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Airstream's silver bullets still flying

Airstream has been building its signature riveted aluminum travel trailers since 1931

Kate Pierson of the B-52s fell so hard for her first Airstream that she ended up owning enough of the travel trailers to open an all-Airstream hotel in the desert near Joshua Tree National Park.

Fans of the retro-chic silver bullets spend $200 a night to sleep in vintage trailers. With names such as "Lava," "Tiki" and "Planet Air," each is decorated with posters and memorabilia of the famed "Love Shack" rock group.

"It's a magical place," Pierson said recently. "Six Airstreams on a sand dune!"

But 100 miles west, at Los Angeles' largest Airstream dealer, a sign on the door says, "Yes, we're still making them."

Now owned by recreational vehicle giant Thor Industries, Airstream has been building its signature riveted aluminum travel trailers since 1931. The company says that 65% of all Airstreams ever built are still on the road. So fans of the iconic vacation capsules are surprised to learn the Airstreams on the road aren't all vintage units.

"We get asked that question more than I would like," sighed Bob Wheeler, Airstream president and chief executive. "A lot of people don't even know we're still in business."

Apparently, people are finding out. Last year was the best in Airstream's history. Sales for 2014 were up 26% over 2013, while sales for the RV industry as a whole rose only 11%, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Assn.

Thor Industries stock is trading at $63, more than double its value five years ago.

The product is pricey. An entry-level, 16-foot Sport trailer starts at $42,000. A top of the line, 28-foot Land Yacht starts at $146,000. In between are Flying Clouds, Classics and Internationals.

There's also a line of 24-foot Touring Coaches — built on Mercedes-Benz Sprinter platforms — that cost $134,000 to $151,000.

At the company's Ohio factory, which has a 13-week backlog of orders, new Airstreams are being built at the rate of 50 a week.

That's an encouraging trend for a company that has died, or nearly died, many times since entrepreneur Wally Byam opened his first factory in Culver City and began producing the teardrop-shaped Torpedo Car Cruiser. Early Airstreams were based on a design by Hawley Bowlus, who had overseen construction of Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis.

A Stanford graduate who worked in newspapers and aerospace before hitting his stride with travel trailers, Byam was a tireless promoter. His "Caravan" Airstream tours of Mexico and Africa received coverage in newsreels and national magazines.

Slowed by the Depression, Byam was put out of business by World War II, when the nation's aluminum supply was reserved for airplanes.

After the war, Byam's trailers started to catch on. Byam took over a former bazooka factory in Ohio, and started selling self-contained land yachts that captured the national imagination.

"Somewhere, woven into the American fabric, is this idea of 'the great American road trip,'" Wheeler said. "Airstream got connected to that in a way that has just endured."

Byam, who died in 1962, spawned imitators. Soon the highways were busy with competing trailers, as well as RVs such as Winnebagos. But higher gas prices hit the industry hard.

Airstream was more or less moribund when it was purchased by Thor Industries in 1980, which put a shine back on the aluminum trailers and returned the company to profitability within a year.

By the mid-1990s, though, sales had flattened again. Consumers who had grown up admiring the gleaming tubes were getting old. The average buyer was a retiree over 70.

The company got new life from an unlikely source. San Francisco architect Christopher C. Deam designed a 26-foot-by-26-foot interior for a friend's home. The design won an award, and Sunset magazine dubbed it "The Airstream Cottage."

"A light bulb went off," said Deam, who immediately contacted the company to sell them his idea of a new, modern Airstream interior design.

Airstream executives were unresponsive. So Deam built an Airstream interior on spec. When that won an award, Airstream agreed to test the trailer at an upcoming rally.

The elderly Airstream aficionados didn't like the design, but they all made the same observation, Deam remembered: "They all said, 'It's not for me, but my kids would love it.' That convinced Airstream to do a prototype."

Deam's reimagined trailer replaced the traditional homespun wood-paneled interiors with sleek laminate or aluminum panels — light, bright and easy to clean.

Still, the company was unsure. Would the new design turn off Airstream's loyal but diminishing audience?

"It took off like a rocket, and drew a whole new demographic," Wheeler said. "It changed our understanding of what the Airstream could be."

Within three years, sales doubled. The line of trailers inspired by Deam's designs now accounts for more than 50% of all Airstream business. Deam declined to put a dollar amount to his side of the business but said he was paid a fee and now receives royalties based on unit sales.

Thor, which would eventually own nine other RV companies, has continued to broaden its Airstream inventory and strengthen its market share. Today, each trailer takes about five days, and about 320 man-hours, to manufacture. Wheeler estimated that the company employs 480 full-time workers, up from only 150 in 2008.

The combination of high price tag and timeless Americana has attracted a more chic clientele than Byam probably imagined. NASA and the U.S. Air Force use them. Tom Hanks has owned several. Other fans have included Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, and filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola.

Matthew McConaughey owns two. He keeps one in Austin, except when it's with him on a movie location, and another parked at his home in Malibu.

Patrick Dempsey also owns two. One is a vintage 1950s classic that he uses as a guest house. The other is a modern version that functions as his home when he's on location shooting "Grey's Anatomy."

"It's a beautifully made camper with a great legacy to it," the actor said. "It's a great space to spend time between shots."

Justin Humphreys, Airstream's vice president of sales, said consumers are attracted by the old-fashioned design and the old-fashioned durability.

"People are tired of buying stuff that breaks," Humphreys said. "They want something that's going to stick around and keep working."

And despite owners like McConaughey and Dempsey, the average age of the average buyer is still pretty high.

As baby boomers age into Airstream territory, Humphreys sees that as a positive.

"The No. 1 age for RV buyers is 65, and 10,000 people will turn that age every day for the next 19 years," he said. "So, we're expanding."

charles.fleming@latimes.com

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