Though these glinting gray whales of the highway have been manufactured in the US since the 1930s, Airstreams are selling at record numbers, with the company reporting a 50% increase in revenue for fiscal year 2014. And while Bob Wheeler, Airstream president and chief executive officer, attributes the growth to such factors as an expanded dealer network, accelerated marketing efforts and product consistency, it is the Airstream trailer’s fervent fans – along with a zeitgeist-y embrace of retro kitsch – that largely underpin the renaissance.
“I just had to have it,” says Kate Pierson, front-woman of the US band The B-52’s. Pierson operates Kate’s Lazy Desert in Landers, California, an Airstream hotel consisting of six little love shacks on wheels. The business was born when Pierson, driving down the road, screeched to a halt in front of an old Airstream for sale.
“It really symbolised that mid-century optimism of hitting the road,” says Pierson, who also operates a resort and lodge in the Catskills mountains of New York. “It’s something that is retro and nostalgic but very forward-thinking at the same time, which is pretty much the same thing that people loved about The B-52’s.”
The vintage vehicles evoke comfort in an increasingly troubled world, she added. They are a place for reconnecting with the simple pleasures of board games, staring at the night sky and enjoying a terrific conversation.
Airstream aesthetics contribute massively to the vehicles’ appeal. While some recreational vehicles are boxy and clumsy, the Airstream – despite having no motive power of its own – appears nimble. It is aerodynamic. The flanks are rounded and alluring, and the aluminium skin is fastened with precise rows of rivets. The overall effect is that of a silver bullet, designed to slice through lazy plains and tangled ribbons of road alike.
Timeless styling partly explains why travellers will encounter Airstreams all over the world, from the creosote-dotted deserts of the American southwest to the clattering streets of Bangkok, with ever-increasing frequency. Though dealerships have existed in Europe for several years, Airstream showrooms have opened recently in Australia, South Korea, China and Thailand.
“Regardless of culture, there’s some segment of the subculture that knows about Airstream, and that transcends borders,” company executive Wheeler says. “You meet an Airstream enthusiast in China, and even if they don’t speak the same language, they will still have the same gleam in their eye.”
The manufacturer has outlasted many other recreational vehicle companies in the US partly because the brand sells a way of life, not just a product. That is appealing to international consumers, according to Rich Luhr, editor of Airstream Life magazine.
“It’s like a pair of Levi’s blue jeans or a bottle of Coca-Cola. The Airstream represents freedom,” Luhr says. “There’s no question that the Airstream evokes adventure and a sense of opportunity.”
The company is also reaching new audiences via social media, where Airstream owners (called ‘Streamers), and Airstream wannabes (Dreamers), share stories and photos of travel-trailer life using the hashtag #LiveRiveted.
To meet demand, the company recently announced a $5.9m, 94,000sq-ft expansion to its existing 134,000sq-ft travel-trailer plant in Jackson Center, Ohio. Airstream produces 50 travel trailers per week, but after the expansion is completed in May 2015, the facility will have the capacity to produce 75 in that period.
The goal, Wheeler said, is to cultivate a new fan base rather than create repeat customers.
“The longevity of our products is a blessing and a curse,” Wheeler said. “A certain kind of buyer has a respect for things that can last forever, for things that they can use throughout their lives and then give to their kids.”
For those not ready to commit to a purchase, an Airstream fix can still be had for a night or two. The Grand Daddy Hotel in Cape Town, South Africa, has a rooftop Airstream park, while Belrepayre Airstream and Retro Trailer Park, snuggled in the foothills of the French Pyrénées, has several trailers for rent.
“There’s nothing like being in this funky silver canister in the middle of nowhere, watching the stars come out,” said musician-hotelier Pierson. “It’s not just taking a trip. It’s like being on another planet.”
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