The new Ford Focus you buy today doesn’t look much like a Model T Ford, and you wouldn’t confuse a 2010 Chevrolet Camaro with a 1916 Chevrolet Roadster. That’s because automobiles are restyled again and again, and so are most RVs.
But one RV company, founded in 1932, keeps turning out products that look a lot alike from year to year—at least on the outside. Airstream, which is by far the oldest RV brand, continually updates the interiors of its RVs to maintain its status as an upscale, cutting-edge brand, but has kept that same sleek aluminum exterior for more than 70 years.
Airstream didn’t invent the streamlined metal trailer. The most notable early example was created by William Hawley Bowlus, a major figure in the early days of aviation who supervised the construction of Charles Lindbergh’s plane, the Spirit of St. Louis. When the Bowlus-Teller Manufacturing Company ceased producing lightweight streamlined trailers in San Fernando, California, in the 1930s, Airstream founder Wally Byam bought the remaining stock and equipment and improved upon the Bowlus design.
Airstream president Bob Wheeler said the streamlined design has endured because it is “so clearly the perfect blend of form and function.”
While other manufacturers built similar trailers in the early years, Airstream made the aerodynamic silver bullet image its own with a skillful strategy. In the 1950s as Airstream was growing rapidly, Byam began organizing caravans of Airstreams to travel the world. He left his supervisors in charge of his factories while leading trips to Europe, Mexico, Central America, and, most famously, across thousands of miles on the continent of Africa from Capetown to Cairo.
Wheeler said those caravans were “brilliant marketing.” They generated so much publicity, with photos and film of a long line of Airstreams traveling over tough terrain, that the company is still benefiting today from those images and the impression they left of Airstreams as durable vehicles for fun and adventure.
The caravans made Airstream an iconic brand internationally, which is why Airstream has dealers today in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Germany and Sweden, and even ships to Japan from its factory in Jackson Center, Ohio.
The Airstream brand has maintained a devoted following, with products handed down from generation to generation. The company estimates that nearly 70 percent of the Airstreams ever built are still on the road.
The company’s growth has not been uninterrupted. It ceased business during World War II, and had some rocky times in the 1970s after Beatrice Foods, a conglomerate with many consumer brands, bought the company and, many people believe, let quality slip.
A turnaround began when Thor Industries acquired Airstream in 1980 in the first of a series of acquisitions that would make Thor the world’s largest RV manufacturer.
The challenges facing Airstream have been to maintain its classic image, continually add stylish high-end features and extend its appeal to new generations. All that, while the company continues to be guided by founder Wally Byam’s motto: “Let’s not make changes; let’s only make improvements.”
Over the years, the outer shape of Airstream trailers has changed very little. When the company did create a less expensive model with a more boxy shape 20 years ago, the design was panned by critics as “Squarestream” and didn’t last.
The classic look of the Airstream has always fascinated designers. In 1998, Ralph Lauren created a stir by buying four Airstreams, redesigning the interiors and auctioning them for charity. Lauren did that on his own, but the company itself has put an emphasis on cutting-edge design.
In 2001, Airstream turned to architect and designer Christopher Deam to create the interior for the Airstream Bambi and later teamed with Quiksilver, a surf and skateboard fashion trendsetter, and with Victorinox Swiss Army Knife to devise distinctive trailers tailored to those iconic brands. Deam’s design was so popular that he has continued to create interiors for Airstream models.
Like all RV manufacturers, Airstream has seen its business decline during the recession, but Wheeler said business is picking up.
Airstream produces travel trailers of varying lengths, including one that functions as a toy hauler. It has built large Class A motorhomes in the past and currently builds smaller, Class B motorhomes, which it calls touring coaches. Its Interstate model is built on a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter chassis, but it will soon add a new, more affordable model, called the Avenue, to be built on a Chevrolet platform.
No one knows when or if the RV market will return to the high sales levels of a few years ago, but as far as Airstream is concerned, Wheeler said, “We’re very bullish on the future.”