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Old 12-15-2009, 07:11 AM   #1
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What Were Airstream's 'Best Years?'

This is a thought piece.

As most of us know, Beatrice Foods Company Inc., (1894 - 1990) of Chicago Illinois acquired ownership of the Airstream company from Stella Byam and Wally's estate in late 1967. Those interested in learning more about this company and some of their business enterprises may refer to Beatrice Foods - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia for an excellent treatise on the subject, another good historical reference being Beatrice Historical Documents Home Page

It has been stated many times here, in books and elsewhere, that Beatrice's manufacturing processes and philosophy ran counter to those implemented by Wally Byam when he ran the business. As a result it has been alleged that the high standards of quality established by Wally for his products began to decline.

The "think piece" two-part question I am posing here is: Approximately when did Beatrice Food's cost-cutting policies begin to affect the quality of the Airstreams produced on their watch and in what manner.

Second Part: In 1978 Beatrice Foods sold Airstream to Thor Industries; a group made up of executive types from the RV manufacturing community. Did the quality of the product improve? If so when and how.

There is an incredible amount of experience and wisdom on this Forum and I am hoping that some historical answers and opinions may be obtained realtive to this subject. I look forward to reading your inpoot!

"I gots to know"!
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Old 12-15-2009, 07:47 AM   #2
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I don't necessarily agree Beatrice years ASs were lesser quality than preceeding years. What may be up for debate is were the changes made for a lighter trailer, cost or both. I have had 60s and 70s Airstreams and see the quality of construction as similar. The possible exception was a lighter frame which made units, especially longer units, prone to separation problems. I had frame problems on my 73 Sovereign but my 71 Tradewind is just fine. Call me crazy but I actually like the faux walnut furniture and no I don't like polyester leisure suits. Got rid of mine a few months ago.
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Old 12-15-2009, 09:14 AM   #3
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Smile Unbiased opinion

1967
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Old 12-15-2009, 10:36 AM   #4
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I suppose there aren't any production numbers available...? It would be interesting to see how many AS made per year over their history.
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Old 12-15-2009, 10:50 AM   #5
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best airstreams remade

"The second end operation." Most all familiar with manufacturing will recognize this phrase or something similar...what it means is a "thing" is made, but lacks sophistication or finishing. So off it goes to a "second-end". The absolute best airstreams made are those that have been re-shaped, remoulded, re-riveted, re-plumbed, etc, etc, by the loving tremendously talented craftsmen of this here forum. By far, there has never been an airstream mfg on an assy line that comes close to the beautiful rebuilds as shown here. If you are a newbie, looking for your first trailer, look for one for sale by one of the folks consistently on this forum. I always wanted an AS, got one, and then found this forum-reverse of the way it should have been.

For, me, I like the bigger frames of the late model trailers. I also like the wide bodies. But, don't care for the slides. So, for me Thor years win.
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Old 12-15-2009, 11:26 AM   #6
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2008 30' Slide.

A 5 ton work of art.

As form follows function--
beautiful lines, perfect proportions,
and built like a tank underneath it all.
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Old 12-15-2009, 12:16 PM   #7
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I too am prejudiced by my own experience. I have been inside everything from 1952 to 2008 Airstreams in just the last year and I am still most impressed by the '64 model year. It has the classic door-in-a-door and a real wood interior, the last of the Zolotone paint, I believe, and windows with decent operators.
I know this is prior to the years you referenced in the original post. I just chimed in here because I recognize the 1965 model year as the first step down in quality of materials what with the vinyl walls and cabinets, lots of plastic parts and the elimination of classic features like the door-in-a-door. I believe this was the start of a decline in material quality but not necessarily build-quality. That could be better answered by someone who has done extensive renovations on numerous different years. I did find that '64 was a year that Airstream offered a feature that many of us have been too familiar with: factory supplied, built-in rear end separation(at no extra cost!). So, I figure that by 1964 Airstream had already started to slip as far as "corporate memory" goes. Someone had forgotten to engineer some more bolts around the back when they added cutouts for a water heater and a large rear hatch, and nobody caught the mistake for how many years?

