Building the Van

Some years ago Andrew Grevis-James, founder of Elephant Rock Street Foods, was holidaying in the USA travelling along Route 66. He stopped in the Mojave Desert, California to visit the iconic movie location the Bagdad Café. Behind the buildings, abandoned in the desert was the very much worse-for-wear 1950s vintage Airstream caravan used by Jack Palance in the 1987 film “Bagdad Cafe”. Being a professional photographer Andrew was immediately struck by the remarkable visual of the impact of this lonely van. On closer inspection he also became fascinated by the unique construction techniques.

Airstream in the Mojave Desert

After retiring his photographic business Andrew was looking for a new project. In a hazily remembered conversation with his mate Pete Buzac the two “boys” decided they were equally unemployable in the real world and should occupy themselves building an “Airstream replica” as a food van. Andrew’s interest in the iconic caravan had remained with him and the image of the Bagdad Café van was embedded.

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Andrew Grevis-James the man with a plan for a van!
Pete Buzac taking it seriously in his workshop gear.

The project got underway sometime in early 2015. Andrew found a photograph on eBay of the 1948 Airstream model on which he was interested in basing his design. Having a photographer’s trained eye he set to work nutting out the design concept. Andrew and Pete built this van from the wheels up!

Airstreams are semi monocoque constructions. Monocoque means ‘single shell’ in French, and is a construction technique that utilizes the external skin to support some or most of the load. This is as opposed to using an internal frame or chassis that is then covered with body panels. The curves of an Airstream give extra strength like an egg.

For ease of build and to allow more apertures for the food van this van has a steel frame.

It all started with a steel frame … and that was the easy part!

The cladding is aircraft grade, high tensile aluminium with a layer of pure aluminium on the outside to stop corrosion and to allow the surface to be polished to a high sheen. Interestingly the sheets of this material all have unique serial numbers allowing them to be identifiable in an aircraft accident. The early Airstream construction methods owe much to the aircraft industry of the day.

Andrew and Pete hard at work.

The rivets used are solid rivets like the ones used to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge only a lot smaller. It takes two people set each rivet. One in the van holding a lump of metal called a dolly and the other on the outside with a pneumatic rivet gun. With Andrew on the gun and Pete on the dolly over 5000 rivets went into the construction of the van.

Designer and builder Andrew Grevis-James was very pleased to see the van completed!

About a year after the project began Andrew and his partner Katie ended up travelling through blizzards across Nevada along Highway 50 the “Loneliest Highway in America” to Salt Lake City to buy the Airstream Andrew had seen on eBay from “Dmitri the mad Russian”. The van that inspired Andrew is a 1948 Wee Wind and is lined up to be the next project: a fabulous hilltop glamping site.

Andrew in Salt Lake City and Katie in California on a hectic 3000 mile, 10 day trip visiting Airstream suppliers, manufacturers and restorers.