An Airstream for life

Last summer, when we were traveling through Minnesota we parked the Airstream overnight in front of a private home (by prior arrangement) and spent the evening meeting the owners over dinner on their patio.  The homeowner, who was a Mercedes Benz enthusiast, sniffed around our then-new GL320 and later mentioned casually that he himself would never buy a new car.

I was a little taken aback at his comment since he had a garage full of cars of various vintages, and others stored offsite.  But none of his cars were built in the last decade.  He went on to explain that his cars had been bought used, and maintained very well so that they were still in excellent running condition. His idea was that a good quality car should be a lifetime investment, but most people look at cars as temporary assets and tend to get rid of them just after they’ve slid down the steepest part of the depreciation curve.

Financially, his theory made some sense, if the car is of sufficient quality in the first place, the owner maintains it well, and there are no uncontrollable environmental factors such as road salt destroying the car despite the owner’s best efforts.  But those are big “gotchas” and most cars don’t qualify.  Many become “money pit” cars, extraordinarily expensive in their later years and which never again — despite massive infusions of cash — become as reliable as they were when they were new.  Others are just made to be disposable.

I purchased the Mercedes in a large part because I had hoped it would prove to be a lifetime car.  Certainly in the past the brand has proved to last for decades of service and hundreds of thousands of miles, but only time will tell if the current crop will hold up as well.  (If it doesn’t last for at least a decade and a quarter-million miles of towing, I’ve made a huge mistake.)

It occurred to me that we first got involved with Airstream for the same reason.  Certainly there were plenty of other brands that would cost half as much for the same amenities and size, but in Airstream we felt we could get a trailer that would last for decades and be worth the investment of maintenance  over time.  That was an easier choice, because our first Airstream, the 1968 Caravel, was 35 years old when we bought it.  It had already proven itself.

In fact, Airstreams have proven to be extraordinarily durable over the years.  It’s no big deal to go to a vintage Airstream rally and find dozens of trailers still on the road after four, five, even six decades of service.  That’s even more impressive because of the relatively low numbers that were made — the survival rate is probably quite a bit higher than any make of car.

(We’ve got an article coming up in the Summer 2010 issue of Airstream Life about a particular Airstream that was enjoyed by five generations of one family, and now has been donated back to the factory for its permanent collection. It’s a great story of a trailer that was loved by many people, but really, not terribly unusual in terms of longevity.)

I think any Airstream can be considered a “lifetime” purchase.  The big killers of Airstreams are accidents and water leaks.  You can’t do much about accidents, but leaks are often the direct result of owner neglect.  Just by keeping it dry inside, you can expect your Airstream to outlive you.  Parts are still readily available for trailers forty years old, so there’s no “planned obsolescence” with an Airstream.

With that viewpoint you can start to see how people justify the cost of an Airstream over another brand, despite the oft-heard rantings about cosmetic corrosion on the skin or quality issues. The issues and complaints associated with a less-than-perfect new trailer fall away after a few years of ownership and use.  The real payoff comes way down the road, when the white box alternative is falling apart and the Airstream is just getting seasoned.  Would you rather have a trailer that looks good and performs well for the first year, or the tenth year?

The key, of course, is maintenance.  People often ask us what full-timers should budget for maintenance and repairs per year.  Our experience was about $2,000 per year.  I think that’s not bad at all to keep a rolling home on the road for 365 days of use and 20,000 miles.  It’s less than I spent maintaining my previous stationary home.

We were and are always aggressive about maintenance.  Every year I had the trailer leak-tested.  We replaced or fixed anything that broke as soon as possible.  We reinforced those things that proved to be under-designed.  We inspected the less-accessible spots routinely (underbelly, under cabinets, inside storage compartments, etc.) just to see what might have gone wrong.  Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to travel trailers.  Serious users know this.  But a lot of people don’t want to spend a penny on fixing anything that’s not obviously broken, and the result is that they pay more later to fix what they neglected and/or end up with a trailer that isn’t worth keeping in a few years.

The result of diligence and appropriate investment speaks for itself. The 2005 Airstream Safari sits in our carport, absolutely 100% ready to go at any moment.  It needs nothing.  Four years and probably 80,000 miles of hard use later, everything works exactly as it did the day we bought it (better, in fact, thanks to some upgrades and tweaks).  I see no reason that it should deteriorate and be ready for “trade in” anytime.  We can keep it forever.

Now, to be entirely realistic, there will come a day when a major overhaul is needed.  I’m fine with that.  We may have missed a tiny leak which is slowly rotting the floor, or maybe the interior will just finally get shabby enough that we decide to do a makeover.  But when that day comes, the Airstream will be worth it.  It’s a lifetime trailer.  An heirloom to pass on, in good condition, to the next generation.

Will the Mercedes be towing the Airstream in ten years?  Twenty?  I hope so.  But if only one of them survives to see its third decade … well, I’m betting on the Airstream.