An American icon: a 1954 Airstream Flying Cloud.

Airstreams and the Cult of the Camper

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When you have an Airstream trailer, it’s not just about camping, it’s about the singular freedom of having “home” anywhere you park it.

An American icon: a 1954 Airstream Flying Cloud.
An American icon: a 1954 Airstream Flying Cloud.

Some do it in trailers, some in teepees; others go “glamping” in luxury tents. The purists insist on just a sleeping bag under the stars. Others do it in massive RVs, pickup truck shells or tarps nailed between trees. But regardless of the campers’ individual style, they all share a gypsy-like wanderlust that thrives on the ability to pack up, move on and head off down the road — to see whatever view waits around the bend. In their minds, it’s the best way to experience life and beats four walls built on a foundation any day of the week.

They share a singular spirit for adventure, nature and making new friends with people who share their desire to detach from conventional brick and mortar and roll on wheels until they make camp for the night or an entire season. One day they’re living on the beach, the next day on the lip of the Grand Canyon — maybe another day they’re sleeping next to a cornfield. Whatever the place, they never have to worry about hotel reservations. Everything they need is in their backpack, the trunk of their car or in something more expansive yet still mobile, like a gleaming Airstream trailer, a mini-house on wheels and the hippest way to go camping.

Matthew Hoffman, single and living in Santa Barbara, standing next to his first Airstream trailer, a 1978 model he remodeled and refurbished after finding it on Craigslist.
Matthew Hoffman, single and living in Santa Barbara, standing next
to his first Airstream trailer, a 1978 model he remodeled
and refurbished after finding it on Craigslist.

Sometimes referred to as a “silver bullet,” the Airstream has achieved iconic status as an object of American functional art. These beauties, unlike clunky RVs, are known for their aerodynamic design and lightweight construction of mirrored aluminum skin. Suggesting an airliner sans wings, an Airstream trailer offers mobility along with amenities sweet enough to convert even staunch anti-campers into making an Airstream their favorite home away from home.

Matthew Hoffman, 29, a single architect living in Santa Barbara, has made an Airstream his only home. He describes himself as one of those camper types who, as a kid, enjoyed traveling in his family’s 16-foot Shasta trailer — mostly on adventures to Death Valley, Big Sur and other places on the California coast.

His found his first Airstream, a 1978 model that was in desperate need of renovation, on Craigslist. At the time, he was completing his architect training and bought the dilapidated Airstream trailer for $3,000. In his spare time, he completely refurbished it with about $7,000 in materials, and upon completion, moved it to a lot in Santa Barbara and made it his full-time home and office. The cost per month for rent and utilities was just $400.

One of Hoffman’s remodels: a 1947 Curtis Wright, post-WWII Airstream.
One of Hoffman’s remodels: a 1947 Curtis Wright, post-WWII Airstream.

Hoffman says it wasn’t an accident that he selected an Airstream. “There’s an iconography with them, and longevity of the brand. Nothing surpasses it. It’s a testament to quality with a bit of American heritage to boot.”

As evidence that Airstreams can be habit-forming, these days Hoffman owns 20, and most of his architect business is devoted to rebuilding and refurbishing the sleek vehicles. He’s even taken his devotion to the brand a step further and, in December, plans to open an Airstream motel in Santa Barbara where guests can have their choice of staying in one of four renovated silver beauties.

His original Airstream, the one that started it all, was sold to a retired NFL football player; these days, Hoffman lives in a revamped Airstream RV — which still also serves as his office — where he continues to focus on his passion: renovating, rebuilding, reselling and spreading the gospel of these American icons. (Click here to see the vintage Airstreams that Hoffman currently has in his inventory: http://www.hofarc.com/forsale/)

Wally Byam, who founded Airstream 75 years ago, described his business as “selling a way of life,” and indeed, hundreds of thousands of “Airstreamers” have subscribed to the concept — forming a cult within a cult of fellow gypsies that consider an Airstream trailer to be the coolest way to roll down the road.

An early Airstream promotional photo demonstrates the light weight of the trailer.
An early Airstream promotional photo demonstrates the light weight of the trailer.

The concept of creating his own brand of trailers was born in the Airstream founder’s love of camping — something not shared by his wife, who complained about the rigors of staying in a tent. Trying to find a compromise, Byam was inspired to build a self-contained house on wheels. He purchased a Model T chassis and built a tent on the platform. That still didn’t please his wife, so he went a step further and built a teardrop-shaped shell on the platform that included an ice chest and a kerosene stove. When Byam and his wife took it on a camping trip, it got so much attention Byam began to think that making them would be a profitable business.

