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?"
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Not only are the retro-looking "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 silver bubble 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 cameoed 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," says 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.
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Airstream — owned by the larger Indiana-based RV maker Thor Industries — is riding the wave, surging with three record years in a row. Wheeler says 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 their 60s 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," says 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.
Baby Boomers are still the heart of the demographic, but the company is actively reaching out to younger people, using social media to show them how an Airstream could fit their lifestyles. It's also testing less-expensive, lighter and easier-to-tow designs that Wheeler says might be "less intimidating" to younger buyers.
Airstream got an injection of hip recently when it collaborated with the Columbus College of Art and Design to plan and build a camper with a workspace and living area aimed at people in their 20s and 30s whose jobs allow them to work from anywhere. The company says the design elements — including a rear hatch that opens the convertible work area to the great outdoors — will be incorporated into future production models.
Meggin Hurlburt, a 34-year-old paralegal from San Diego, says the Airstream purchase was an investment in her family. She's married with a 6-year-old son. She says the vintage look and the reputation for durability drew them in, even with the $70,000-plus price tag.
"We didn't want to wait until we were retired because we wanted to enjoy it now," she says. "It's not like the white box trailer that's going to fall apart in 10 years. We bought this knowing we can give it to our son, and maybe he can give it to his children."