The Modern Airstream

Courtesy Airstream

Symbols of the open road, Airstreams are classic Americana. Departures discovers how these icons are made.

Jackson Center, Ohio—There are 105,000 Airstreams in the world. The trailers, space-age cumuli of shiny aluminum, are everywhere. There’s a 1963 Airstream in the collection at the Museum of Modern Art. They’re retrofitted into food trucks, luring foodies from Seattle to Santa Monica. When the celebrity gravitational pull that kept Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston together dissolved, Mr. Pitt found solace in the womb of a vintage Airstream he nicknamed “The Luv Sub.” And new versions are still arriving, including a $74,000 collaboration with Eddie Bauer that will land in lots around the country this summer.

In the past few years, Airstreams have surfed the tide of American-heritage fever to gain new purchase with young pioneers and tastemakers. But no matter where they end up, Airstreams all begin in the one-stoplight town of Jackson Center, in a throwback factory where 199 workers still meticulously piece the trailers together by hand.

Airstreams come together slowly, in nearly the same way they have since the factory opened here in 1952. Embryonic trailers start as flat sheets of aluminum that, like automotive origami, are stretched and curved into the shell of a road-ready rolling suite that retails for around $35,000. The factory’s soundtrack is a greatest hits of fabrication: intermittent alarms, loud bursts of sawing and ratcheting and an occasional stereo blaring Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak’er.” Ron Ludwig, my guide during a recent visit, has been working in the factory for nearly 40 years. He points proudly to a pod of unfinished Airstreams patiently awaiting their finishing touches. I ask Ludwig if celebrities ever visit the factory. “Does Tom Smothers count?” he says.

Unlike most trailers—or, as Airstreamers uncharitably call them, SOBs (some other brands)—Airstreams are built from the outside-in rather than the inside-out. Two men, working in tandem, rivet .04-inch aluminum sheeting together over a skeletal steel assembly fixture that resembles the rib cage of a whale. The two men, an inside man and an outside man, move in wordless harmony. As Bob Wheeler, Airstream’s CEO, says, “There’s so much about building an Airstream trailer that’s in the heads of the people who build it. Most of it you just can’t translate on a blueprint.”

I watch as the final detailings are put on a rear door of an Eddie Bauer edition, a custom hatch large enough to accommodate mountain bikes and kayaks. The door alone takes 11 hours to build. But before each Airstream’s posh interior is fitted and it rolls off the line, the trailer disappears into a cloud of extra-viscous water, in a military spec room that’s been in use since the 1960s. The nozzles in this über car wash spray every angle of the trailer for 40 minutes to test its watertightness. By the time it hits the highway, an Airstream will be held together by 3,000 to 4,000 rivets and screws. If one of them allows a drip of water to enter, the trailer is recalled and fixed.

If Airstreams are built outside-in, so, too, are they designed by outsiders. Wally Byam, the founder of the company, was an eccentric, an inveterate wanderer whose trailer took its design cues not from cars but from the Chrysler Building. The company still listens to those outside Jackson Center: Six years ago, AC/DC lyricist Brian Johnson and his wife ordered a custom Airstream with an interior finished in the same aluminum as the exterior. It was a hit not only with Johnson but with workers on the factory floor as well. Now 70 percent of the trailers Airstream produces have exposed aluminum interiors. Likewise, at the 2000 International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York City, furniture designer Chris Deam showed a 1964 Bambi with an interior that ditched the traditional cabin-inspired vibe for a more modern, minimal look, full of black laminates, slick surfaces and primary colors. When Airstream execs learned of Deam’s one-off, they caught a glimpse of the company’s future and hired him. He’s still contracted to design future projects.

But much of the Airstream’s cachet lies in its connection to the past. As Jay Carroll, a photographer who recently hauled an Airstream down the California coastline and documented the project on his website, OneTripPass.com, says, “Once you’ve traveled in one, you see other Airstreams and wonder what’s behind the curtains. It’s the mystery of the road.”

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Likewise, the Airstream mothership in Jackson Center does not neglect ghosts of trailers past. Old models of many eras are revived at the service center in a building next to the main factory. A 1937 Clipper awaits a full restoration near a ’60s model with thousands of dollars’ worth of work already done. Even the most neglected shells that spent decades in underbrush are brought back to life.

As I leave the factory, I pass a couple heading out with their freshly resuscitated Airstream in tow. I turn left, heading east. They turn right, toward the west and points unknown.

Each of Airstream’s five models—International, Flying Cloud, Classic Limited, Sport and Eddie Bauer—is made by hand. Customization is available upon request. From $35,000; airstream.com.

A History of the Airstream

Since its founding in 1932, Airstream has been on the highway to becoming a U.S. icon. Fueled by brilliant marketing, striking design and constant re-invention, the history of Airstream is an object lesson in remaining relevant.

1959: Airstream founder Wally Byam takes his wife, Stella, and 41 Airstream trailers on an 18,000-mile journey from Cape Town to Cairo.

1969: Upon returning from the moon, the crew of Apollo II acclimate to Earth’s atmosphere in a custom Airstream. They are congratulated by President Nixon.

2000: Designer Chris Deam is hired to modernize the Airstream’s interior after presenting his own custom Bambi at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair. 2007 The Museum of Modern Art acquires a 1963 Bambi trailer for its permanent collection—joining a Ferrari Formula 1, a Jeep and a Beetle—as the seventh automotive design in the collection.

2010: After limited collaborations with Nissan (2005), Design Within Reach (2007) and Victorinox (2009), Airstream introduces the Eddie Bauer Airstream ($73,700), with a queen-sized bed, an extra-large hatch and, naturally, an Eddie Bauer goose-down duvet.