Tucked in the northern corner of Tennessee’s Hamilton County, north of Chattanooga, across the street from a picturesque white clapboard church on a country highway, sits Paul Darden’s Airstream RV restoration business.
The front lot gleams in the bright fall sun as a half dozen of the iconic silver jelly-bean-style travel trailers await some tender loving care, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
“People drive by, and they just have to stop and ask,” Darden said. “They see the trailers, and they want to know more.”
Until four years ago, Darden had little interest in Airstreams, which are known for their bright aluminum art deco-style exteriors. But then his wife acquired a 1973 18-foot Caravel Airstream.
It needed all sorts of work, but the Dardens imagined themselves hauling it across the country, experiencing the great outdoors while sleeping in a little piece of restored Americana.
“I had always liked fixing things,”Darden said. “I worked at an antiques shop as a teenager and I was buying, restoring and selling houses at the time.”
But just as soon as the Dardens had their Airstream restored to its original state, offers to buy the vehicle came flowing in, and a business was born.
“My wife made a lot of money on that,” Mr. Darden said. “And it was right around the time when house flipping was slowing down.”
So the Birchwood, Tenn., shop Darden had acquired as a real estate investment became a classic RV restoration enterprise. In the four years since he has refurbished two dozen classic RVs — most of the iconic Airstream variety.
Collecting the vehicles has grown in popularity mostly because of their storied link to the 1950s, when Americans popularized highway travel.
New Airstreams are among the more expensive travel trailers on the market, with a 23-foot model selling for about $60,000. Classic prices are significantly less than that, but collectors swear by their vehicles as fun investments. On ebay recently, classic Airstreams were selling for between $8,000 and $20,000.
On top of that monetary motivation to fix up the trailers, there is an entire culture of Airstream enthusiasts. RV parks that cater just to Airstreams dot maps. Two such parks are in Helen, Ga., and Crossville, Tenn.
Willa Davis is the winter host at Helen’s Top of Georgia Airstream Park. She has owned three Airstreams over the years.
“It’s all a matter of personal taste, but I just love the way Airstreams handle,” she said. “They are so aerodynamic and handle so well on the road.”
The Helen park hosts annual summer rallies that feature hundreds of Airstream lovers, she said.
BUILT TO LAST
Darden, who is a lover of antiques, said he prizes the vintage Airstreams for their unique interiors. He loves the old-style vehicles for their wood cabinets and walls, which he painstakingly refinishes.
It’s not a cheap venture. He charges $5,000 alone just to bring the exteriors of the bright-silver Airstreams to a mirror-like sheen. That doesn’t count the work many of the trailers require to fix rotted floors, bad plumbing and wiring, he said.
“But anything you put into these trailers is going to double in value,” he said. “You will get your money back if you sell it.”
David Hughes, director of boarding admissions at McCallie School, owns a 1990 25-foot Airstream he bought used.
“We bought ours in 1999 and have taken it all across the country,” he said. “It’s held its value remarkably well.”
Hughes said the vehicle has made two cross-country treks and goes to Florida twice a year.
The vehicles have held their value mostly because they were built so solidly, said Randy Shipp, a general manager at Camping World in East Ridge.
“It’s just like a classic car,” said Shipp, who said his RV dealership soon will sell Airstreams. “If you invest the time — and the key is the investment of time — you are going to have a really nice piece of restored American history that can be quite valuable.”
“We welcome this partnership and feel that the favorable pricing and unique designs of these units will be very enticing for campgrounds, RV parks and resorts as they continue to diversify their business base with rental accommodations,” said Linda Profaizer, ARVC’s president and CEO.
About one-third of the nation’s commercially owned campgrounds, RV parks and RV resorts offer rental units to accommodate families and other travelers who don’t have an RV, but want to enjoy the Great Outdoors – and the numbers are growing, according to the release.
Editor’s Note: The following story was posted on the Tin Can Tourists TCT Campfire blog at http://tincantourists.com/blog/?p=646 describing the recent Tin Can Tourists Rally in Nashville, Tenn.
