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things 17-18
spring 2004
a smoother pebble or a prettier shell
Vintage airstream advertisement
(more Airstream pictures)
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Tom Bentley
Roads to freedom




The Airstream Caravan
"Keep your eyes on the stars and the stars in your eyes...see if you can find out what's over the next hill, and the next one after that." Wally Byam

Depending on your perspective, it can be frightening or funny when things from the past come back into vogue. Witness bell-bottoms, tie-dye and Afros again in circulation: if you were there for their first go-round, avoiding a smirk at their renewed emergence is challenging. And as many Hollywood productions prove, the percentage of sequels that have anything over their celluloid forebears is slim. But there are items that can actually bear the weight of the term 'classic' on their shoulders without apology. One of those is the Airstream trailer.

There are certain shapes that beguile the eye, winning our affections in a swift, unconscious bond that escapes any internal editor. I realized this when I first took modest notice of Airstreams - seeing sunbeams gleam off an old champion I passed on the road, or catching a glimpse of a softly rotting silver soldier in the corner of some wrack-roofed shed. Their charm was tangible, an unconscious imprint as uncomplicated as nodding at a nice sunset. I noticed that charm with more acuity when my girlfriend bought a '66 Airstream off of eBay (oh brave new world!), with its silvery-egg shapeliness still evincing a tingle of approval every time I look at it in the yard.

That mating of the computer and the coach might hint that Airstreams are again mainstream: after all, eBay, with its access to Ming vases or Madonna videos, is truly the global bazaar. Since my sweetheart Alice impulsively hit the Bid button on our í66 Globetrotter Land Yacht, my accelerated education in all things Airstream has opened my eyes to Airstream ubiquity. Those eyes gravitate to every humbled, flat-tired, tucked-away coach I roll by on the road, and they lock on to the mirror-polished, upwardly mobile silver sleighs in parking lots or campgrounds. Iíve read pictorials in tony magazines showing splendidly refurbished coaches changed into swank poolside cabanas, and Iíve heard of Hollywood heavy hitters such as Sean Penn, Tom Hanks, Tim Burton and others who have transformed vintage trailers into glittering stainless-steel chambers of Bauhaus modernity, or painstakingly restored them to mimic a Ď50s diner, or made them into wall-to-wall, low-light, leopard-trimmed love dens.

Leopard-trimmed trailers are a far cry from what Wally Byam envisioned when he first began purveying do-it-yourself trailer-building kits through a magazine he published in the late 1920s and early 30s, perfecting the methods with trailers built - and sold - from his Los Angeles backyard. After his first plywood-based designs, he introduced aircraft construction methods into his efforts, slicing wind resistance from his trailers (and slicing buying resistance too: vacationing Americans were finding the road trip more and more to their liking).

His first riveted aluminum body in 1936 introduced the design basics of a legend, and a durable one at that: numbers are debatable, but some figures have 70,000 of approximately 100,000 Airstreams produced still on the road and rolling - including some from Byamís original five-dollar plans. And those roads havenít been restricted to the United States: Byam himself traveled all over the world in Airstreams - Iíve got a postcard set of Airstreams showing Byamís caravan at Egyptís Avenue of the Sphinxes and other shots of trailers and trailer rallies in Iran, Belgium, Italy, Mexico and Holland. Byam died in 1962, but his quote "It was impossible, so it took a little longer" has lived on. As has his trailer.

Seeing a stock, restored Airstream today evokes a wonderful sense of integrated duality: they have both a retro and a futuristic look, their aluminum, rust-proof skin and bullet shape looking backward and forward, past and future. And that time-traveling flavor is something you can taste on the Internet, where aficionados that once had to meet at mid-Western rallies now meet online to swap stories, pictures, polishing methods and parts. Visiting and participating in the online forums is instructive: thereís a neighborliness to it that you might think had disappeared in these days of robotic telemarketing pitches and road rage.

Iíve got all the handyman skills of a sack of flour, so trying to even assess whatís wrong with the balky plumbing in our Airstream has been a headscratcher. But any questions Iíve posted in the forums at airstreamcentral.com or airstreamforums.com have been answered with care, and the kind of solicitude expressed by a friend worried to hear that your long-time family schnauzer has a bad cough. There are people out there who care that a 35-year-old pressure-relief valve has given up the ghost, and theyíll tell you what to do about it. Or at least sympathize with you about its demise.

