A little over two years ago (just before the pandemic hit and dealer inventory vanished) we were in the market for a new Airstream. We went to a couple of dealerships and browsed floor plans, and eventually fell in love with a 2020 Airstream Globetrotter 23FB.
There was only one problem: the Globetrotter had been damaged when someone from the dealership accidentally poked a hole in it with a forklift. This damage was neatly hidden with a potted plant, and revealed to me during the buying process.
At that point there was no option to find another identical Airstream. The pandemic rush had hit, and if we didn't take this Globetrotter we were going to have to wait many months for another one to be built.
"No problem," we were told. "We'll fix that right up before you take delivery." So we signed the contract, wrote a check for the deposit, and awaited our new Airstream.
Now, there are only two ways to repair this sort of damage: you can replace the damaged aluminum sheet, or cover it with a second identical sheet of aluminum. Either way, this requires drilling out the rivets and riveting in a new sheet of aluminum.
It's a big job, so repairers look for ways to cut the time involved. The easiest way is to use shave-head rivets instead of the factory-installed bucked (or "solid") rivets. You can read about the differences here. A shave-head rivet is also variously referred to as an Olympic rivet or a bulbing rivet. Most Airstreamers just call them Olympic rivets.
An Olympic/shave-head rivet looks like this before it's installed:
When you install it, the sliced part of the rivet billows out like petals of a flower (right to left in the picture below) ...
... until it looks like this on the inside:
And after the head has been trimmed or shaved, it looks like this on the outside (note the tell-tale circle in the center of each rivet):
Solid rivets are completely different. A solid rivet is a single piece that gets slightly squished during installation so that it tightly seals two sheets together. It looks like this before it's installed:
It takes two people to install a solid rivet, one person on the inside and another person on the outside.
That means the interior side of the aluminum sheet has to be accessible, which causes a lot of extra labor time to take out whatever furniture is in the way, plus drill out all the rivets on the interior aluminum skin. Olympic rivets save time because they can be installed entirely from the outside, eliminating all the interior work.
On an older trailer you might very well opt for the quicker Olympic rivet option. It ends up looking nearly the same and costs a lot less. The major downside is that the Olympic rivets aren't as strong. Practically speaking that may never matter, because they're "strong enough".
Still, a repair with Olympic rivets forever reveals that the trailer has been in an accident or perhaps had structural issues like a rotted floor. (That's because floor rot leads to added stress on the bucked rivets, and causes them to break.)
As a result, an Airstream with an Olympic rivet repair is generally worth a little less. Experienced eyes can always spot them from six feet away, because of those little circles in the middle of each rivet.
For my brand-spanking-new Airstream we wanted it to be repaired to exactly as the factory made it. This meant solid rivets, and consequently a couple thousand dollars more cost, which the dealership eventually paid for. Getting a "factory look" was important to us as new buyers, because we didn't want a future buyer to look at the tell-tale signs of a repair and de-value our trailer.
Should you be shopping for an Airstream, be aware that Olympic rivets on the outside always mean a repair has been done.
If you spot Olympic rivets:
- Ask what happened to necessitate the repair.
- Make sure the work was done professionally.
- If it was not done professionally, and it was the owner who put the rivets in, ask questions. If the repair was recent and there's any possibility of floor rot (on a pre-2021 trailer), consider that the rivets might break again because they're just masking a more important structural problem.
- If it's a newer trailer (model year say, within the last ten years), the repair is likely to reduce the value of the trailer. Take that into consideration if you're making an offer.