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Editor’s Note: The following is an account of a recent RV trip by Dan Neil, Los Angeles Times auto critic. The author admits to being a purist when it comes to camping – tents are the only way to truly enjoy the outdoors. But he did find an affinity for his 26-foot Airstream trailer, and gained an appreciation for the cult-like following for the iconic RV.
Maybe it’s because I’m punchy. It’s been a trying day, 10 hours on the road. The babies got carsick in the mountains, and one threw up rather spectacularly. After arriving at Upper Pines campsite, I had to back the 26-foot Airstream trailer into a tight space between trees, in the dark, a nerve-racking audition with an audience of seasoned RVers shouting advice: “Cut the wheels to the left. The other left!”
But now the day is done. Roz and Viv (my 10-month-old twins) are asleep in the trailer and my wife, Tina, with them. I’m sitting at a picnic table in the sumptuous, high-corniced night of Yosemite Valley, drinking coffee, looking at the Airstream. Just looking.
The orange lick and leap of the campfire light pours off the polished aluminum skin like lava. The Airstream hovers; it glows. Why, Miss Watson, I never noticed before, but with your glasses off, you’re beautiful!
As I said, I’m punchy.
I’ve never been much interested in the recreational-vehicle lifestyle. You call this camping? Please. But I’ve always wanted an Airstream. Billed as the world’s oldest recreational-vehicle company — born in Los Angeles in 1932 but now in Jackson Center, Ohio — Airstream has had the rare good sense to keep its classic design classic. The riveted aluminum capsules of today are, aesthetically at least, not much different from the silvery streamliners of more than half a century ago.
An Airstream is a shiny telegraph from midcentury America, an object that reflects our grandparents’ restless, road-hungry energy. One Airstream — a 1960 Bambi model — made it all the way to the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. So when the company asked whether I’d like to borrow one of its trailers for a week, it felt like being asked whether I wanted to borrow the 20th Century Limited or the Chrysler Building. Oh, yeah.
The fire’s dying out now. Man, that sure is a pretty trailer.
The road ahead is rocky for America’s RV industry. Shipments are off by 17% for the first half of 2008 compared with the same period last year, and sales of the big class-A motor coaches are off more than 50%. It doesn’t help that gas and diesel are so expensive and that a big motorcoach gets about 6 miles per gallon.
There are other factors, too: As with the housing market, the tightening of credit is suffocating sales. Also, the decline in home values has shut off the flow of equity-rich RV buyers.
Airstream has been partly insulated from these forces. For one thing, the products are designer-label expensive — two to three times more costly per-foot than comparable trailers — so they play to a more affluent demographic. For another, the Airstream’s retro-Modernist style attracts buyers who would not otherwise consider an RV.
“People will buy an Airstream because it’s different, and they think they are different,” says Rich Luhr, editor of the enthusiast magazine Airstream Life. “They tend to be more artistic, a lot of teachers, a lot of small-business owners and entrepreneurs. They’re more design-oriented. They look at a white-box RV and say, ‘Ugh, I can’t be seen in that.’ ”
In the last decade, Airstream has focused on high-swank interiors and co-branding ventures with such companies as Design Within Reach and Quicksilver. The 26-footer we’re borrowing is a Christopher C. Deam edition. Deam, a San Francisco architect, loved Airstreams but hated their “grandmother’s kitchen” interiors. He redesigned the interior in a cool Scandinavian style. The company liked it so much, it hired him.
“All of these products have lowered our average age of buyer dramatically,” company CEO Bob Wheeler said.
In what would have likely struck the company’s founder — the highly eccentric caravaner Wally Byam — as an odd turn of events, Airstream has become a hip luxury brand.
If you ever go shopping for a recreational vehicle, you will hear the argument that RVs are a cheaper way to vacation. I’ve done a quick run of the numbers, and I think that’s crazy.
“You know what you’d spend for airline tickets to Europe or Hawaii and hotel rooms?” asked Fred Donson, a salesman at California RV — a plainly rhetorical question. Yes, but I won’t be taking an RV to Europe or Hawaii, will I?
The economics of RVing depend on lots of things: number of days of use, the monthly payments (the interest may be deductible as a second home), residual value, per-mile costs of operation and number of people in your family.
Whatever the ratios, they all look worse when you’re talking about an Airstream. The 26-foot rig the company is lending us costs $70,000; a white-box travel trailer would go for half that.
But it’s a stunner. When we pull into California RV, the Airstream is sitting in the sun, shining like a Lockheed P-38, a glittering lozenge attached to a Ford Expedition King Ranch edition (also not cheap, at $43,590).
The technician walks me through the trailer, explaining the technical mysteries.
Finally, we’re let loose. I pull onto Interstate 10, swinging wide to avoid curbing the trailer wheels. The Ford’s V8 labors against the nearly 3 tons, but soon we’re sailing along at 65 mph. The Airstream tracks as smoothly as a phonograph needle.
I admit it: I am relieved when I switch off the key of the Expedition, having negotiated the long, twisting road through the park and performed the minor miracle of parking in the dark. Not that the trailer was unmanageable. Most of the time, it didn’t even feel it was back there. It’s just that the potential for catastrophe is so much greater when you’re in command of a 6-ton combo measuring nearly 50 feet.
Our first morning in the trailer requires some consideration of resources. Like all RVs, the Airstream can be externally supplied with water and electricity. But Yosemite doesn’t have utility-equipped campsites, so we’re having to steward the 39 gallons of fresh water on board carefully. (A status panel tells you how much water you have left.)
The RV lifestyle is also very Zen. “You have to learn to edit your life down to the bare essentials,” said Airstream Life editor Luhr. “You just have to get rid of anything that is nonessential.”
This is acutely true in an Airstream. Because of the interior curvature imposed on them by the aerodynamic shape, the trailers are not particularly space-efficient. After only 12 hours, the inside of our Airstream looks as though somebody threw a stick of dynamite into a Goodwill box.
Winnebago has its partisans and Monaco has its fans, but Airstream has a rapt culture and society numbering in the tens of thousands. One reason is that, because of their aluminum monocoque construction, Airstreams can survive for decades.
The company estimates that more than 65% of all trailers made since 1936 are still in use. Enthusiasts stage ambitious caravans. They keep track of each other by way of large numbers painted on the trailers so that, whenever they see another Airstream on the road, they can look it up in the official registry.
They overnight in each other’s driveways, a custom known as “courtesy parking.” They band together in “Airstream-only” RV parks.
“Airstreamers don’t consider themselves RVers,” says Randy Bowman, an owner from San Diego. “They’re a breed apart. It’s a clique.”