The Burbank Bean
I’d been partially disabled for ten years with CFS / ME (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome / Myalgic Encephalomyelitis) when I thought to buy a small motorhome for greater freedom of movement … the ability to get farther from home by taking my bed with me.
I found myself trying to fill more needs than just that one. I love classics and mechanical muscle, be it cars, boats, planes, or RVs. So I was shopping for a Classic RV. I wanted something small enough to be an easy drive, big enough to stretch out in, over-powered for the freeways of So.Cal., stylish enough to feed my ego, and as comfy as I could afford, (the thought of being able to have a double espresso and a bran muffin before hitting the road without worrying where to find a restroom was very appealing).
I’d been scanning the ads, doing research on the web, and making a general nuisance of myself to RV owners when I spotted an ad for an Airstream Argosy in St. Paul MN.
The Argosy was made from ’74 to ’78, and it was the only Class A I’d ever seen that was so small.
This was a ’76 with a new 454, 19′ 8″ long, and the engine had a hot cam.
The owner was nice. He told me the history, sent me pictures, told me what his daughter had named it “The Bean”.
I’d seen pictures, it did look like a bean.
It was the coolest Class A I’d ever seen.
With the engine mods and coming from a state with no smog requirements I didn’t know if it could pass smog in California. I searched the California and Minnesota vehicle codes. Talk to people in the CA. smog industry. Wade through phone answering systems trying to reach someone who could help.
The definitive answer was “If you want to know if it’ll pass, bring it in.”
I couldn’t buy it if it couldn’t be made legal, I couldn’t have it inspected if I didn’t bring it to California, and I couldn’t bring it here if I didn’t buy it.
I was broken hearted … and the guy who had taken the Argosy out of storage in St. Paul was none too pleased either.
The search continued.
I found an ad for a ’77 Argosy in Burbank, “Completely Restored, $15,000.” It was more than I had to spend, but only 80 miles away.
I had to see it.
I was told mice had destroyed the interior during storage so it had been redone. This sounded good to me, knowing what a 20-year-old RV interior can look like.
The woman who placed the ad was nice enough but couldn’t answer any of my technical questions. It had belonged to her ex., she didn’t use it, it was time for it to go.
What with my unpredictable health, I asked Mom to come along.
We drove to Los Angeles.
It was a nice little neighborhood. Small houses with clean tended yards.
It wasn’t hard to find … big blunt nose poking out a driveway, beige with a brown stripe, drivers side about a foot from a retaining wall.
It was dirty; filthy even. Six flat tires. Hmmm. I’m not sure it’s completely restored.
We park, Pam, the owner, comes out the front door.
Ok, I’m going to try not to exaggerate here. She’s about 5’3″, maybe 180 pounds, bleached blonde bouffant, purple eyeliner in what I can only think to call a “Crazed Cleopatra” motif.
Oh … and dressed head to toe in black spandex.
But I was there for the Argosy.
I’d arranged to have an RV restorer meet us. This would be my first full RV inspection, and I wanted to do it right.
Joe had rebuilt 14 classic GMCs. He was smart, funny, and I’d liked him on the phone.
He was on his way.
I asked Pam for directions to the bathroom.
Let me describe the house. There was a cigar store Indian on the front step, not a nice one either. It looked like it had been carved in a hurry … with a chain saw.
There was an old Coca-Cola sign just outside the front door, a big sign, and not like you find in an antique store.
More like on the side of a gas station.
A closed gas station.
In the middle of the desert.
The interior of the house was unlike anything I’d ever seen before.
It was full of stuff.
Kitschy, colorful, strange stuff. Every surface, every wall, every corner was crammed full of the most bizarre collection of … memorabilia. There wasn’t room to set down a coffee cup.
It looked to be part ’70s commercial art, part mail-order shopping spree, part tourist trap.
I’d never seen so much crocheted, beaded, lucite-encased, neon-edged junk in my life.
There were seashells encrusted with things, and things encrusted with seashells.
There were three TVs, all on, on different channels.
The bathroom, and one bedroom I saw, were just as full of “art”.
It was awe inspiring … but in such an uncomfortable way.
I went back outside, and Joe had arrived.
The interior of the Argosy was a deep sea green.
All of it.
Carpet, couch, blinds … it was like stepping into an aquarium that hadn’t been cleaned. The dinette (a “Convert-a-Lux” in the old promotional materials) was gone, replaced with a small rotating TV table, so the only bed was the convertible sofa. It wasn’t really big enough for me, but we’d made the trip, let the inspection continue.
I asked for the keys and Pam brought me four key chains, various sizes, saying “I’m not sure which of these go to it.”
About 40 keys in all. Maybe 6 of them, and a few duplicates, were actually for the Argosy.
It started up easy enough, the engine sounded strong.
Gas gauge barely above “E”.
I asked Pam if we could take it for a drive to Joe’s shop to complete the inspection. I also asked where the gas tank access was and said we’d put in gas and air in the tires. Pam said the tank’s on the other side, against the wall.