He wrote a story for Popular Mechanics titled, “How to Build a Trailer for One Hundred Dollars” and sold the plans for $1 each, earning $15,000 in a few months. Encouraged, Byam opened a small trailer factory on Motor Avenue in Culver City in 1931. Riding in on the Depression; he christened his tent on wheels Airstreams, because they cruised down the road “like a stream of air.”

A 2012 Eddie Bauer Airstream features a rear hatchback that opens to allow for easy loading of bikes, kayaks and, theoretically, even a small horse.
A 2012 Eddie Bauer Airstream features a rear hatchback that opens to allow for easy loading of bikes, kayaks and, theoretically, even a small horse.

Byam’s original aircraft-inspired design hasn’t changed much since the early days, but a lot has changed inside. Along with a variety of sizes and models, the amenities these days include flat-screen TVs, microwave ovens, backlit translucent Plexiglas sliding doors, glass-top stoves, stainless steel sinks and state of the art sound systems along with the distinctive polished aluminum accents complimented by contemporary built-ins.

The Airstream factory makes models to suit individual tastes and needs, including the Eddie Bauer model, built with the sports enthusiast in mind. Costing about $80,000 for the 27-foot-long version, this particular trailer is designed for those who like to bike, kayak or bring other toys along on their camping adventure. There’s a sports hatch door in the back for moving things in and out plus a pull-down screen that allows for the hatch door to be left open for more fresh air, views and light. The flooring is a non-scratch material that makes for easy cleanup and minimizes the potential for damage when sports equipment is loaded in and out.

The interior of the Eddie Bauer Airstream was designed with the sports enthusiast in mind, shunning the luxurious décor found in other models in favor of efficient functionality.
The interior of the Eddie Bauer Airstream was designed with the
sports enthusiast in mind, shunning the luxurious décor found
in other models in favor of efficient functionality.

Other Airstreams have interiors designed by Ralph Lauren and Chris Dream. There’s a 16-foot Quicksilver Edition Airstream Bambi developed as a limited edition “gnarly surf machine,” a Safari Special Edition customized for AC/DC lead singer Brian Johnson, even a Hello Kitty Airstream created by Airstream to celebrate the 30th birthday of the Japanese cartoon character.

Regardless of the model — whether old or new, top of the line or basic — when you roll down the road with an Airstream in your wake, you’ve instantly become a member of an exclusive club of camping aficionados who’ve come to realize the spiritual aspect of having one of these beauties — a trailer with pure emotional appeal that speaks to the American spirit of innovation and imagination.

In the words of Airstream’s founder Wally Byam: “Keep your eyes on the stars, and the stars in your eyes … see if you can find out what’s over the next hill, and the next one after that.”

Copyright © Kim Calvert/2012 Singular Communications, LLC.

Kim CalvertKim Calvert is the editor of Singular magazine and the founder of the SingularCity social networking community. An outspoken champion of people who are living their lives as a “me” instead of a “we,” Kim oversees the creative direction and editorial content of the magazine and online social networking community. She secures contributors and is responsible for maintaining the fun, upbeat, inspirational and often-humorous tone of Singular, a lifestyle guide for successful single living.


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2 thoughts on “Airstreams and the Cult of the Camper

  1. Never had an Airstream, but I always thought they were so beautiful.

    For several years, we had Coleman campers – the ones where you had to raise the top and pull out the ends for the beds. They were also nice campers for their day.

    Matter of fact, we were up in Tawas, Michigan, camping when the astronauts were on their way to the moon om Apollo 11. Can you believe all the excitement around that? We had a portable TV and we watched the events unfold every chance we had when we weren’t playing. I’ll never forget that Gulf Oil Corporation was giving away paper cut-outs of the lunar module. You would punch out the parts of the module, put them together, and add a string to the top with a stick to hold it on. Then you’d find a place like a tree, or even unroll the string by hand, and have the lunar module come down to the ground.

    When we got home, it was just in time to see them land and walk on the moon. It was one of the grandest moments in history, perhaps the grandest ever, and camping was part of it for me.

    You don’t very often get to tie a spectacular event to something like camping, but I’m sure quite a few others have the same memory, or a similar one where a major historical event took place while they were out enjoying the great outdoors.

    If ever you come to Flint, Michigan and visit the Sloan Museum, you should check out the camper, not an Airstream, that was restored by the museum. The camper was donated by the Sloan Auto Fair Committee of which I serve on. It is so beautiful.

  2. Just saw one yesterday attached to a vehicle going down the freeway and I thought, ‘wow, how could would it be to own one of those!’.

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