Bringing old Airstreams back to life - Albuquerque Journal

Bringing old Airstreams back to life

“Copper” John Nettles, left, and John Herman pose in a 1947 Spartan Mansion trailer they are restoring. They founded their company, Two Peaks Transportation, in Febuary 2021, and restore vintage travel trailers in an area call Two Peaks, west of Taos on October 12, 2021. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

TAOS – Down a labyrinth of muddy roads, past piles of inoperable cars and a variety of structures about 18 miles west of Taos lies Two Peaks, where a pair of craftsmen with unique skills are remodeling vintage travel trailers for folks answering the call of the open road.

“Copper” John Nettles, 54, and John Herman, 62, have been Two Peaks neighbors and friends for years. Nettles has operated his own sheet metal shop, Taos Architectural Copper, for 25 years.

In February, they combined their talents and energy to form Two Peaks Transportation, specializing in rehabbing vintage “aircraft style” travel trailers.

“John (Herman) has been doing it for years,” Nettles said during an interview punctuated by barks from his dog, Rose, in his workshop piled with tools and sheets of copper. “He (Herman) mentioned it’s always crunch time at the end of every job and he’s working 16 hours a day, and I thought – whew – he might need some help,” said Nettles.

They specialize in buying, rehabbing and reselling “aircraft style” travel trailers, as well as fixing them up for customers. The “aircraft style” trailers “are the ones that came about generally after World War II,” said Nettles.

“A lot of the people that were making them worked in the aircraft industry, so forming curves on aluminum was no big thing for them,” he said. They used “the same tools, the same materials.”

Many trailers they work on are Airstreams, a company founded in 1931 by Wally Byam, who worked in the aircraft industry during World War II. He built his first trailer out of the need for domestic harmony, according to the website.

“His first wife … hated tents and sleeping on the ground. In an effort to appease her, Wally built his own camping trailer – basically a tent mounted to a Model T chassis that he pulled behind his truck. The marriage didn’t last, but Wally’s commitment to a new vision for the American leisure lifestyle did,” the website states.

Life on the open road is booming, possibly due to pandemic safety travel concerns. And then there is the “Nomadland” factor, the recent movie depicting those drawn to the self-contained travel lifestyle.

“Just looking out that window right there (from his Taos shop facing U.S. 64) and seeing so many new travel trailers, but also a lot of vintage ones, just going up and down the highway, it’s amazing how many more there are than there were literally two years ago,” Nettles said.

Although the pandemic plays into it, “people are buying RVs for the same reason they have always bought RVs,” said spokesperson Monika Geraci, of the Virginia and Indiana-based RV Industry Association. “People have discovered the great outdoors in the past year” and RVs are a way to travel in comfort, and can be used as base camp for recreational activities, she said.

“RV shipments remain incredibly strong and on track to reach 577,000 in 2021, a 14% increase over the previous record set in 2017, and surpass 600,000 units in 2022,” said Geraci.

Herman and Nettles are remodeling a travel trailer for a nurse, who is traveling due to COVID-19 demand for nurses. According to Herman, RV interest “seems to have cooled off … but the interest is still there.”

“The typical trailer that I am doing is a pretty thorough renovation and I would say this trailer (a 1981 Airstream Excella for the nurse) … is probably approaching $50,000.”

Fixing up vintage trailers appears a natural fit for Herman’s skills.

“I’ve been a designer, builder and artist all my life. I like making stuff,” he said. He broke his leg a few years ago, but immobility didn’t stop him when he got started helping a friend fix up a trailer to sell. “Literally, it was an accident getting into the business.”

Herman relies solely on a bicycle for transportation, so the division of labor means Nettles orders and delivers the supplies to Herman.

The first project for Two Peaks Transportation was remodeling a 1960 Airstream Ambassador Land Yacht trailer for Taos District Court Judge Emilio Chavez and his wife, Robyn.

Robyn Chavez got in touch with Herman and took the trailer to his home/shop, where they “came up with a vision and we were both on the same page,” Chavez said in a phone interview.

The finished product “was like a beautiful piece of art; it exceeded my expectations,” she said. The work included re-doing the outside, new axles, full underbelly rehab, and new walls and countertops.

“We have been enjoying it with our (two) kids, taking it around, showing it off … we love showing it off to people,” said Chavez.

They bought the trailer about 1½ years ago before the pandemic began, but traveling safely “is part of it,” she said. “We might take it out for a night; recently, we took it to the ski valley for the night.”

Herman and Nettles explained the nuts and bolts of their new enterprise huddled inside a gutted trailer, with heat from a portable heater as snow swirled outside.

Nettles repairs trailer windows at his shop before Herman reinstalls them. They restore existing windows because “new windows, if you can find them at all, are very, very expensive,” said Herman.

Installing good insulating materials is another phase of the remodel work. “These things stay pretty toasty, much warmer than the original trailers,” said Herman.

“These trailers were not made for northern New Mexico winters,” said Nettles. “They were made for traveling around in the summer.”

Herman thinks the interiors in the vintage trailers are not that well made, but “the overall structure, the bones, are usually in excellent condition.”

Herman is doing the work an entry-level person would do because he can’t find workers. “I’m just super, super busy.” A remodel that used to take two to three months now takes four to six.

The Two Peaks community – a counterculture haven – seems a good fit for two outside-the-box-thinking craftsmen.

“It’s very handmade,” Nettles said, of the area. “You have solid, warm houses, and then you have some houses made out of pallets and carpet remnants. You have the whole gamut of architecture out here.”

A lot of money is involved in these projects and problems arise, but are worked out “because mainly you are dealing with really cool people who are a lot of fun to work with,” said Herman.

The twosome have invested in more professional tools and techniques, and have installed a sustainable “solar system that allows us to work 100% from solar power,” said Herman. It’s called their “$10,000 extension cord” that links power tools to solar panels and a battery bank.

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