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Car critic's dream: trip to Yosemite -- in an Airstream

Category: Airstream
Source: Los Angeles Times
Publish Date: Thursday, August 28, 2008
Summary: It was an offer he couldn't refuse: the use of an Airstream for a week. Along the way, Dan Neil ponders the Zen of camping, the costs of Dr. McDreamy hipness and the future of the RV.

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Car critic's dream: trip to Yosemite -- in an Airstream

By Dan Neil, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

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 man audition with a gathering audience of seasoned and skeptical RVers shouting advice: "Cut the wheels to the left. . . . The other other left!"

But now the day is done. Roz and Viv (my 10-month-old twins) are finally 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.

BUMPS IN THE ROAD

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 motor coach gets around 6 miles per gallon.

There are other factors too: As it has 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 took it upon himself to redesign 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 Chief Executive Bob Wheeler says.

In what would have likely struck the company's founder -- the highly eccentric caravaner Wally Byam -- as a very odd turn of events, Airstream has become a hip luxury brand. Matthew McConaughey hip, Sean Penn hip, Dr. McDreamy hip.

THE RV WAY

If you ever go shopping for a recreational vehicle, you will hear the argument that -- compared with the cost of airline tickets and hotels -- RVs are a much 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?" asks 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, careful to swing wide to avoid curbing the trailer wheels. The Ford's V8 labors against the nearly 3 tons, but soon we're sailing along at an easy 65 mph. The Airstream tracks as smoothly as a phonograph needle.

Some observations from the road:

* There is something undeniably fun about hauling a house -- a very nice house -- behind you. We stop several times (diaper changes, feedings and the like). We simply step into the Airstream and, just like that, we're there. With an RV, the destination really is the journey.

* The engineering advantages of streamlining are as real and relevant as they were 76 years ago. An Airstream's ballistic contours mean it is more stable and takes less power to move it through the air, and that means better fuel economy -- 20% better, according to the company. In fact, a vehicle towing an Airstream trailer can have less aero resistance than the tow vehicle alone, like two "drafting" NASCAR racers. A check of the Ford's instant mileage gauge informs me that we're averaging 11.7 miles per gallon.

* In the RV world, an Airstream is the equivalent of a Lamborghini. Which is to say, not everyone celebrates your good fortune in having one. We pass several white-box RVs on the road and, though I expect a friendly, fellow-RVer wave, the drivers all seem to be scowling straight ahead.

A CHARGED NIGHT

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 as though 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. Newbie RVers: Don't take this task lightly.

I walk back to the trailer and throw the master switch. Nothing. No lights. No electricity. No water. (The pumps are electrical.) The batteries are dead. Tina gives me a withering look. Uh-oh.

I leap into action as only a husband who is really on the spot can. I grab some flashlights and start boiling bottled water to wash bottles and babies.

The next morning, I discover the problem. When the RV techs hooked up the trailer to the Ford, they neglected to install the relays in the truck's fuse box that allow the alternator to charge the trailer's batteries. I make a couple of phone calls, snap in the relays and, voilà, power. For a brief, shining moment, I am king of RVs.

Tina's appreciation of me goes up a notch.

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.) It occurs to me that the gallon-and-a-half shower I'm taking is what scrubbing up in water-starved California should be like for everybody.

The RV lifestyle is also, except for the 100-grand rig involved, very Zen. "You have to learn to edit your life down to the bare essentials," says Airstream Life editor Luhr, who has been "full-timing" in his Airstream for three years now. "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. Clearly, we have a lot to learn. After only 12 hours, the inside of our Airstream looks as though somebody threw a stick of dynamite into a Goodwill box.

LOYALISTS

Winnebago has its partisans and Monaco has its fans, but Airstream has a uniquely 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, if not actually on the road. Enthusiasts stage ambitious caravans. (Founder Byam himself thought nothing of setting off from Capetown to Cairo on an African caravan.) They keep track of one another 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 one another's driveways, a custom known as "courtesy parking." They band together in segregated "Airstream-only" RV parks. (Is that even legal?)

"Airstreamers don't consider themselves RVers," says Randy Bowman, an owner from San Diego who rolls up to us on his mountain bike. "They're a breed apart. It's a clique."

We meet some citizens of Airstream Nation in Yosemite. Michael and Tina Lambert of St. Thomas, Canada, hauled their vintage '71 International the length of old Route 66 before arriving at the park. He's a high school art teacher; she runs her own child-care center. And they are both mad for midcentury modern. The Lamberts gutted the trailer and rebuilt it in Atomic chic/kitsch: the swimming-pool-aqua upholstery, the martini-glass motifs, the Trader Vic's-style Polynesiana.

Michael Lambert first connected with Airstreams in 1969, during the Apollo 11 mission. "The astronauts were put into this thing and quarantined for 30 days," he says. "I thought they were made by NASA. I remember I was amazed when I found out you could buy one."

Like many hard-core Airstreamers, Lambert has taken an electric polisher to his trailer and arduously, over hundreds of hours, brought it to a mirror-bright luster. "The polish is the difference between an old trailer and an icon," he says with a laugh.

Maybe it's too bright? On this trip, the sunlight bouncing off the trailer burned a hole in a carpet he had put outside.

"I've noticed something about the aesthetics of these things," Lambert says. "When they're polished like this, they reflect back their surroundings so much that they actually seem to disappear into the scenery. No other RV does that."

Sure enough, when we step back, the Airstream seems to infiltrate itself into the backdrop like a Magritte painting.

RV FUTURE

After three days of camping, and some delicate proceedings at the park's "dump station" involving "black water," we head home. But before we do, we stop off for another $100 of gas.

How long can the Great American Road Trip survive? Obviously, there will always be people who can afford $300,000 motor coaches and $10 per-gallon fuel, when it inevitably reaches that point. But the average household income for RV buyers is only $68,000, according to the industry's own surveys. It seems certain that soaring fuel prices will eventually put this time-honored, middle-class pleasure out of reach of many.

And, indirectly, the cost of fuel threatens even the storied Airstream. When gas was cheap, big SUVs were hugely popular as first and second vehicles. A large segment of Americans had what Chief Executive Wheeler calls "accidental towing capacity." Which is to say people didn't have to buy a dedicated tow vehicle to go with their trailer.

But truck and SUV sales are plunging. And with dramatically tougher government requirements for fuel economy coming, automakers are getting out of the large truck and SUV business. It's an open question of what people will use to tow travel-trailers in 20 years.

"It's a huge issue for us," says Wheeler.

Airstreams, icons of the 20th century's open road, may find themselves marooned in driveways and parking lots in the 21st. By the time our daughters are grown, an Airstream may be as rare a sight on the road as a '57 Chevy or an Indian motorcycle is today.

But whenever they do see one, they're sure to stop and look. Just look.

dan.neil@latimes.com


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