Airstreams are an iconic symbol of the glory days of camping. Couples and families venturing across the country to get outdoors with their handcrafted metal trailer. Airstreams are still popular today with classic enthusiasts.
A new airstream can cost as little as $37,000 or as much as $150,000. Thor Industries, the owner of Airstream, is the primary manufacturer of new Airstream trailers traversing the highways today.
However, it’s estimated that almost 70% of all past Airstreams produced are still on the road as well. And Airstream has a long history.
The Future of Camping – In the Past
In the early part of 1931 Airstreams hit the market. A completely metal trailer that was light enough to be towed by a car. They were the culmination of a dream project crafted by Wally Byam, a young Los Angeles lawyer.
Wally loved the outdoors and could often be found hiking, sailing, or of course, camping. He desired to create a long-lasting, high quality, camping trailer. One that held plenty of accommodations for its residents and attention to detail.
He began building in his backyard and after trying out a few different designs and models he arrived at what we know as the Airstream. A far cry from the wooden wagon he lived in as a child working on his uncle’s sheep farm. But there was some resemblance.
Inside both the wagon and the Airstream you could find many necessities such as a stove, food, and water. When he debuted his Airstream he garnered quite a lot of attention. So much so that he published DIY instructions in the magazine Popular Mechanics.
But soon nearby friends and family began asking for Wally to custom build them a trailer. He agreed. However, neighbors weren’t so keen on the ruckus occurring in his front yard and noise complaints ensued. Leaving him no choice but to build a trailer factory in Culver City, California.
His trailer factory was one of only a handful in the nation, fewer than fifty factories were registered to be exact. But Wally was on to something, the demand for trailers boomed over the next five years and in 1937 his company was one of 400 manufacturers.
The dream of hitting the open road in your very own trailer was soon replaced by fears of a struggling economy and war for many Americans. As the Great Depression rolled on and World War II raged many manufacturers were shuttered. However, Airstream persevered.
In the 1940s at the end of the war, Wally was working at Curtis Wright Industries as an engineer and production supervisor. He eventually persuaded those in charge to allow him to manufacture a line of travel trailers, piggybacking off his original Airstream design.
This new line of trailers that closely resembled the Airstream was called the Curtis Wright Clipper. It is safe to say they were probably a hit because in 1947 Wally took his new manufacturing knowledge and set out to start his own business producing the Airstream Liner.
Wally tested his new trailer by touring Europe with a friend shooting the post-war land. This road test allowed him to find any weaknesses with the Airstream. A few years after returning from Europe he would launch an Americas tour.
In 1951 he set out on a trip from Texas to Nicaragua with 63 other Airstreams and their owners. Only fourteen people completed the journey but the trip served as the first Airstream caravan.
As the trailer’s popularity grew, Wally expanded production by purchasing a second factory in Ohio. He also expanded the Airstream’s capabilities. He added the first-ever in-trailer hot water system and freed the Airstream from external power sources. Sadly, in 1962 he passed away, passing on his booming company to a new CEO.
This led to the redesign of the classic trailer in 1969. It increased in length and width and featured new internal details as well as structural. It was with this redesign that the iconic “silver bullet” shape formed. Airstreams continued to be loved by campers. In the 1970s all production moved to Ohio where it remains to this day. In 1974 Airstream slowly started to branch out into other camper trailer models. The Argosy, though short-lived, was their first foray into motorhomes.
In the 1980s it was acquired by Thor industries but the Wally Byam Caravan Club still lived on. Many caravans were held all around the globe, including a tour of China in 1985.
In the 1990s interest in the classic Airstream surged. People began purchasing the originals and restoring them to their former glory. Caravan clubs formed that only allowed trailers twenty-five years or older. However, 1994 also saw a reproduction of the 1950s style Airstream with a few modern tweaks named the Safari.
The Safari was cheaper and lighter and a big hit with younger buyers. Another major redesign also occurred, completely revamping the interior and adding five and a half inches to the traditional Airstream. This new breed was more luxurious and comfortable.