The 2009 Nashville TCT Rally (Sep. 23-27) is now history. It was a very successful event, in spite of heavy rain that continued several days. There was a good mix of vintage and modern RVs: 1962 Airstream, 1976 Avion, 1976 GMC, 1977 Avion (2), 1978 Avion, 1979 Avion, 1985 Avion, 1988 Avion, 1989 Avion, 2004 Jayco, 2007 Casita, and 2007 Flagstaff. The group enjoyed lots of entertainment. Some attended the Grand Ole Opry, Country Music Star tour, Flea Market, Rivergate Mall shopping, Camping World, and almost everyone tasted the wine/cheese at the winery and heard Stu Phillips sing a medley of songs for us. Also, the BBQ dinner (with the Blue Grass Band) and a performance by Paul Hill were well attended. There were several walk-ins on Saturday to visit the RV open house. Almost everyone opened their RV for visitors.
Ronnie and Ann Mollere’s 1962 Airstream (shown above) was selected as the Most Impressive RV present. Rick and Angie’s 1976 GMC received lots of praise as the runner-up.
Needless to say, some new friendships were made. RVs came from Wisconsin, Ontario, Ohio, Missouri, Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Arkansas. Tentative plans were discussed for having a rally in Mississippi next year.
Thirteen RVs attended. Because of the forecast for heavy rain (which was accurate), a number of those pre-registered cancelled. It is believed that if the weather had been more favorable, more than 20 would have attended. It is understandable that those who primarily wanted to “show” their beautiful restored vintage RV chose not to come. Those folks who use their vintage RV regularly did come and received a great (free) wash job.
We know that Airstreams are all over the United States, but did you know they are quite the hit in Europe as well? Belrepayre Airstream & Retro Trailerpark, located in southern France, is an Airstream and retro campground with amazing views of the Pyrenees, according to the Airstream Inc. blog. Originally owned by two former circus performers, the park also offers rentals of nine authentic Airstreams. The park is fully-equipped and also includes the Apollo Lounge, a retro-style Airstream lounge bar (shown below).
Now you can have your Airstream fix even after you’ve crossed the ocean. Airstreams are manufactured in Jackson Center, Ohio, by Airstream Inc., a Thor Industries Inc. company.
Dale “Pee-Wee” Schwamborn was a 20-year-old college student when he led the way as an advance scout during the 1959 Airstream caravan from Cape Town, South Africa, to Cairo, Egypt, a trip that took about six months to complete.
Fifty years later, Schwamborn, a California native, was again at the front of the pack as a caravan of Airstreams made their way across the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge on Friday (Sept. 11) on their way in a tribute to the original trip, according to the Southeast Missourian, Cape Girardeau, Mo.
This time they were going from Cape Girardeau to Cairo, Ill., a 68-mile trek that falls considerably short of the more than 4,000 miles of the original journey, and there were only 17 recreational vehicles in the caravan compared to the 41 that made the Africa trip.
Still, the trip was special, Schwamborn said.
“I can’t think it went anything but great,” said Steve Burrows, an Airstream trailer owner and aficionado who planned and led the caravan.
Burrows got the idea to recreate the trip as a celebration of the 50th anniversary when he met Schwamborn at an Airstream event in Texas.
“I thought it was a really fun idea,” Schwamborn said.
Schwamborn’s mother, Helen Byam Schwamborn, founded the international Airstream club WBCCI. Her first cousin, Wally Byam, who died in 1962, founded Airstream.
Though Burrows said Friday’s caravan was “smooth sailing,” and credited Cape Girardeau and Cairo police with their assistance in making sure there were no problems, the Africa trip was not without obstacles.
Schwamborn recalls helping to dig caravans out of deep sand as they crossed the desert of the Sudan, and everyone lending a hand as they crossed quagmires in Ethiopia.
During Friday’s trip to and from Illinois, the caravan did earn some curious looks from passers-by, Burrows said.
Tina and Mike Nelson of St. Louis, new Airstream owners, made it to Cape Girardeau RV Park for Saturday’s two-hour open house,” an opportunity to meet other Airstream owners and talk.
The Nelsons purchased their first Airstream two months ago. Since then, they’ve been surprised by how helpful and close-knit the Airstream community is, Mike Nelson said.
“They’re just willing to share what they know,” Tina Nelson said.
“Airstreams are vintage, iconic, unique,” says Jody Aufrichtig, who spent months and millions to buy, import and renovate a small fleet of vintage Airstreams. The point? To put them on the roof of his four-star Cape Town, South Africa, hotel, the Grand Daddy, and create what he calls a Penthouse Trailer Park. Trashy? No way. Try flashy, notes Travel + Leisure magazine.