Of course, Airstreamers still do meet at rallies as well, though I donít know if the numbers are quite like the 3,400 trailers that showed up in Indiana for a famous 1990 rally, caught on a video titled Silver Palace available on the Internet. However, I know the enthusiasm is just as high as those numbers from reading about rallies past and rallies to come in The Vintage Airstream Club newsletter that we subscribe to. Every issue is an eclectic mix of Airstream lore, news, old photos, repair techniques and rally schedules. There was a vivid account of a 20-trailer trip through Belize in a recent newsletter.

Of course, I feel like a bit of a poseur when I scan such articles, or read online about the best towing methods or camping tips. Our Airstream has only moved about fifty feet in the three years weíve owned it, from its delivery spot on the driveway to its present ensconcement, resting in regal repose, surrounded by poppies and shaded by the apricot tree behind the garage. In the time weíve owned it, weíve never had a vehicle capable of towing it, though indeed we positioned my í72 Volvo P1800e in front of it for our Christmas card two holidays back, as though it were ready to roll. Itís one of the charms of old Airstream photos Iíve seen - so many show the trailers, some more than 30 feet in length, being towed by a big American sedan rather than a truck. Of course, itís been a while since Iíve owned one of those V8-engined chariots, so in the meantime, the Airstream is land-locked.

But thatís no so bad. I go out in the Airstream when I want to experience an alternate reality. Thereís something about those Atomic Age lamps, the eye-slashing orange-on-black-on brown upholstery, the amazing space utilizations and strange comforts of pull-out beds, tiny stoves and (almost-working) bath. No wonder Martha Stewart recently proclaimed (pre-indictment) that she had long wanted one. Martha probably would undoubtedly find something in aubergine and claret for the upholstery, however. At one point not long ago, the Neiman Marcus catalog offered an Airstream bedecked with antique rugs and a cloud-painted ceiling, all for the bargain price of $195,000.

No clouds cover our Globetrotterís ceiling, just the original riveted vinyl panels that are in remarkably good shape, testimony to the acclaimed quality of construction that has exemplified Airstream reflections since the companyís inception. The Airstream brand is now owned by Thor Industries, a large Ohio company that manufactures many recreational vehicles, though none of them quite have the cachet of Airstream. They build some boxy (and pricey) motorhomes under the Airstream name, but also produce a series of coaches that bear those appealing aluminum-clad monocoque bodies that harkens back to the golden era of Airstream. Golden they are: Wally Byam might wince - or grin - to see that even the diminutive Bambi starts out at $32,000 and moves up quickly from there.

But sweet as a new (or old - they are prized) Bambi might be, Iím happy to look out in the yard and see our old Globetrotter and its curved charms. Even old, dusty Airstreams can seem friendly, like an uncle or aunt youíd always liked and felt comfortable with. Or, perhaps more intimately, thereís something a little womb-like about them; they curl around you when youíre relaxing inside. And I can tell you from first-hand experience, theyíre as nice a place as any to smoke a cigar and listen to a mockingbird serenade. Heck, Iíve even got a small, rubber-tired reproduction from Pottery Barn sitting on my desk, for when I canít get out back to the real thing.

Airstreams have made their way through time, and gracefully too. U.S. astronaut John Glenn touched down from the skies in 1962, and was immediately carted off into quarantine in an Airstream. John F. Kennedy used one as a mobile office. They satisfied then, and they satisfy now. I like the conclusion of a declaration dubbed "Wally Byamís Creed," where Wally wrote from the heart about his invention and the spirit of travel: "To strive endlessly to stir the venturesome spirit that moves you to follow a rainbow to its end... and thus make your travel dreams come true."

My travel dreams are still sitting in the yard, but man, what a ride.

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Tom Bentley lives in the hinterlands of Watsonville, California, surrounded by strawberry fields and the occasional Airstream. He has run a writing and editing business out of his home for the past seven years, giving him ample time to vacuum. See his lurid website confessions at www.tombentley.com.
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things 17-18, Spring 2004

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