The world on your doorstep
BY DEBRA D. BASS
Post-Dispatch Home Editor
Jack and Patty Canavera, of Fenton pose with their 2004 30ft Classic Slideout Airstream.
(STEPHANIE S. CORDLE)
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Few things encapsulate grand old Americana better than the shiny space-age Airstream trailer with something kitschy peeking from a rear window as it's pulled along an interstate highway in search of a vista.
While the hapless, temperamental socialites Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie tooled around America's heartland towing a new-fangled Airstream as a television-network executive's joke on "Simple Life 2," a faithful throng of Airstream fanatics (and fanatic might not be a strong enough word) are serious when it preaches the gospel of the Wally Byam. He invented the trailer affectionately called the "silver bullet," "baked potato" or "silver Twinkie" nearly 75 years ago.
The craze has been evident on scenic highways in California - the land of retro chic - for years, and the trend is slowly attracting followers throughout the Midwest. Airstream enthusiasm is highly contagious.
"There's a great feeling of freedom and comfort that comes with having your own things with you and your own bed that you can make any way you want to," said Patty Canavera of Fenton.
Her husband, Jack, says that they "evolved" to an Airstream. The Canaveras have been camping their entire married life, beginning with a honeymoon to the Lake of the Ozarks in a Volkswagen bus - and not a flower-child van with room for a double bed. Instead, they took out the middle seats and slept sideways with their knees bent. Gradually, the couple graduated to tents of increasing size and then to various pop-up campers.
Now, the Canaveras are the envy of most campgrounds with a 2004 Airstream Classic that retails for about $68,000. "It was like buying another house. In fact, it was more than our first house," Patty says. The trailer is actually twice the price of their first home. But the couple, married 33 years this month, have long since upgraded their nonmobile residence as well. Still Patty Canavera admits to a few comforts on the road that are better than home.
"I've got Corian countertops here (in the Airstream), but not in my house," Canavera said, rubbing a hand over the kitchen surface. The trailer also has amenities such as a cedar closet, phone jacks, satellite cable, deluxe climate control, storage galore and a dinette booth that mechanically slides out 3 or 4 feet beyond the hull of the trailer to make room for a living-room space big enough for a child's playpen, pets and space to maneuver around them.
If you're in the market for a vintage model, you don't have to go to the bank for a mortgage to have it.
Molly Butterworth and her husband, Ben, have bought four Airstreams in the past three years and spent less than $12,000 on the collection. The ambitious young duo sold one, a rare 1958
Overlander, before they could rehab it, but are fiercely committed to the others. They admit to being a bit overzealous on the last purchase. The Butterworths found the neglected trailer in Grubville in Jefferson County and bought it for $900, then sold it to someone with a bit more passion for the project. The lucky new owner later discovered more than $150 worth of silver certificates buried in the floorboards. It was most likely a stash from travelers using the vehicle during one of the popular Airstream Inc. overseas caravans, many of which were led by Byam.
"We now have a reputation for buying old trailers, but that's it. We now have so many that we have to refer to them by name," said MollyButterworth, who explained that the trailers are known as Large Marge (a 1971 International Sovereign
Land Yacht, 31 feet), Winifred (a 1964
Trade Wind, 24 feet) and little Eleanor (a 1949 Airstream Liner, 22 feet).
She spent about 160 hours stripping more than 40 years of oxidation from Winifred, polishing the trailer to a mirror finish, using a much-discussed Airstream enthusiast's recipe of polishers that are generally applied in four labor-intensive steps. She and her husband "fell in love" with the smaller, older trailers at a vintage Airstream rally in Estes Park, Colo., after they had already bought Large Marge for about $5,000. In an odd quirk of supply and demand, the smaller trailers are actually worth more than the roomier varieties because they are easier to tow and can offer just as many comforts.
"We kept buying the trailers because they are actually an investment. Unlike other trailers that keep depreciating, (some) Airstreams actually rise in value," Butterworth said.
It's not unusual for the smaller vintage trailers from select years to sell for more than twice the original selling price, and those aren't necessarily trailers in mint condition.
Ron Ulrich and his partner in business and life, Tony Call, spent $2,850 on a 22-foot, 1968
Safari Airstream that needed a lot of elbow grease to spruce up. The model probably sold for the same price brand new. And like the Butterworths, this couple quickly amassed a collection as well, but Ulrich and Call had different motives - they went into business.
"We decided that it was either really smart to start a business selling refurbished Airstreams before the trend hit St. Louis, or really dumb," Ulrich said. The two are now redesigning the interior of a 27-foot 1976 Overlander. It will be their first product under their new company, Tin Can Luv, and they hope to complete the daunting rehab work this month. Ulrich is riveting hundreds of studs into aluminum that will line all the interior walls, and Call is upholstering new retro-styled modern furniture to complement it.
"It's like a cult, and I'm glad I got into it before it was too popular," Ulrich says about being an Airstreamer. "I love my house, and I love my yard, but at least once a month I think I could sell everything and travel the country living out of my trailer. I love it that much."
