I was writing my Editor’s column for the upcoming issue of Airstream Life the other day, and part of it touched on the recent spread of Airstream’s product line. I’d like to expand on that here, because the space I allot for myself to bloviate in the printed magazine is very limited.
Once upon a time, and for several decades, Airstream meant aluminum travel trailers almost exclusively. There were a few experiments here and there with fiberglass (such as the “Wally Bee“) and with canned ham styling (the “Wally Byam Holiday” trailer), but otherwise Airstream stuck to what they knew. Even the painted Argosy trailer line in the 1970s was still mostly the same construction beneath.
The Airstream motorhomes of the 1970s were essentially trailer bodies laid atop commercial truck chassis. Even though the idea of an Airstream motorhome was initially unsettling to travel trailer purists, at least the final product resembled the beloved shape of the iconic Airstream trailer.
Sadly, things went downhill from there for a while. Airstream made a few stabs at expanding the product line in the 1980s and beyond, introducing creatively-challenged products such as the Legacy fifth-wheel series and white-box Land Yacht motorhomes, both of which were virtually indistinguishable from any other manufacturer’s if you removed the AIRSTREAM labeling. Those products might have been good for the bottom line at the time, but nobody remembers them fondly.
Around 2004-2005, when it became clear that the Class A motorhome business was dying, Airstream stopped producing white box motorhomes and began to try to think a little more out of the box—or perhaps “away from the box”. The first experiment was the Airstream Westfalia, a Mercedes Sprinter-based mini motorhome based on the popular James Cook sold in Europe. Airstream imported it and upfitted it to meet US standards starting in 2004.
I thought the Airstream Westfalia was a really cleverly-designed motorhome with a ton of potential, and so did Airstream leadership for a while. But dealers in the US didn’t seem to know how to sell it and Airstream buyers didn’t “get” it. At $85k or so (more than PleasureWay and RoadTrek competitors at the time) you’d want to really be convinced this was the right choice before buying. Only about 192 were imported before Airstream killed the product.
Then they tried the Basecamp, as a sort of rolling sporting goods hauler designed for Millennials and Gen-X’ers who hopefully would not care that it lacked a real kitchen, any sort of bathroom, and cost about $25k. Unfortunately, it turned out that the target market did care about those things. The optional Kelty tent for the rear didn’t save the original Basecamp from being compared to an expensive horse trailer.
Around the same time Airstream brought out the first Interstate motorhomes, based on the Mercedes Sprinter 2500 chassis. These Class B motorhomes were moderately successful as far as I know, but the real leap forward came a few years later when it was completely re-designed on the Sprinter 3500 chassis (dually rear wheels) and upgraded in just about every way possible.
Suddenly, Airstream couldn’t make enough of them, and even with the price rising from the $90k neighborhood to $150k+ over the past eight years, the Interstate has become the most popular diesel Class B motorhome on the market. For comparison, Airstream is selling this tight little 25-foot Class B for more than they had been selling their much-larger “white box” style Class A motorhomes in 2005!
In 2011 Airstream tried to dumb down the Interstate to attract a lower-budget audience by building it on a Chevy gas van platform. The short-lived Airstream Avenue was the result. It was a “me too” product: looked like everyone else’s B-van and didn’t have the elite Mercedes diesel drivetrain. There’s a good reason you’ve probably never seen one on the road. It bombed.
I think at this point the light went on for Airstream management. If making the Interstate better was the secret to success, maybe the earlier failures were not because they were too expensive relative to the competition—but not expensive enough! People didn’t want cheap Airstreams, they wanted better ones.
In that context it’s not surprising that the Basecamp eventually came back with a full kitchen, full (wet) bathroom, and lots of clever innovations that transformed it from a essentially empty shell to a functional travel trailer, without compromising the sporty aspect. It’s more expensive than the original design. And now they sell.
Well, since Airstream has cracked the code and the economy has been humming well for the past couple of years, Airstream’s new problem is keeping up with demand. Their response has been to come up with more cool ways to go traveling. For example they bought the design of the fiberglass Nest trailer invented by Robert Johans and will be producing that later this year.
The upcoming Winter 2017 issue of Airstream Life will have an in-depth interview with Airstream senior managers that reveals why they bought Nest, what they’re thinking, and how it will fit into the Airstream family.
The other news this month has been that Airstream is launching yet another new product, a Class C motorhome called “Atlas”. It’s also based on the Mercedes Sprinter 3500, but it’s much larger than the Interstate and priced at over $200k. (We’ll take a close look at Atlas in the Spring 2018 issue of Airstream Life.) This means Airstream will soon be selling five separate lines: Atlas, Nest, Base Camp, Interstate, and the classic aluminum travel trailers.
People often ask me if Airstream is just cannibalizing its own products. Well, of course they are smarter than that. If the Base Camp was eating into sales of the Airstream Sport 16 and 22-foot travel trailers (which are priced slightly higher), they would have noticed and done something about it. But so far every new product they’ve launched in recent years has found a new audience, expanding Airstream’s customer base. Atlas and Nest are expected to do the same.
This all sounds great for Airstream, and great for all those people who are now going to get an Airstream (Nest, Atlas, Basecamp) who would otherwise have not bought an aluminum travel trailer. But did Airstream think about my needs? Noooooooo.
See, I’ve always had a big challenge in publishing Airstream Life magazine: unifying the community. When I started the magazine in 2004, the hard part was trying to come up with articles that appealed to the vintage trailer owners (of which there are many) and the new trailer owners, plus a small contingent of motorhome owners. Hardly a month went by that I didn’t get a letter from someone griping that “The magazine has too many articles about [insert subject other people care about] and not enough articles about [insert name of letter-writer’s own trailer].”
I still get those letters from time to time. In fact last week someone wrote a lengthy note with their non-renewal, listing all the article categories that they didn’t like as well as a helpful list of the exact articles they’d like to see in the future. The letter concluded by saying that only if I complied would they consider mailing me $24 for a year’s subscription in the future.
(Sadly, it is my policy not to negotiate with hostage-takers. The $24 will have to be sacrificed.)
I try to explain to people that Airstream Life is not about the trailers. It was never about the trailers, or the motorhomes. It’s about the other things that Airstreamers are interested in: community, history, art & design, technology, destinations, etc. Sure, we talk about trailers and motorhomes, but if you look at any issue you’ll see that most articles are agnostic, talking about great adventures or ideas. Whether those things happened in a trailer or motorhome, vintage or new, it doesn’t matter. At least, that’s what I hope.
So in this respect I try to be a Great Unifier. Or to be more accurate, I try to help keep the Airstream community from fracturing. I’ll keep touting the message that no matter which Airstream you own, you’re a part of Airstream Life. Special interest groups within the Airstream community are cool, but in the end we’re all people united by a common love of travel, adventure, learning, socializing and —well, to be honest—eating.