The Airstream: One sleek mod pod
The iconic aluminum trailers are back with a vengeance -- and road trips have never looked so good. Fortune's Sue Zesiger Callaway camps out in style.
(Fortune Magazine) -- I have long fantasized about owning an Airstream.
With a sunburst of rivets crowning the gleaming aluminum façade, it always seemed to be a distinctive paean to American craftsmanship, independence, and the open road. Founder Wally Byam's iconic travel trailer is a bit like Tiffany's little blue box: You immediately recognize it, it brings a smile to your face -- and you want to know what is inside.
When Byam introduced the first Airstream in 1931, it was as an innovative way to allow the average Joe to fulfill his dreams of discovery in relative comfort. Now the Ohio-made trailers are enjoying a newfound status: They have gone from cult classic among nomadic retirees to chic design statement for the affluent.
Sales doubled between 2003 and 2006, and 28% of the people who purchased an Airstream last year had never owned an RV before. Celebrities such as Tom Hanks, Matthew McConaughey, and Sandra Bullock use them as mobile dressing rooms; corporations turn them into clever brand experiences on wheels -- Pamela Anderson even transformed hers into a "Lovestream" (I'm not sure I want details). The moment was right to finally climb inside one myself.
The model I coveted, the 28-foot International Signature Series, wasn't available, so I settled for an equally long Ocean Breeze; borrowers can't be choosers. (Both are $73,000, nicely equipped.)
Instead of the SS's sleek, minimalist, bachelor-pad interior, mine offered a cheap 'n' cheerful Hawaiian Ikea-esque décor. There were some good touches: kaleidoscope aluminum walls in the kitchen, a flat-screen TV, handsome spotlights throughout.
And there were some less premium areas: white laminated cabinetry, bland flooring, utilitarian fabrics.
Still, Airstream had clearly gone to some trouble to offer unusual details: novel drawer pulls, tiki-inspired wall lights, bamboo-embedded plastic sliders. The sum of this uneven reality, however, was quickly threatening my dream: Was Airstream's only silver lining on the outside? But as the sun poured through the unit's panoramic windows, I felt bolstered by the promise of adventure.
All expeditions are, of course, exercises in the unexpected.
I found towing the trailer surprisingly easy; most large SUVs can be equipped to handle it. But how could we have known that of the two external valves marked "water inlet," only one actually filled the water tanks? The other, which we innocently hooked a hose to, created an interior tsunami that shot straight up through the toilet (an unlucky friend was standing there when it crested).
Okay, so a little wet carpet never stopped me. As night fell we hauled in load after load of essentials and then my two little ones. They were so excited to camp, and in such surprisingly spacious beds, that it took them hours to get to sleep.
Where were we, you ask? Why, in our driveway, of course. The only sensible place to do a dry -- or in this case wet -- run of the trailer before really hitting the highway.
About 1 A.M. I awoke, frozen, and realized another piece of vital instruction I hadn't gotten during the handoff was how to work the heating system. I fumbled with a flashlight and the outside gas tanks and finally figured it out.
The next morning, however, I learned that I had been too slow: My 2-year-old son, Walker, awoke with a nice head cold. The next blow: Our destination -- the dry lakebed of El Mirage to watch the last of the year's speed trials -- was shut down because of 35 mph winds.
Instead we braved the ten-mile drive to a waterside park in Newport Beach, Calif. And although a questionable interior aroma grew steadily stronger, the novelty of our temporary home, the gorgeous setting, and our sunset pizza party reignited my enthusiasm. We were in back-to-basics mode (albeit with lots of modern conveniences) and enjoying every simple minute of it. We even forgot to test the flat-screen TV.
After a few days the realities of life in the can eventually crept in (which would happen to me in anything short of a movable Four Seasons), and we ended our journey.
I realized that I had initially missed the real point: Airstreams are hot again because they are high-end folk art, sculptures that represent American pride and skill. In an age where people at the pointy end of the earning curve are starting to scale back on all that is big and wasteful, Airstreams are authentic statements about the simple life without sacrificing looks or comfort -- especially when you customize them.
To that point, 40% (and growing) of today's Airstream buyers are "design aficionados" who see Airstreams as cool retro collectibles. They use them in new ways, from mobile architecture and fashion statement to guest house. (Tony furniture supplier Design Within Reach now offers an incredibly chic 16-footer.)
I just hope that Airstream can bridge all its different customers and remain faithful to the details (bring back the sunburst!). As is true with many longtime brands, the loyalists have kept it alive -- but it is the new blood who will make or break the future.