Airstream travel trailers, those iconic silver bullets, hit the road in the 1930s and quickly became design icons, cropping up in movies and fashion shoots as well as stylish front yards along the way. These days, the rolling slices of Americana seem more popular than ever. Google the word Airstream and you get nearly two million results-from YouTube videos of loving restorations to forums populated by thousands of rabid owners. The Airstream fan club also includes impressively high-voltage celebrities, like Tom Hanks, Sheryl Crow, Francis Ford Coppola and Johnny Depp.
Now hotels and motels around the world are adding Airstreams as a hip alternative to cookie-cutter rooms-as stand-alone hotels, as add-ons to existing inns, even as part of KOA (Kampgrounds of America) locations from Las Vegas to Maine. Style aside, features like multiple beds and fully equipped kitchens can also make Airstreams a cheaper option. Savvy travelers are fast becoming the newest Airstream aficionados.
One early-and enthusiastic-adopter of the trailer-hotel trend was The Shady Dell Trailer Court ($87 per night) in Bisbee, Ariz., which opened in 2007 with the slogan “Midcentury Modernism Is Alive and Well at the Shady Dell.” Currently the Dell has nine fully restored vintage aluminum travel trailers for rent, including a 21-foot 1949 Airstream that sleeps two .
The hyperefficient use of space (à la a Japanese capsule hotel) is partly what attracted an Asian wellness retreat in Santa Fe, N.M., to adopt the Airstream-as-hotel-room concept. Ten Thousand Waves ($99-$129, depending on the season) has a Silver Moon (a 2003 19-foot Airstream Bambi), which appeals to a broad range of travelers-from Airstream enthusiasts to guests looking for unique lodging. But it also rents for half the price of traditional accommodations, which is perhaps the real reason its Airstream had a 92 percent occupancy rate last year.
It’s style, however, that rules at the doo-wop-themed boutique hotel StarLux ($69-$233, depending on the season) in Wildwood, N.J. Wildwood is the doo-wop capital of the U.S., with more surviving examples of this classic ’50s-style design and architecture than anywhere else in the country), so it made sense for the StarLux to go retro and install two Airstreams. Each sleeps four and includes a kitchenette.
One of the latest hotels to offer an Airstream is the Lakedale Resort ($229 from May 1-October 31) on San Juan Island, Wash.. Inspired by all those celebrity Airstream enthusiasts, the resort added a fully restored 31-foot 1978 Airstream Sovereign to its existing roster of canvas cabins, campsites, lodge rooms, and log cabins. Snazzed up with Cuisinart kitchen appliances and Molton Brown bathroom amenities, it includes a private furnished lakeside deck.
The trend recently reached Europe as well with the opening of the Bel Repayre Airstream and Retro Trailer Park ($125-$167 for two people) in the Pyrenees foothills of southern France, near Mirepoix, featuring nine restored vintage Airstreams, all with kitchens and outdoor barbecues. The owners have even converted an Airstream into an outdoor bar.
But perhaps the world’s chicest Airstream installation is in Cape Town, South Africa. That’s where the four-star Grand Daddy Hotel ($117 per night) offers seven vintage Airstream travel trailers installed with landscaping (and even mailboxes) on the roof. Owner Jody Aufrichtig was inspired by the movie What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, in which Juliette Lewis’s character lives in an Airstream, and traveled to Ohio to purchase the trailers. Today, each “penthouse” has interiors customized by different artists .
While some hotels go for vintage or customized Airstream interiors, others prefer more modern designs that complement their locations. Hotel Airstream ($149-$179 per night) in Newport Beach, Calif., offers one 2006 26-foot Airstream International Ocean Breeze edition with a full kitchen. It can comfortably sleep four, and it comes with beach-inspired décor and colors that fit right in where it’s parked – on dunes overlooking the Pacific.
It’s the club’s 52nd annual convention, according to the Isthmus Daily Page, Madison.
Somewhere in the midst of the Airstream maze on Monday, Don McKelvay tidied up his trailer. He and his wife, Kathy, represent the northeast United States branch of the Wally Byam Caravan Club International. Together, they’re in charge of about 18 caravan units, each ranging from about 10 to 400 trailers. It’s a pretty big responsibility for a man who never thought he’d own a trailer, let alone an iconic Airstream.
“I had never intended on buying an Airstream,” says McKelvay.
Now, he couldn’t be happier. “The Cadillac of travel trailers,” he calls it, pointing to his collection of convention stickers on the trailer’s back window. His newest addition: a sticker with a red border and Wisconsin’s capital building.