In the early 2000s, Airstream tried once again to pursue a motorhome. They launched the Touring Coach in 2004 as part of a collaboration with Mercedes-Benz. These are Class B Motorhomes that resemble camper vans but still include many amenities like an Airstream.
The 2010s brought two new campers, the Basecamp and the Nest. One is a modern take on the classic while the other is a small but fully equipped trailer. Technology has also been included and new trailers can be controlled by your smartphone.
Airstream has branched out a few times into different models and designs, yet the riveted aluminum silver-bullet remains the favorite.
Examples of Classic Airstreams and Prices
Used Airstreams can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to over a hundred thousand dollars. The price tag is dictated by the model and the state of the trailer. Some have been fully and beautifully restored while others may take a bit of elbow grease to return them to their former glory.
For example, a 1998 Airstream Bambi can be purchased for just over $21,000. Listed in good condition and well maintained.
A 1976 Airstream Trade Wind Land Yacht is listed for just under $40,000. It is listed as being in great condition and has had some modernization.
A 1973 Airstream Argosy is listed at $7,500. It is in fair condition, needing a bit of TLC such as paint, a heater, and a toilet.
A 1957 Airstream 22 is priced at $47,000. Being fully restored and in great condition.
Pre 1950s Airstreams are harder to come by but they are out there. They are mostly held by classic collectors.
Airstreams have been around for so long and are so durable that you can find many used models available from many different decades. They may be in various states of repair, or disrepair and therefore listed at varying prices.
New Airstream Models and Examples
Currently, there are eight models of travel trailer airstreams available. They can be as short as 16ft 3 inches or as long as 31ft 3 inches. A few things all Airstreams have in common is the shiny aluminum shell, durability, and top of the line quality.
The first is the Bambi which retails for around $49,000. A petite sized trailer packed with the essentials. It is compact, lightweight, and highly maneuverable. Yet the interior includes a kitchen, a dinette, a bathroom, and more than one sleeping space.
The Bambi sleeps four inside its handcrafted interior. The outside features the iconic polished aluminum.
Next, the Airstream Caravel starts at nearly $61,000. It is a single axle trailer making it quite nimble and easy to tow. Inside there is plenty of room for four to sleep, eat, and relax. The stainless steel appliances and panoramic views up the luxuriousness.
The Nest offers a break from the aluminum silver-bullet look at nearly $46,000. This fiberglass trailer is contemporary from the exterior to the interior. It sleeps two with a spacious queen bed in addition to a kitchen and living room space.
The Base Camp, retailing for just over $37,000 is a small trailer ideal for a rugged adventure. It sleeps up to two people and includes amenities in addition to a gear storage space. The wraparound panoramic window allows you to take in the views and unwind after a hard day of adventuring.
The Flying Cloud is the first of the larger Airstream models. It starts at just over $67,000, sleeps up to six depending on the model, and can be either a single or double axle. The beautiful interior includes a seating area, kitchen, dinette, bedroom, and bathroom.
The International Signature is a luxury model Airstream, priced at slightly more than $84,000. Designed by an award-winning architect and designer the luxurious interior is a feast for the eyes. It is a double axle and can sleep up to six. The laminate and polished aluminum inside play off one another and occupants can customize their fabric choices in addition to their floor plan.
The International Serenity starts at $88,400. Floor plans can sleep either four or six in this double axle trailer. It boasts over twenty different floor plans all consistent with classic Airstream style and quality. It is designed to offer comfort no matter where you roam.
The Airstream Classic, at $152,400, is ideal for full-time residents or long hauls across the country. It can sleep up to five with multiple sleeping areas or alternatively hold one grand bedroom. Four awnings provide plenty of exterior living space in addition to the opulent interior.
Finally, the Globetrotter at $103,900 is a modern version of the Airstream Classic. The outside may resemble an Airstream with the riveted aluminum but the interior takes its cues from European style. Sleeping up to six the inside can be outfitted with two twins or a queen. Clean lines and symmetry are prevalent throughout the kitchen, dinette, and seating area.
