new. GM in those years were as bad as it got about doing nothing to protect their frames and undercarriage. Bet money, just on the picture of the flat RR tire, that this rig hasn’t had the love and care necessary to make it worth the asking price.

  8. CMARV

    Beer bumps aplenty , nice unit at one time .

  9. Mike

    All Airstreams are constructed as a completed shell and everything installed inside is taken in through the door.

  10. Coventrycat

    I want my MTV.

  11. chad

    cummings (power/mpg)

  12. Charles

    Good morning Jeff,
    Great article but a whole lot of inaccurate presumptions.
    Airstream Argosy motorhomes are extremely well built and they tend to survive much better than most motorhomes of the period precisely because the company used much more expensive and much higher quality materials, and while there are a whole lot of systems to check out and maintain, it is not a given presumption that they will fail simply because they are 33 years old or because they have been neglected for several years.
    These motorhomes are well built and extremely reliable and tend to survive very well. Even if things fail or need attention, they are relatively simple to work on and can be serviced by anyone with a little knowledge about mechanics and simple systems like plumbing and electrical. The plumbing is dead simple with rudimentary pumps and plastic tubing, and repairs are simple and quick. However, you should not have any problems unless the owner allowed the pipes to freeze, and even then, replacement is really straighforward and easy. Electrical is also simple, and unless a motorhome is totally neglected, I have never seen any evidence of wiring being easten by mice.
    I have a 1976 Airstream Argosy Motorhome which is remarkably well preserved for its 41 years. It is not the polished aluminium model like this one, but rather the painted model which was standard on the shorter 28 footers like mine. The earlier interiors are much more funky, with curved cabinets, and disappearing tambour cabinet closures, and really weird upholstery colors.
    We have driven this old girl to so many races and car events all over the east coast, usually towing a twenty-four foot car trailer with two microcars on it.
    The Chevrolet 454 big block is bulletproof and does not even strain to pull that motorhome and the twenty four foot trailer, so to presume that the engine would be tired just from use is also inaccurate. These things don’t go very far, and often cover less than 2,000 miles each year, so the engines are usually still very robust.
    Everyone who sees it comes over to check it out and to have an icy cold beverage with us in the race pits during the races. These are wonderful vehicles to take to car events!
    We are just not using it much anymore now that the kids have gone off to college, and we would consider selling it for about half of what this one is offered for. Perhaps I should list it here on Barn Finds.

  13. Charles

    Interior shot

  14. Bullethead

    ’80s convenience: an ashtray built into the arm of a fabric covered sofa, fire extinguisher within easy reach.

  15. CarNut from Winnipeg Member

    Cup holder not ashtray.

    • RJ

      Looks like a pull out ashtray on the vertical arm of the sofa to me.

  16. Kathleen

    So Charles, how many miles does Airstream Argosy have?

    Kathleen

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