In celebration of its 125th anniversary, Victorinox Swiss Army -makers of the Swiss Army Knife – has announced a partnership with Airstream Inc. to produce the first “Victorinox Special Edition Airstream” travel trailer.
These two iconic brands have created a 19-foot trailer, production of which will be limited to 125 units and which embodies their shared qualities and philosophies: precision, functionality, reliability and a classically elegant design, according to a press release.
“When you enter into the trailer, the design cohesion between the two brands is both intuitive and natural – it’s comfortable and truly defines a luxe camping experience,” said Scott Swaebe, director of visual merchandising for Victorinox Swiss Army.
Like the legendary Swiss Army Knife, the details of the trailer are precise and clean, the release stated. And to ensure consumers are fully equipped, a collection of Victorinox Swiss Army timepieces, kitchen cutlery, Swiss Army Knives and accessories are included with each trailer
“It’s rare to find another brand that so closely represents the Airstream values of outdoor adventure in style,” said Bob Wheeler, Airstream president and CEO. “Victorinox is clearly such a company and we were thrilled to collaborate on this very special travel trailer. Whether it’s a Swiss Army knife or an Airstream, it’s something you buy to last a lifetime.”
The specially numbered special edition units are available beginning June 15. The commemorative, serialized plaque bears the famous Swiss Army Knife cross and shield emblem. This special edition Airstream travel trailer will retail starting at $59,000 and will be available at participating Airstream dealerships nationwide. For more information, please visit www.airstream.com
2007 RVIA Spirit of America Award winner Matthew McConaughey (below) appeared on “Live With Regis and Kelly” April 29 to talk about the 7,300-mile, 42-day road trip he recently took with girlfriend Camila Alves and their 9-month-old son Levi in a travel trailer.
McConaughey, who for years has lived in his Airstream, is now reported to be building a house for his family. But the avid RVer told Regis and Kelly that even though he will soon be a homeowner, “I’m not giving up the trailer.” In fact, McConaughey is currently having two additional travel trailers built to add to his collection, according to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA).
When Regis Philbin teased McConaughey about mingling with other RVers at campgrounds, McConaughey said that his fellow RVers were more interested in the gadgets on his travel trailer than in his celebrity status.
In accepting RVIA’s Spirit of America award in 2007, McConaughey said, “My RV means freedom,” and discussed his love for the open road. Now that McConaughey is a father, Kelly Ripa asked how baby Levi handles being on the road. McConaughey reported that Levi is a good traveler, who “sleeps one full tank of gas, which is perfect.” Kelly said, “I’ve always dreamed of doing a trip like that with the kids.”
The edited video is available for viewing on YouTube and is also posted on Go RVing’s Facebook fan page.
Nearly 86 Airstream trailer owners camped out at the Boone County Fairgrounds near Columbia, Mo., as part of the Wally Byam Caravan Club International’s Region 8 rally. The gathering, which started April 29 and ended Sunday, drew Wally Byam members from Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas.
Wally Byam founded the Airstream company and designed the first trailers.
Activities featured an open house Saturday for the public and other rally attendees. The trailers were parked side by side in rows, so owners could go from trailer to trailer to compare notes and connect socially.
“If you didn’t have any in the beginning, you’ll develop some social skills,” Airstream owner Rachel Hughey said.
Some units looked modern while others had been restored to their original decor. The oldest model at the rally was from 1948. Many had flamingos, which like the iconic Airstream itself, are an integral part of Americana kitsch.
But it would be a mistake to think of the units, or “silver twinkies,” as Hughey likes to call them, as relics of the past. Hughey said most RV parks today are practically required to have Wi-Fi access and “the VAP,” or Vintage Airstream Podcast, a popular podcast that owners can tune in to about vintage trailers.
Hughey said that a new Airstream today can cost around $100,000 and that even in these times, Airstream Inc. does well financially, building on request. She said the company also makes UPS trucks and other vehicles if RV demand wavers. Hughey visited the company’s headquarters in Jackson Center, Ohio, and said that more than 60% of all Airstreams ever made are still on the road.
“They are very versatile, and that’s how Airstreamer people have to be,” she said. “If it doesn’t work, try something else.”
Some Airstream owners still work, but most couples are retired and have the freedom to travel. Most importantly, however, the passion for Airstream ownership must be shared. Hughey told a story about a man she met in Tennessee whose wife wasn’t into his RV devotion.
“She said, ‘You have to choose between me and the Airstream.’ And she’s gone!”