He's not the only one. Buying an Airstream is a bit like gaining entry to a private society; computer chat rooms and frequent rallies are part of the culture. Wally Byam Caravan Club International (www.wbcci.org
) is 10,000 members strong, and the extremely social group holds nearly 1,500 rallies annually. It is the world's oldest recreational vehicle club, and it includes offspring associations for general and vintage Airstreamers (www.airstream.net
Ulrich said that visiting Airstreamers have recognized his trailer sitting on the street and left notes complimenting his rehab progress.
"California movie stars love them because it's the new hip thing, but people who know and love Airstreams love the quality and the community," said Bill Thomas, who owns the region's Airstream dealership in Wentzville (www.btcamper.com
). "Buying an Airstream is buying membership."
Some of the first Airstreams built with aircraft aluminum on a Model A Ford chassis in Byam's Los Angeles garage are still road-worthy, and some are still on the road. The Airstreams have been featured in museums and sold at Neiman Marcus, but some of the most coveted varieties are sitting undiscovered in barns along country roads.
"You can't go wrong with an Airstream," Butterworth said. "It won't go out of style. It will last forever, and if you can find one hidden somewhere, you can get something special for a really great price."
Timeline by dollars
1930s: Wally Byam develops plans to build a trailer for under $100 and sells the plans for $5.
1936: Byam's company, Airstream Trailer Co., introduces the "Clipper" with a futuristic riveted aluminum body that bears more in common with an aircraft than other trailers. The model features a dinette that converts to a bed, electric lights and an air-conditioning unit that operates on dry ice. Price: $1,200.
: A rare breed of 16-foot Airstreams rolls off assembly lines, with a price tag under $1,500. A neglected unit in need of rehab recently sold for about $4,000 at a local dealership.
: The most expensive model was a 30-foot Airstream, which sells for $9,000. Least expensive was the 1960s Caravel
, at $2,700; today it's worth about $5,000.
2004: Airstream Inc. sells trailers ranging from $33,000 to $82,000. Motor homes range from $70,000 to $247,800 for a Sky Deck, which has loads of amenities, including a terrace with a wet bar. A 25-foot Airstream International CCD model, which retails for $47,243, gets television exposure on the show "Simple Life 2."
July 4, 1896: Wally Byam is born in Baker, Ore.
1923: Byam graduates from Stanford University Law School and goes to work in advertising, not law. Soon after, he starts publishing various magazines, one of which caters to do-it-yourselfers. One of his do-it-yourself projects is a travel trailer (his first plans drew irate responses because they were impossible to execute, so he built a functional model and went into business).
1934: Byam coins the name "Airstream" because of his unit's aerodynamics.
1936: Airstream's first offering, the "Clipper," hits the road with a space-age shape and a shiny, riveted aluminum body.
Dec. 7, 1941: Airstream halts production after the Pearl Harbor attack and during World War II. Byam uses his aluminum fabricating skills by working in the aircraft industry.
Nov. 1, 1948
: Airstream is back up to full steam. A new facility in Van Nuys, Calif., deals with surging demand. Byam begins leading caravans to Canada, Europe, Central America and Mexico.
1952: Airstream opens its headquarters in Jackson Center, Ohio.
: Byam dies at the age of 66.
1964-65: "Around the World" Caravan travels 34,000 miles through Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand, India, Scandinavia and western Europe.
: Airstream is bought by Beatrice Foods. For the next 10 years the company suffers from some bad design choices and stops producing its line of smaller trailers.
1972: Airstream makes the diminutive Minuet series of trailers, which were 20 to 24 feet long. Usually known as Painted Airstreams, the models were unsuccessful and were soon discontinued.
1979: Airstream introduces its first motor home, and Thor Industries takes the reigns of Airstream.
1990s: The Airstream fifth-wheel trailer with a triple axle is introduced and quickly abandoned.
2001: Airstream introduces interiors designed by architect and designer Chris Deam. The resulting International CCD craft is selected for an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
2002: The Sky Deck motor home is equipped with an Airstream first - the industry's only rooftop deck, complete with cushioned seating for 8 to 12 people, automatic-rising safety rails, a king-sized sun lounger, a built-in propane barbecue grill, a built-in wet bar and yacht umbrellas.
June 2004: Debut of "Airstream Life" lifestyle magazine for Airstream lovers.
2004: Epiphone introduces the Airscreamer guitar endorsed by Airstream as a limited-edition model borrowing the form of the travel trailer. The $599 guitars are promoted by the Trailer Park Troubadours recording group.
Today: More than 60 percent of all Airstreams ever built - including some built from the original $5 plans - are still rolling down the highways. Wally Byam Caravan Club International, the world's oldest RV club, is 10,000 members strong and holds nearly 1,500 rallies annually.
2005: The company will celebrate its 75th anniversary. Stay tuned for the limited-edition anniversary model Airstream.
Reporter Debra D. Bass