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Retro riding: Airstream still flying high

Mitch Stacy
Associated Press

Jackson Center, Ohio — 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?"

Chad Martz installs wire in an Airstream at the factory in Jackson Center, Ohio. Airstream builds 50 every week at the plant.

Not only are the retro "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.

The instantly recognizable design — inspired by airplane fuselages — 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 had cameos in Hollywood movies and even quarantined the 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 — including an annual Ohio jamboree known as "Alumapalooza."

"Any time we've seen an Airstream, it's like the clouds part and an angelic choir starts singing," said 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.

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 body blow by the Great 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. Production next year is expected to return to levels seen before the economy tanked.

Airstream, owned by the larger Indiana-based RV maker Thor Industries, is riding the wave, surging with three record years in a row. Wheeler said 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, many now choosing not to wait until they retire to buy one, and a new wave of desire for the classic designs of America's yesteryear — even if they command top dollar.

New Airstreams run $42,000 to $140,000.

"For us, the Airstream just represented this beautiful piece of machinery, this beautiful design that other trailers and RVs don't give you," said 46-year-old Kate Gilbert.

She and her husband, Iain, sold their house in San Diego this year and now live full time in their 27-foot solar panel-equipped Airstream, traveling the country.

Tara Cox, a 40-year-old magazine editor who wrote a book called "Airstream: The Silver RV," notes the fandom bordering on fanaticism that the trailers inspire, besides the fact that they cost more than other RVs, usually have less storage space and require more maintenance to keep the outside looking nice.

She compares Airstream owners with Harley-Davidson riders who baby their bikes.

"It's that labor of love," she says.

Travel trailers line the factory floor as they are assembled. The company can't roll them out of there fast enough to meet the demand. The backlog is about three months.

About Airstream

■Wally Byam built the first Airstream trailer as a tent contraption on a Model T chassis, eventually replacing the tent with a teardrop-shaped permanent shelter. The riveted aluminum, aviation-inspired design emerged in the 1930s and hasn't been tweaked greatly since then. Since 1952, they've been built at a factory in Jackson Center, Ohio, north of Dayton. Byam would spend much of the rest of his life leading Airstream caravans around the world.

■Airstream owners are enthusiastic, loyal and love to hang out with one another. Organized chapters of the owners association — called the Wally Byam Caravan Club International — put together rallies around the world and stay in touch through active message boards and social media. An annual campout at the Ohio factory sponsored by Airstream Life magazine draws 120 to 150 units. It's called "Alumapalooza."

■The first stop for Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins when they got back from the moon in 1969 was a modified Airstream trailer. They were quarantined until doctors cleared them from any harmful germs they might have brought back from space. President Richard Nixon congratulated the astronauts from the window. A drivable Airstream RV shuttled astronauts to the launch pad for years.

■Airstream trailers have been a part of American culture for decades, so naturally they've rolled through dozens of Hollywood movies and TV shows, such as "Raising Arizona," "Independence Day" and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" Matthew McConaughey spent a month on the road in his Airstream promoting his 2005 movie "Sahara." He told Architectural Digest his home on wheels was "a beautiful piece of art."

■An RV dealer named Frank Bates buried eight Airstream trailers halfway in the ground alongside Interstate 4 just outside of Tampa, Florida, in 2007. Known as Airstream Ranch, the "sculpture" has survived despite a legal battle over local government efforts to get rid of it. Some people call it art. Some people call it an eyesore. It's definitely become a tourist attraction.