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How to Check for Failed Axle on Your Airstream

10.10.2019
Dmitri

Dedicated to Vintage Airstream Trailers and Airstream Owners

In 1960, Airstream switched over to using Torsion axles on all of their models instead of their leaf spring axles. They started with a welding method, which was used on smaller models, like the Bambi. Then in 1963, Airstream began to add stiffener plates to their chassis frames, and the axles were bolted on. This is the installation technique that has survived into the modern age and is the same one Airstream uses today.

What would happen if axle failure is ignored?

How would the lack of suspension start to affect your trailer's life?

A trailer on the road is like an object on a vibrating plate (a common manufacturing/production test). You can compare the bumps and jolts your trailer experiences on the road to a vibrating plate with its suspension turned off. The object on the plate would undergo extremely violent stress that would result in relatively fast disintegration. Similarly, you can translate this concept to an Airstream when axle failure has been ignored.

8 Things That Could Happen if you Don’t Replace your Axle:

  • Frame and Body separation: There is an opinion in the general Airstream community that frame separation mainly develops from leaky plumbing which results in a rotting floor and structural bolt corrosion. This is in most cases wrong. In most cases, frame separation is due to the stress from the constant vibration your trailer gets when you ride without suspension.

  • Rainwater inside your coach: is also caused by axle failure. The body rivets that hold all of the aluminum panels tight are stretching and are opening tiny spaces that allow water to get inside your coach.

  • Plumbing leak

  • Appliances failure

  • Furniture integrity failure

  • Tire wear

  • Towing vehicle suspension and tire wear

  • And finally, the most valuable of all - the safety of your family is compromised due to the instability of your trailer and not being able to react to road conditions.

Simple Test to Check for Body Frame Separation on an Airstream

  1. In order to understand if frame separation has occurred:

    1. stand at the back of your Airstream with one leg on the bumper, and push down hard (with all the force of your weight, don’t just try to stand on the bumper but actually push down on it) several times. It’s a pretty hard “push.” At the same time, be watching if there is a play (a separation) between the chassis frame and the body. In a sound trailer, the frame and the body should not have even a millimeter of space between them. 

    2. If ANY kind of movement exists between the frame and the body, then you know the structural bolts have given up and now the frame will start to sag down and develop a bigger and bigger gap with time (if not already). At the same time, the body, not having its necessary support, will start to change in shape (often not visible).

airstream separation frame line

  1. To detect severe damage caused by previously ignored axle failure and frame separation:

    1. With one eye open, stand along the side of your Airstream at the back corner of the trailer, and let your eye follow an imaginary line to the front of the trailer (you’re still standing at the back, just looking towards the front), and check for any “wave” on the lower side panel close to the wheel well. (Cracks of aluminum panel in the same area are another bad sign). 

    2. The wave is caused by that sagging effect of the body that is in turn caused by separation between body and frame. Can this problem be fixed? Sure. Stay tuned for an explanation in the next article.

wave effect on airstream

  1. The torsion angle can only be checked when:

    1.  one side of your Airstream is jacked and the wheel is not touching the ground. Check the image below:

torsion on airstream

Can you Replace and Airstream Axle by Yourself?

There are several factors you should consider besides the cost of hiring a professional shop. 

  1. Do you have a level spot where you can work?

    1. Jacking of the trailer must be done on a level surface with enough equipment preventing rolling and falling. I always use a double support at each point to prevent the blocks’ or jacks’ failure. 

    2. Think ahead. What is going to keep you out of harm’s way if one of the supports fail during this procedure?

  1. Cost of the equipment needed. Will cover this in an upcoming article.

  1. Your mechanical skills.

  1. Your physical condition should be considered as well. 

    1. Each axle is very heavy and it can be a challenge to handle, especially when you are under the trailer. Most of this challenge can be solved by using the correct (doesn’t have to be expensive) equipment that you can source in local stores. We will also cover this in the next article, so stay tuned!

All the best,

Dmitry