ABOUT THE AIRSTREAM
• Airstreams have been dubbed “the silver bullet,” “silver burrito,” “silver Twinkie,” “canned ham” and “Toaster on Wheels.”
• VIncent Price once narrated a miniseries called “Around the World Caravan” about the iconic trailers. The National Geographic Society documented part of an annual caravan of Airstreams to exotic places around the world from 1963 to 1964, and turned it into the show.
• Airstream produced two square versions from 1986 to 1991. The effort was compared by many critics to the “New Coke” debacle.
• Airstream Ranch, located 15 miles from Tampa, Fla., features eight Airstreams buried nose down in the grown, sparking a debate among some as to whether the display was art or junk.
Vintageairstream.com offers information on annual Airstream rallies, renovation resources, price guides, campsites, forums, classifieds and more.
• For a guide to Airstream-only parks around the country, visit viewrvs.com/airstream-parks.php.
• The Tennessee Cumberland Plateau Campground in Crossville, Tenn., is an exclusive Airstream-only campground. Visit tcpconline.com for more information.
• In Georgia, there is the Top of Georgia, located in Helen, Ga.
Like everyone else entering the Guest Camping area at a recent Bonnaroo, Adam and Monica Kinsey were stopped by a crew of three twentysomethings in “Staff” T-shirts who explained that they needed to search their vehicle, primarily for anything in glass containers.
While Bonnaroo is known for looking the other way on some things, glass is a big no-no at the camping and music festival for safety reasons. Crews are charged with the tedious task of searching every vehicle but, as the Kinsey’s vehicle approached, the energy level rose a notch and one or two other teams wandered over.
“I don’t really want to search for anything,” one girl said as she peered through the door. “I just want to see inside. Do you mind?”
Adam Kinsey, owner of Track 29, says people constantly want to take a look inside their 1966 Airstream International Overlander, a 26-foot two-axle camper.
And he’s not the only one. Robin Burk bought her 2012 International Bambi last year as both a convenient way to travel to the many music festivals she works as a therapeutic musician and as a way to entice her more hotel-minded partner, Lyn Harris, to enjoy the outdoors. Shortly after getting it, Burk was booked to perform during Mainx24, the annual 24-hour arts festival along Main Street and the Southside, so she parked the Airstream nearby and enjoyed an urban camping experience.
The slightly used, 19-foot Bambi is outfitted with satellite radio and TV, a Blu-ray player, a hi-def television, shower, microwave, stove and fridge. Sometimes when the two travel together, they also take Harris’ 1989 Jeep Wagoneer Woody, and both vehicles always draw a lot of attention.
“There is a lot of curiosity,” she says. “People want to come in and see.”
That’s one of the realities of owning an Airstream, whose rounded and sleek, shiny and rivet-dotted aluminum shell grabs the eye, whether it’s sitting at a campsite or being towed down the interstate. And being an Airstream owner requires a higher level of devotion than simply owning a Winnebago or some other pull-behind trailer, says Paul Darden, who left the corporate world about eight years ago to devote himself full-time to restoring campers and RVs, including Airstreams, at his shop in Birchwood. He has a sincere caution for people who want to own an Airstream.
“I tell people, especially if they want it polished, ‘These are not for the introverted. You have to like people because they are going to want to see it and talk to you about it.’ You become a rock star.”
First conceived by Wally Byam in the 1920s, put into production in the 1930s and forever linked to the hit-the-highway sense of American freedom in the late ’40s and early ’50s, Airstream trailers are still hot items. According to the company, headquartered in Ohio, sales increased 59 percent from 2013 to 2012. The company produces 50 trailers a week, according to Investor’s Business Daily, and 60 percent of all Airstreams made in the last 80 years are still in use.
“They are just really well-made,” Darden says.
Darden says there are “2 1/2” types of people buying Airstreams these days. The first are retirees and glampers — glamorous campers — with money; they want their trailers outfitted with opulence. Hardwoods, stone countertops and high-end electronics can be found in these fancier models.
The second group is serious campers on a budget. They see the trailer as an investment, and they enjoy spending time outdoors in comfort and style.
The smaller “half” group “are the hipsters, the wannabe DIYers who see the cool factor of it,” Darden says.
But for everyone, the investment can be daunting. New Airstreams run between $45,000 and $95,000. And restoring one is no cheap stroll through the campground, depending on what you want done. An owner of one of the Airstreams Darden is working on has put $25,000 into her trailer in the last two years and has yet to stay overnight in it.
But Darden, who restores them from top to bottom with the help of Wayne Trundle, an 80-year-old retired master carpenter, is fairly confident that, if you buy a used Airstream, you’ll eventually pay a fair price to get it to where you want it, whatever that final dollar figure may be.
“I’m known as the dream crusher,” says Darden. “I’m going to put a price tag on it, and you will shake your head ‘no’ and inside you will say ‘yes.’”
The Kinseys found their Airstream by accident. They had looked at one in Dayton, Tenn., and were traveling on Highway 60 to Cleveland, Tenn., to check out another when they happened to pass by Darden’s shop.
“We talked to Paul for two hours,” Adam Kinsey says.
They were in the market because they’d been renting a camper to take to Bonnaroo each year, spending a couple of grand a pop, and figured they’d come out cheaper buying one. Theirs cost $3,500 in 2010, and they spent another $2,000 to $3,000 and three weeks replacing plumbing, flooring and the HVAC, doing the work themselves.
But they also managed to turn it into a rolling billboard for their Chattanooga music club. Their International now bears the Track 29 logo and, on occasion, when several bands are booked at the venue, it serves as extra space.
“We’ve even used it as a (dressing) room when we have so many bands, and they hang out there before or after the show,” he says. “The bands and the tour managers want to look inside.”
Burk spent many times what the Kinseys paid for her newer, move-in ready model, though she didn’t reveal the exact amount.
“It was like buying a house,” she says.
Darden describes himself as a tinkerer and gadget guy who enjoys working on just about any type of camper at his shop. His other hobbies are biking and being on the water, and he has the lean body to show for it.
On a recent weekday, he’s dressed casually in shorts and a T-shirt while fidgeting with a template for a couch going into one of the eight Airsteams he’s working on. This particular one belongs to Check Into Cash owner Allan Jones of Cleveland.
Inside his large, three-bay garage and next to his Cannondale bicycle is a countertop or two from a camper, an old sink, shelves full of parts and one of his own Airstreams. Outside are several more in various sizes and stages of repair. Some belong to others; some are his.
“Mostly just the oddballs. I got rid of the others.”
Even the Airstreams made during the ’70s, the company’s toughest decade because of a decline in demand, are serviceable if not optimal, he says. You can fix one up, but you will pay dearly to get all the mechanical parts from a ’70s-era Airstream to work.
“They were poorly constructed,” he said. “No one wanted to be working there. Instead of real wood for the cabinets and walls, they used plastics.”
When it comes to the Airstreams that are pulled into his shop, some owners want them returned to original form and some want to put their own touches on it. Neither is cheap, he says. He can do everything from fix a sink or a light bulb to “fluff and buff” — touching up the inside, shining up the outside — to total renovations with exotic woods, marbles and fabrics with price tags approaching six figures.
“It just depends on your own budget,” he says.
One thing that doesn’t need updating, however, is their appeal.
“They look cool,” Kinsey says. “They are just classic.”
Contact Barry Courter at firstname.lastname@example.org 423-757-6354.
Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...