Replacing a 1970s Front Curved Window in an Airstream



I recently had quite the experience with replacing a broken window in our 1976 Airstream Sovereign of the Road, so I thought I’d share a little about how that all went.

Firstly, only a few weeks after we’d had all of the windows tinted, this happened:

a broken front curved window on an Airstream
Busted window! Damn you rocks!

So naturally I turned to the AirForums, even though I’ve fallen out of love with that website due to forum moderators telling me I can’t link back to this here blog…but that’s irrelevant I suppose. The kind folks over there pointed me to Airstream Supply. They had a used version of the window for $140. I called on a Sunday, and someone answered the phone, amazingly!

They stated the window was in stock and could ship the next day. It actually took a few days for the window to be shipped, and then they shipped it to my billing address instead of the shipping address I’d received. This lead to the appointment with an installer, which had been setup by my insurance company, to be missed and lead to me installing the window myself.

The first thing I did, while waiting for all of this, was to just tape every inch of the window with packing tape. That and, I assume, the tinting material held it together for months of travel from central Texas all the way up to the Eastern Sierras of California.

masking tape holding a broken Airstream window together
Just take long strips of masking tape and cover the window in vertical, horizontal, and some diagonal strips for good measure.

The first thing I noticed was that some of the rivets had already been replaced, most of them on this window actually. You can tell the difference because the original rivets have no visible marks on the head of them, whereas replacements show a little circle that was filled in or shaved down in some way.

rivets on an Airstream window
Note the top three have small circles in the center of the rivet head, whereas the bottom one doesn’t. The top three are replacements.

The replacement rivets were slightly easier to remove, but all of them came out with little to no problems. I bought a nail punch and just popped a hole in the middle of them. For the replacement rivets, the nail punch would go in with just a tap, removing the circular middle area. The original ones required a bit more work to make a hole. The holes were so I could get a drill started in there.

a hammer, a nail punch, and rivets on an airstream. One has already had a hole punched in it.
Just place the nail punch on the head of the rivet and pop a hole in it.
original rivets with a perfectly smooth head
Here you can see more original rivets and how perfectly smooth they are.

Then I took my drill, and using a 5/32 bit, just started drilling out the rivets. This took the most time of anything on this project, but it was all done in under an hour or so. It didn’t matter that some of the rivet pieces fell back into the Airstream while I was doing this, as once the window is out you’ll have access to picking up all of the little pieces.

holes where the rivets used to be
Drill the rivets out and pull the remaining pieces out with pliers.

I then used a screwdriver to remove the sealant / caulking and pry the window away from the rest of the Airstream.

a hand prying the window away with a screwdriver

This is from the opposite side as I’d already removed it before I thought to take a picture, but there are two screws holding in a little thingamajig I assume was for a front awning (or maybe a rock guard?) This was a pain for me as the one on the streetside of my Sovereign was all stripped and busted up. If the screws had been in good shape it’d shortened up this project significantly.

two screws

The point of taking this off is to then be able to remove this strip of aluminum that holds the curved window to the main center one. I had to drill all around the broken screw on one of mine which ended up doing more damage than I’d hoped for.

big time damage just to get this thing off
Here’s what I ended up with after doing everything I could to remove the broken screws.

That strip wasn’t particularly easy to get off, either. You’re supposed to just slide it up and off, but that’s all theoretical. Forty years later, it wasn’t very eager to come off.

the strip referenced above
Here you can see the strip as I began to slide it up.

As I went to put the new window on, I noticed that the rivets didn’t line up. Not sure if this is because the rivets were just different from year to year, or if this actually helped since I was putting the window on with brand new rivets in smaller, tighter holes. Either way, the window ended up very secure to the rest of the Airstream’s aluminum.

The new rivet holes don't line up with the old ones. The new rivet holes don't line up with the old ones.

I then put two screws into the holes, one at the top right and one at the bottom right, just to hold the window in place while I put the new rivets back in.

I just bought a rivet gun from Ace Hardware, and the Olympic Rivets from Putting them in was a breeze. I found that, after you pulled the rivet gun tight and inserted them, you had two options when pulling away.

You could either let go of the rivet gun’s tension and leave the rivet’s extrusion in place. From there you could snap it off with pliers. This left a hole in the rivet which would need to be filled somehow if you wanted to come close to the original look. But if you don’t release the tension on the rivet gun and immediately turn the gun left and right or up and down, it’ll snap that extrusion more or less evenly with the head of the rivet.

You can then use a dremel (if you don’t want to shell out the $300+ for the shaver) to smooth these down. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about before I dremeled it, but showing the extrusion broken off but still somewhat inside of the rivet head.

the window with a single rivet put back in

So what went wrong?

Not much. The window has been in and working perfectly for a few weeks now. The strip that attached the curved side window back to the main center window wouldn’t go back on. I tried for hours but just managed to get it really stuck and it was nearly impossible to get back off. It’s not completely necessary though.

Other may want to add more insulation back into the window, but what was already in there looked fine to me, so I left it as is.

I attempted to tint the window myself, but that proved quite difficult given the curve of the window and my rookie nature. What may have cost a few hundred dollars to have someone install turned into a nice learning experience for myself.

This is not the first thing I’ve had to fix or repair in the Airstream. The water pump. The sewage pipe. The toilet. The fridge. Everything that involves propane. But it was by far the easiest of them all so far.