I said I’d go find it, and she gave me the strangest look and said “Well I can’t squeeze back there … I don’t see how you think you’re going to.”
Now I should tell you I’m 6 feet tall and weighed then about 210 lbs., but I knew I could squeeze behind the RV to find the gas tank. She didn’t seem to see that.
I’d asked Joe to drive till we got air in the tires as he’d had so much more experience. So we went to Joe’s shop and made a list of things that didn’t work. It wasn’t a short list.
I guess to Pam the RV was the interior. There weren’t any mechanical components. So it was completely restored as far as she was concerned.
We drove it back. I told her what we’d found wrong with it … she waved her hand in front of her face as if to say “Don’t bother me with these… these… details.” And I told her that the bed was barely long enough for my Mom, much less me.
Pam said “She’s not much taller than me.” Now let me tell you Mom is 5’10″ and slim … it was then that I figured it out.
She doesn’t know.
She doesn’t know the Argosy isn’t restored. She doesn’t know her house is full of junk, and she doesn’t know she’s not a slender young woman anymore.
I thanked her for her time and gave her a copy of my list of other Argosy’s for sale around the country, all priced between $6,500 and $10,000, and suggested she might want to consider dropping the price a bit.
We drove home, laughing at the absurdity of it all … and a little sad for Pam.
It was maybe three months later when the ad showed up again with new copy.
“Completely Restored. $11,500. I want it out of my driveway.”
~~ Kurt Vonnegut
(Here’s a photo of the St. Paul Bean)
Well, it was light colored.
In the time I spent shopping for a used RV one of the most interesting things I learned was that there seem to be two distinct groups of RV owners, those who don’t know anything about their coaches, and those who know everything. I looked at coaches that had the wrong length advertised, sometimes off by as much as 3 feet. I guess the owners believed what they’d been told when they bought them, and had never checked.
I saw Fords advertised as having 454 CI engines, and Chevy’s with 350s which they told me meant 350 horsepower.
I also loved the typos, at least I hope they were typos. “Winnebego Shifton”, “Dodge Exploder” and my favorite, a “Vague Classic”.
The other group is much more fun, every modification, every detail, every specification that can be known, is. Proud owners, reluctant sellers, finding it hard to part with their baby even though it’s time for a change.
I spent hours asking questions, and listening to lengthy answers regarding the histories, and not just of the coaches but of their owners. I found a few guys that felt just like a favorite uncle, or a crazy one. We discussed engine modifications, upkeep and maintenance. We talked about family, work, travel and life.
I saw RVs customized in ways that only a mother could love. One had removed his front passenger seat to hold his fishing gear. Another felt that storage was key and had added more shelves, drawers, cabinets and cubbyholes than I would have believed possible … it was like driving a giant spice rack. Others had ingenious solutions to electrical or plumbing problems and showed me the tricks that were peculiar to their coaches.
It was quite an education.
I was revising my likes and dislikes and getting more realistic about what I would eventually buy.
I still harbor dreams of a restored classic, a Rectrans Discoverer or an FMC, but I needed to find something that would suit my actual needs, not just my ego’s.
I also hit many used RV lots but I quickly found a common thread that did not sit well.
The first few times I heard “We don’t have any paperwork on this one” I didn’t think it was that odd … but it was all I ever heard. I know people keep receipts and a few of the coaches on the lots would have them. But you never knew what had been done, if anything, on the used rigs. This left me suspicious of the dealers.
I did keep looking at the lots though hoping to find that one gem in a pile of rubbish. I learned to take the published descriptions with a grain of salt. “Cozy” usually meant “watch your knees and head”, “Party Model” indicated a sofa removed in favor of a pair of wobbly chairs. “Most Popular, hard to find”, does this mean they made too many of them, or not enough? I could never tell.
I won’t forget one lot that had four ads running for rigs that might be suitable. There was a 21 foot Brougham that I could almost, but not quite, stand up in. A 20 foot Ford of some kind that had a shower cubicle with no fan, headroom or window, a potential mold and mildew nightmare. One had it’s roof AC and generator scavenged, and not with anything resembling surgical precision. And my final hope, the most expensive of the bunch that I had saved to look at last … partly because it was the biggest of the lot, and partly because of it’s description in the paper. It said “Very Clean” and “Light Colors.”
If you’ve spent any time shopping for a used RV you know that some of the interiors are, how do I say this, unique. Combinations of colors not seen elsewhere in nature. Design schemes, styles, and patterns of fabric not seen anywhere but RV’s, and possibly a patio furniture store stuck in a time warp or an episode of “The Twilight Zone”.
So when I saw “Light Colors” and “Very Clean,” I thought “Great, it’s beige … and without 12 years of ground in dirt”. What a shock when I stepped inside. It was clean, it was also six shades of pink, any one of which could have been described as “Pepto-Bismol,” but all subtly different. Pink carpet, formica, upholstery, wallpaper, bathroom fixtures, and mini-blinds.
So he hadn’t lied … it was light colored.