Airstream made an escape pod for the curious camper

(Bloomberg) – It was as if Airstream had ordered the rain.

Halfway through a test sleep in the brand’s new Nest camping trailer, a deluge swept the skies like a Springsteen ballad. Our tired group, including my wife, three year old son and Woodrow, an 80 pound Labrador Retriever, were literally stuck in the New Jersey swamps. But that’s why one spends a large sum of money the size of a Mercedes on a small house on wheels, rather than relying on a flimsy tent. As the storm raged we curled up under blankets and had Moana. Woodrow, still up for a mud bath, was the only one who got pissed off.

After nearly a century of building nearly identical metal trailers, Airstream has finally learned a new design language. The brand, one of 17 lines of recreational vehicles owned by Thor Industries Inc., ditched its silver styling and created a fiberglass camping trailer in an effort to appeal to those who “love modern design.” There is nothing like it on the market, except for a few handcrafted vehicles assembled by startups at valuable volumes. If a platform is to pull the RV market beyond its baby boomer base, the Nest is it.

Aesthetically, the trailer is a triumph. With clean lines, it appears both retro and futuristic. The smallest touches are the most impressive. The slight concavity of the rear door is punctuated by brake lights that protrude like giant buttons. The panoramic window is beautifully framed by a beveled inset. The fiberglass finish delicately balances on the line between matte and gloss. Even the extendable awning comes pre-assembled with tasteful LED lights.

The interior is just as meticulously crafted, with a spacious closet, thoughtful storage, and a bespoke Tuft & Needle mattress. All cabinets are designed to specification and installed by hand. Nothing makes a noise or a squeak; the general feel is solid.

Most of this can be attributed to one man, an industrial designer named Bryan Thompson who laughed at the Nest and spent the next 15 years persuading Airstream to build it. The company has staked its name on build quality and has gone to great lengths to promise that the Nest will receive the same level of detail on its Ohio assembly lines as its brighter metal siblings.

Each Airstream takes around 350 hours to make, with 75% of them still on the road today. When each platform is completed, it is bombarded with 10,000 gallons of hurricane-level water, like a ship under a waterfall. The test is roughly approaching our night in the Nest. He did not flee either way.

Such quality comes at a premium: $ 45,900 for the Nest, in particular. The Starcraft Satellite, a slightly larger camping trailer from the Thor family, can be purchased for less than half.

Still, the nest wasn’t entirely a Wes Anderson fever dream for us. We found the air conditioner to be super efficient, but terribly noisy. The “blackout” curtains effectively blocked the sun, but proved difficult to open or close. The two-part lock on the door was both confusing and fragile. And the only way to level the trailer is to drive it on a pile of planks, a humbling exercise of trial and error.

Did I mention it’s small? That’s the point, of course, but as the toddler and dog jostled each other in the narrow single passage, I found myself mentally rearranging things. Airstream makes two similar sized products that arguably have better floor plans.

The Sport, a $ 48,900 vehicle with the brand’s classic Silver Bullet aesthetic, can be outfitted with a bed in the back and a table in the front (which can also be lowered in a second bed). The door is placed between the two.

The $ 37,400 Basecamp has two doors, one on the back and one on the side, to avoid bottlenecks caused by dogs. The Nest-curious would be smart to take a good look at the Basecamp, which is 19% cheaper and 24% lighter. (At 3,500 pounds, the Nest exceeds the towing capabilities of most small and mid-size vehicles.) The Basecamp’s roof is also pre-wired for solar panels, unlike the Nest’s.

Unsurprisingly, the Basecamp is more popular, according to Airstream CEO Bob Wheeler, who says the Nest is “starting to catch on,” especially with urban shoppers looking “for a little more zen and a little less adrenaline ”. A greater share of Nest buyers are women, compared to other Airstream platforms.

Blame aside, the introduction of Airstream’s new mini-models seems to have resulted in a bump in business, or at least coincided with one. Airstream’s sales have grown 7% over the past 12 months, and around half of the brand’s contemporary customers have never owned a motorhome. The momentum is particularly impressive in light of the performance of the industry as a whole. Overall sales have skidded in recent months, with interest rates rising alongside fears of an economic slowdown. In the past four quarters, wholesale RV shipments to the United States have fallen 12.4%, including a 27% drop in the first three months of 2019, according to data from the RV Industry Association. Towable vehicles like the Nest have proven to be more durable than more expensive motorhomes (which include an engine and driving cockpit), if only slightly.

Thor didn’t completely avoid the fallout. The company’s shares have lost nearly two-thirds of their value since they peaked in January 2018. Some of Thor’s factories have reduced to a four-day work week. Competitor Winnebago Industries went through a similar rough patch. “Wholesale market conditions (…) are even more difficult than we initially expected,” Winnebago CEO Michael Happe told analysts in March.

The mood at Colonial Airstream in New Jersey, the company’s busiest U.S. store, is more upbeat than stock prices suggest. Teardrop trailers are luxury items, says COO Jerry O’Dell, and they stand out in all market conditions. In the meantime, more affordable options like the Nest are widening the base.

O’Dell recently went on an appointment with his cardiologist and made the mistake of telling the doctor what he does for a living. “He just talked about the Nest all the time,” recalls O’Dell. “He even went to get some printed material to show it to me. “


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Sally J. Minick

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