Airstream also produces five touring coaches in partnership with Mercedes-Benz. The Interstate Lounge EXT, the Atlas, the Interstate Grand Tour EXT, the Tommy Bahama Interstate, and the Interstate Nineteen. These opulent travel vans range in price from $161,000 – $238,000. Each one seats four but only sleeps two. Inside they are equipped with many modern amenities and of course luxurious design and features.
No matter which Airstream you choose you are sure to get long-lasting durability and high-quality craftsmanship which have become staples of the brand.
Why Do Airstreams Cost So Much?
Airstreams are known for their durability and quality craftsmanship, that much we have seen. However, they are also somewhat of an American oddity, cruising down the road with their polished and riveted aluminum shell. There is certainly a niche group that they cater to as there are Airstream diehard enthusiasts. But is the hefty price tag worth it?
Well, a fair bit of hard labor goes into constructing an Airstream. Furthermore, the materials it is crafted from are top of the line. A steel Airstream frame is outfitted with “aircraft quality” aluminum. And all of those iconic rivets? They are fastened by hand. This helps to ensure a well-insulated and leak-free trailer.
The shell of the trailer is unique, meaning that the interior footprint is also unique. All of the interior furniture and design is custom to the Airstream and has to be created to fit the silver-bullet shape. Whatsmore is that the shape of the shell prevents appliances and furniture from being placed inside the trailer via the roof. All components of the interior must be hand-carried inside.
The large glass tempered windows are another iconic feature. However, they are not cheap. Perhaps the cheapest component is the plywood subfloor. Yet, even this is sealed in a double frame to prevent leaks which could cause rot.
All in all, the Airstream is very aesthetically pleasing both inside and out. The interior decor is modern yet vintage. It is light and clean, opposite the dark interiors of modern trailers.
But perhaps beyond the craftsmanship and construction costs is the brand name. Airstream is an American classic. Its iconic shape is easily recognizable and often “wander”-lusted after by trailer enthusiasts.
With such a robust reputation, Airstream as a luxury trailer brand can afford to charge a bit more other mainstream trailer manufacturers.
Are Airstreams Worth The Cost?
Whether or not an Airstream is worth it is truly up to the owner. The cost of trailers is typically debated among trailer owners. After all, trailers require a lot of upkeep due to the wear and tear of traveling and exposure to the elements even while sitting unused.
The cost of keeping up an Airstream can cost a bit more than standard trailers. This is due to the custom design of many of the Airstreams components. Additionally, that shiny aluminum shell needs to be polished and maintained. In general, Airstreams do not do well sitting outside for long periods of time.
Airstreams are lightweight trailers. They are not made to haul a lot of cargo and some may find them less useful than say a toy hauler or fifth wheel. They also require careful weight distribution due to their length and sometimes single axle.
Though the interior of the Airstream is beautiful, it may be small for some. There are other trailers that can sleep more occupants than an airstream and boast a roomier interior. Even the headroom of an Airstream can be a bit cramped due to the curved shell.
Though Airstreams have a few drawbacks, most owners will deal with the downfalls for the Airstream lifestyle. People take notice when you are driving down the interstate or pulling into a campsite. Airstream owners enjoy the recognition their trailer receives and like owning a part of iconic American history.
So, ultimately, it is up to the purchaser and should be based on their wants and needs compared to the trailer’s affordability.
An All-American Trailer
New Airstreams are top of the line and beautifully crafted. But classic Airstreams can be stunningly refinished and modernized. Whichever model or era Airstream you choose there is a wide range of prices, even if they may require some TLC.
Bonus, A Few Interesting Facts
- The Squarestream. A square airstream was once in the works. From 1986 – 1991 Airstream was working towards a square airstream. It never took off and was financially considered a failure.
- Colorful Airstreams. When unique and fancy cars gained popularity in the 1950s Wally flirted with the idea of producing Airstreams of different colors. He began working on a gold Airstream but quickly abandoned the idea.
- Space Airstreams. NASA commissioned Airstreams for use to transport and quarantine Apollo 11 astronauts. This is evidenced by the footage of Richard Nixon interviewing astronauts from inside the Airstream.
- Military Airstreams. The United States Military has a smallholding of Airstreams. They use them to house VIPs and/or as mobile communication centers.