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.”