Bob Wheeler still gets the question sometimes when people find out he runs the company that builds those shiny aluminum campers: “Airstreams? They still make those?”
Not only are the retro-looking “silver bullet” travel-trailers still being built by hand at the same western Ohio site that has produced them for 60 years, but the company also can’t roll them out of there fast enough to meet the demand these days.
Inspired by airplane fuselages, the distinctive design hasn’t been tweaked much since the first Airstreams took to the open road in the 1930s on the way to becoming an American icon. The polished campers have appeared in Hollywood movies and even held the quarantined Apollo 11 astronauts when they got back from the moon. They have also inspired a legion of devotees who socialize with one another at Airstream caravans and rallies all over the world.
“Any time we’ve seen an Airstream, it’s like the clouds part and an angelic choir starts singing,” says Cliff Garinn, a 49-year-old college career counselor from Dallas. He and his husband bought a new one in April and are already trading up to a larger model for frequent weekend camping trips and summer vacation.
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Airstream builds 50 travel-trailers every week at the plant in Jackson Center, all gleaming and aerodynamic and riveted by hand. The backlog is about three months, and ground has already been broken on a major expansion at the factory north of Dayton that eventually will increase production capacity by 50 percent.
The RV industry was dealt a blow by the recession but has rebounded with gusto. Shipments in 2014 are expected to be up more than 8 percent following the best October in the industry in nearly 40 years.
Airstream – owned by the larger Indiana-based RV maker Thor Industries – is riding the wave, surging with three record years in a row. Wheeler says shipments now are about twice what they were during the best days before the recession.
Besides a better economy, Airstream is benefiting from a big bubble of baby boomers, who are forking over anywhere from $42,000 to $140,000 for their new Airstreams.
While the company is actively marketing to a younger demographic, baby boomers are the heart of the RV and Airstream market.
Meggin Hurlburt, a 34-year-old paralegal from San Diego, says the Airstream purchase was an investment in her family. She’s married with a 6-year-old son. She says the vintage look and the reputation for durability drew them in, even with the $70,000-plus price tag.
“We didn’t want to wait until we were retired, because we wanted to enjoy it now,” she says. “It’s not like the white box trailer that’s going to fall apart in 10 years. We bought this knowing we can give it to our son, and maybe he can give it to his children.”