Airstreams gain steam
Old-school trailers enjoy pandemic-era popularity
Last June, Amy Geren, bought a $42,000 Airstream trailer, sight unseen, from a dealer in Vermont. The 16-foot, 2020 Bambi floor model was the last one on the lot.
“And I could sell mine tomorrow for more than I paid for it,” Geren, 49, says.
That may not be an exaggeration. Despite being forced to close for six weeks early in the pandemic, retail sales at Airstream dealerships jumped 22% in 2020 and demand is still on the rise. It’s “beyond anything we anticipated,” Airstream CEO Bob Wheeler says.
The growing popularity of Airstreams is part of a surge in sales of all recreational vehicles during the coronavirus pandemic. RV shipments set new records in November and December of last year, according to the RV Industry Association.
But Airstream, which will celebrate its 90th birthday this year, has found a new audience with its nostalgic cache. Its founder, Wally Byam, named his invention, with its rounded curves and polished aluminum body, an “Airstream” because it moved down the road, he said, “like a stream of air.” Every trailer is still made by hand — each rivet requires the labor of two people.
Airstream has long been an iconic symbol of the West and The Great American Road-trip. It has been featured in movies, from “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” to “Legally Blonde,” and counts Matthew McConaughey, Sean Penn and Sandra Bullock among its fans. President John F. Kennedy once used an Airstream as a mobile office in New Mexico.
Now, in the midst of a pandemic, it is receiving another boost, as Americans weather profound shifts in how — and where — they work and learn.
When her youngest child left for college, Amy Geren sold her house in suburban Portland, Maine and moved to a small condominium downtown, a few blocks from her job at a non profit. But life in the city didn’t suit her, so Geren put the home up for sale in March 2020, just weeks before the state shut down because of COVID-19.
The uncertainty of the real estate market — and the world at large — pushed her to downsize again, this time keeping just what could fit into an Airstream, which she is now living, working and traveling for the foreseeable future.
“I love that it is so simple. Just a two-burner gas stove and mini fridge,” Geren says. “The only thing I would change on the layout is the ability to remove the dinette table so I could practice yoga inside on rainy days.”
Airstream dealerships closed their doors in March with full inventories — on average, about 40 vehicles. Now, many are down to just six or seven. It will take a year for the company to fulfill existing orders, said Wheeler. “That kind of backlog is unprecedented,” he said. “It’s like nothing I’ve seen in my 19 years at this company.”