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For Airstreamers, It's One Big 'Silver Family'

Category: RV News
Source: USA Today
Publish Date: Monday, July 2, 2007
Summary: Airstream RV's are 'hip' once again!

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By Craig Wilson, USA TODAY

J. Rick Cipot remembers the first time he saw an Airstream. He was just a boy.

"I didn't know what it was at the time," he says of the shiny silver trailer that resembles a giant toaster on wheels. "But I knew I wanted one."

Today he not only owns a shiny 2005 Airstream Safari, he attended a ceremony this year when a 1963 Airstream Bambi — a smaller version — was installed in the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Cipot took his obsession with the American icon to the next level last month when he and his fiancée, Sandi Gould, tied the knot at an Airstream rally that attracted dozens of members of the trailer-toting tribe.

Lest you think Cipot needs to get a life, Airstreamers quickly will tell you he has a life. A very good life. In fact, he's running with the in crowd. Airstream trailers, on the road since 1936, are as hot as, well, a cat on a tin roof.

Even though they cost an average of $50,000 and must be pulled by gas-guzzling cars and trucks, Airstreams are "so retro (they're) hip again," says Bob Wheeler, Airstream's CEO in Jackson Center, Ohio, the tiny town where 2,000 of the trailers are built each year.

Airstreams remain a high-end novelty in the recreational vehicle industry, where sales are increasing significantly: The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association projects that 8.5 million households will own RV trucks and trailers by 2010.

In 2005, 384,400 RVs were shipped, a 27-year high, up from 370,100 in 2004. Nearly one in 12 U.S. vehicle-owning households owns an RV, nearly 8 million households, a 15% increase over the past four years and a 58% gain since 1980.

Airstreams account for less than 1% of the RV market, but sales have doubled during the past five years, Wheeler says.

Who's buying? It's a who's who of the celebrity world.

Sandra Bullock, David Duchovny, Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt are all Airstreamers, as is Pamela Anderson, who unveiled her renovated trailer on Unique Whips on the Speed cable channel last week.

Anderson added a stripper pole, a circular vibrating bed, mirrors on the ceiling and white shag carpeting, but most prefer more traditional furnishings.

Musicians Rachel Fuller and Pete Townshend of The Who tour in an Airstream, Vice President Cheney uses one as an office on military transport planes, and Dr. Derek "McDreamy" Shepherd lives in one on Grey's Anatomy. Matthew McConaughey has three.

"I have a trailer in Texas, California and another one in Pittsburgh," McConaughey told USA TODAY. "We're finishing up the interior decoration. It's all good."

It's what's inside that counts

The Airstream's re-emergence in the public consciousness seems to reflect not just a renewed interest in its midcentury design but also the manufacturer's efforts to update the interiors so they appeal to a new generation of enthusiasts. For generations, the interior had a décor that was something on the order of your grandmother's kitchen.

In 2000, San Francisco architect Christopher Deam was recruited by Airstream to update furnishings; those with his sleek interiors now account for about 40% of the company's sales.

"His big focus was the interior had to deliver on the promise of the exterior," Wheeler says.

Deam, who collaborated with Design Within Reach, a modern furniture retailer, wanted to make the classic Airstream light and airy and "connect to the experience of travel instead of insulating you from it."

"I wanted people to know they were inside an Airstream. I stripped it back to the aluminum … to show off the craftsmanship," Deam says. "It bounces the light around, and it reflects the color of the environment you're in back into the trailer."

His newest creation, the snug 16-foot model, made its debut this month for $49,000, complete with fashion designer Paul Smith fabrics.

"To us, it's such an innovative design from 70 years ago that's still so relevant today. It resonates," says Carol Franksen, a Design Within Reason vice president. "The story and the craftsmanship behind it is what connects with people."

A bright and happy family

No one knows that better than those convening this week in Perry, Ga., at the 50th annual international rally of the Wally Byam Caravan Club. Byam is the man who introduced the Airstream Clipper in 1936, building his riveted aluminum body trailers using aircraft construction methods.

"The Airstream travel trailer has played a key role in America's growing love affair with recreation vehicles," says Gary LaBella of the RV association, which represents the $14.5-billion-a-year industry.

The association says those 18 to 34 represent the fastest-growing group of RV owners. Young enthusiasts are becoming a bigger part of the Airstream world, although Airstreamers say owners range from young families to retirees.

"Airstreaming is one of America's friendliest subcultures. It's the kindest cult I know," says Bruce Littlefield, author of Airstream Living.

"Once you own one, you're a member of a big silver family that's willing to tell you everything from how to back the monster up to where to find the best campgrounds in the country."

Sometimes even more.

Norman "Tex" Marler of Mont Vernon, N.H., attended the rally here and laughs when he talks about the community bonfires that are a nightly tradition.

"People will talk about anything around that campfire, and I mean anything," says Marler, a physicist. "It's family."

Titu Ahmed, a banker from North Smithfield, R.I., was standing by his 25-foot, $45,000 Safari before the Cipot-Gould wedding ceremony and says it doesn't make any difference who you are in the Airstream world.

"It's apolitical, a-religious and a-what you do for a living, if there is such a word."

Says Cipot of Bethel, Conn.: "We don't all agree about everything all the time, but we have more in common, and that includes our Airstreams."

