Retro-cool “silver bullet” trailers are having a moment. Look for the vintage vehicles as road trip machines, guesthouses, and even the centerpieces in RV motels.
—By David Graver
A smattering of shiny vintage Airstream campers dots the desert landscape at the Rancho V music studio, on the outskirts of the eccentric community of Pioneertown, California. Producer Rocco Gardner uses them as guesthouses for recording artists—each a refurbished den of hospitality with Joshua Tree as a backyard. One offers only a bed and a kitchen nook, while others provide enough living space to accommodate two to three people. Stepping into any of them gives visitors a feeling of being severed from the present day—and entering a vessel designed to fulfill one’s wildest dreams.
Gardner isn’t alone in finding the “Twinkie”-shaped trailers inspirational. Coupled with the tiny-home movement and the rise of “glamping,” Airstreams once again play prominently in the cultural vernacular. They now serve as home additions, roving art galleries, pop-up shops, and even hotels.
Why does the brand trigger such deep and abiding nostalgia? Ed Potokar, co-founder of vintage renovation shop Hudson Valley Airstream, says the trailers grew to fame “in an age of promise—and an age of the future. It was the beginning of various new technologies, and there was such a positiveness to the identity.” In that initial Airstream design, people saw freedom, mobility, and access to amenities never before available on the open road. “You could go somewhere and have this beautiful object—and the scale and comfort were correct,” he says. “It was perfectly balanced.”
The Airstream’s shimmering metallic curves were radical then—and they still are. What’s more, their aluminum bodies make them salvageable. Not only did the design mimic what many manufacturers had been doing with aircraft; the construction methods were also solid enough to last through decades of wear and tear traversing America’s highways and byways.
But such is the magic of “silver bullets,” as the vehicles are nicknamed by devotees, that the trailers don’t even need to move to conjure romance and imagination. The mission of Hudson Valley Airstream is to create semipermanent spaces—not for years of future road-tripping but as places to congregate outside one’s home, a trend Potokar says is on the rise. Although they leave the shell untouched, he and his wife, Amy Rosenfeld, gut the RVs and upgrade everything else—especially the technology. The duo focuses their efforts on large Airstreams released between 1968 and 1980—the recreational vehicles’ glory years, in Potokar’s opinion. (Subtle tweaks to the brand since then have drawn mixed reviews from fans.)
Potokar and Rosenfeld name each of their revamped campers after a famous woman from the year that the camper was created—Janis for their 29-footer from ’69, Roberta (after Roberta Flack) for a ’73 Airstream Ambassador, and Dolly for a ’74 Airstream Sovereign Land Yacht, among others. Each is a nugget of history, updates notwithstanding.
Justin Humphreys, COO of Airstream, believes the secret to Airstream’s longevity is that it appeals to a wide variety of people. “The design community loves its distinctive shape and the fact that the aluminum shell reflects your surroundings wherever your adventure takes you,” he says. “Engineering and tech fans love its durability and superior towing dynamics provided by its strong monocoque design, similar to the fuselage of an airplane.” Humphreys also believes that Airstream “has become an iconic American product, a symbol of adventures in our great country.”
Humphreys, too, has witnessed some marvelous reinterpretations of vintage Airstreams. “Because of the shell’s enduring design, a vintage Airstream is a great product to restore,” he says—and the small footprint makes it a natural for alternative usage. “Whether someone turns a vintage shell into a mobile barber shop or uses a new small Bambi as a pool house in their backyard, Airstreams are great arm candy for a business or home,” according to Humphreys.