Thats the good and the bad of it. I'm sure there will be many more different opinoins to come, and I look forward to what everyones ideas are on this.

Good thread Mistermike!
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Old 12-15-2009, 02:24 PM   #8
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"Best" is a subjective term and the symantics alone could make this thread go on for ever. I agree that A/S that have been rebuilt or restored by their owners are probably better than what the factory built on an assembly line. Those trailers have had their shortcomings addressed and modifications made that suit the owners wants and needs. I like the luxury and high tech feel of the newer A/S. I also like the nostalgia of the older classics. I like my 1980 because it is lighter due to a smaller frame and light weight cabinets and bulkheads even though I know it is prone to sag and separation. A new 30' weighs 10,000 lbs my 1980 31' weighs 5,000 lbs but its been going down the road since June 1979 and it still works. The "Best" A/S for me is the one I own right now. Maybe the next best A/S will be the next A/S I buy if ever.
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Old 12-15-2009, 02:46 PM   #9
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Best year? It wasn't 1973. Way too much plastic, not enough steel in the frame. But we still love ours.

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Old 12-15-2009, 02:58 PM   #10
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Agreed. This thread could go on forever as everyone has their own opinion and their own basis for that opinion. Personally, I like the late 50s and early 60s for a number of reasons, some already stated above. I think A/S really got serious with their building when they were taking them on these long, often rugged, caravans. Wally was adding and improving the builds from being on these caravans and he witnessed first-hand how the pounding could shake a trailer apart. These build modifications and improvements followed through in both plants until after his death. By '63/'64, the factories started to introduce plastics in some of the latches, light lenses, etc. which for me, living in the desert, turn brittle over time and are next to impossible to replace with NOS or something that looks and functions as original.

Additionally, the interiors, at least mine, were appointed with a quality wood that added richness and a sense of sophistication to the interior and gave it an almost nautical feel. Adding to that fact is the distinction of being termed by Wally as a Land Yacht helped strengthen this quality.

Granted, this is my own opinion and I'm going to stick to it.

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Old 12-15-2009, 03:06 PM   #11
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Best Year

I'm not sure what what Viking is referring to. I have been restoring a 65 22' Safari and it has deluxe red mahogany cabinets with stainless steel hardware. It also has the Zolotone paint which was very dull and not very good looking. As far a the door-in-a-door goes I had that on my 66 Overlander and always felt it was a bit flimsy. I will attach a pic of the cabinets. This is a work in progress.
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Old 12-15-2009, 03:15 PM   #12
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Best...is difficult to define... and subjective at best.

A thing my be made with the best quality, and not be durable.
A thing may be durable, yet crude and primitive in design.

If by "Quality" you mean durable....then the number of units
still in use today will represent the age era you may be seeking.
Therefore, you may wish to look for numbers to indicate a date
range.

Back into your answer by observational conclusion.
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Old 12-15-2009, 03:37 PM   #13
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Why 1966 of course ; ) I agree with TKasten the real wood cabinetry is just not something that can be overlooked, I love the wood in our Lil' Tradewind ~ it glows.
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Old 03-11-2010, 08:11 AM   #14
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It seems to me that the path of Airstream over the years was largely similar to that in the broader industrial and manufacturing environment in the same era. The late 1960s was the beginning of a period of experimentation with new materials ranging from polystyrene latches to vinyl wallcoverings to polyester fabrics. The capabilities and limitations of these materials were poorly understood and, in the broader industry at large, it was not until the 1980s that we started to see a balance restored between plastics and natural materials.

When I look at RVs from any manufacturer from the 1970s, I don't find the decor to be appealing. It was an era of avocado shag carpeting, dark woodgrain laminate, and boxy shapes, and I don't find that to be an enduring style. They were even putting woodgrain vinyl on the outside of cars in those days.

Airstream pretty clearly moved on along with everyone else by the mid-1980s or so. Exactly when, I don't know.

Accordingly, I divide Airstream history into five eras:
- Prewar
- Golden era 1945-1968
- Transition to plastics 1969-1980
- Early postmodern 1980-1994
- Wide body current production 1995 onward
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