They also share a certain quirkiness.

Cipot's wedding guests wore Hawaiian shirts, the bride walked on scattered silver rose pedals, a tortoise was the ring bearer and a pot-luck reception ended with an Airstream-themed wedding cake served on Airstream-themed plates. Gifts were wrapped in aluminum foil.

"When you get into Airstreaming, you become a bit obsessed," says Michelle Plunkett of New Boston, N.H., owner of the "Lunar Barbecue" plates that sport the image of an Airstream on the moon.

The dozen or so Airstreams at the rally were parked in a semicircle on the edge of a woods, most of them sporting flags flapping in the wind and the now-ubiquitous Airstream mascot, a pink flamingo.

"It's almost like you're looking at pioneer America," says Dave Mankus, owner of the Lake Forest RV resort where the rally was held. "They're celebrating that they made it over the mountain."

Many have been circling the wagons for years. Others are just beginning to "stream," and that includes Cipot's brother and best man.

Jody Cipot of New Milford, Conn., recently bought a very used 1960 Airstream at the urging of his brother, Rick, paying $3,500 for basically a shell. "I had to put another $3,500 in before we could even get it home," he says with a laugh.

But here it is, sitting next to the bride and groom's much shinier home, whose awning is draped with a garland of fake flowers, marking the honeymoon spot.

"It's my first rally, my first Airstream, my first big tow," he says.

Amanda Quaintance of Easton, Conn., Gould's oldest friend and maid of honor, says she's not a hard-core "Streamer" yet. This is her third rally. She and her husband have a blue 1978 Vintage Thunder, which they bought last summer on eBay.

Why? She confesses she fell for the design more than the lifestyle.

"I love the lines. It appeals to my senses. I think it's a beautiful piece of art. … I'm not one of them yet, but I've got the look in my eyes," she says, quickly breaking into song, playing off the classic Dixie Cups tune Chapel of Love:

Goin' to the rally

And we're gonna get married

Airstream veterans know it'll only get better for the newcomers, even though owners typically get only about 10 miles a gallon when pulling the icon.

Sue Paris of Tilton, N.H., still gets a thrill when she sees another Airstream coming down the road.

"It's one of you!" she says.

Airstreamers have cross-reference directories that tell them exactly who is in another trailer. A number printed above the trailer's front window is the key.

"You'll just be driving along and say, 'Oh, they're from Ohio,' " says Gene Girouard of Winchendon, Mass., president of the New England Unit, which sponsored the wedding rally.

"People will follow you right into the campground sometimes," Gould says. "They want to talk."

The trailers, meanwhile, have become so coveted that ownership has been contested in divorce disputes. They're also being stolen, as architect Deam's was recently in Sausalito, Calif.

Carol Schwartz of Old Lyme, Conn., Cipot's mother, took the wedding ceremony in stride, although she did mention that her 50-year-old son's first wedding was black-tie and held in an art gallery.

"I have to say it's really not my cup of tea, but I think it's terrific," she says.

And the mother of the bride, Joan Gould of Trumbull, Conn.? Did she expect to give her daughter away by walking her across the grass at an Airstream rally?

"She's always been a surprise," she says.


In the late 1920s, Wally Byam began by creating plans for building a trailer for under $100 and selling those plans for $5. He then began creating kits and moved to finishing trailers in aluminum.

The first Airstream, called the "Clipper" in 1936, was named after the first trans-Atlantic seaplane. It slept four, carried its own water supply, was fitted with electric lights and cost $1,200.

Aircraft construction methods help lessen wind resistance and improve the strength-to-weight ratio of the trailers.

Byam's ultimate goal was a self-propelled land yacht with a motorized portion that detached from the trailer like a dinghy.

Of more than 300 trailer builders in 1936, Airstream was the only one to survive the Depression.

The Airstream design and functionalism appealed to the principles of modern architecture and the streamlining craze of the 1930s.

Airstream production halted when World War II began because of gasoline rationing and difficulty in getting materials. It experienced a resurgence in the 1950s, its peak of popularity.

In the 1950s, Byam organized the Wally Byam Caravan Club International and began trips and rallies. Today the club holds nearly 1,500 rallies annually and has 10,000 members.

After Byam's death in 1962, the company was purchased by Beatrice Foods in 1967. The next 10 years were largely unsuccessful, and the company was resold in 1980 to Thor Industries, today's owners.

In 1964, the Around the World Caravan traveled 34,000 miles through Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand, India, Scandinavia and western Europe.

In 1969, the crew of Apollo 11 was quarantined in a modified Airstream trailer for three weeks upon return to determine whether they had brought back "lunar pathogens."

John F. Kennedy chose an Airstream trailer as his mobile campaign office.

In 2004, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie hauled a silver 25-foot CCD International Airstream trailer on their FOX reality show The Simple Life.

Some 65% (about 80,000) of Airstreams ever made are still on the road today.

Airstream produces four models: Safari, Safari Special Edition, International and Classic Limited, ranging in lengths from 16 to 34 feet.

Airstream sells trailers costing from $33,000 to $82,000 and motor homes that range from $70,000 to $247,800 for a Sky Deck. The Sky Deck includes a rooftop deck, wet bar and built-in propane grill.

Airstreams can be found in the Smithsonian Institution, the Henry Ford Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

- Clair Lorell

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