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Hi-yo, Silver

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It's a car critic's dream: a trip to Yosemite -- in an Airstream. The Times' Dan Neil ponders the Zen of camping, the costs of Dr. McDreamy hipness and the future of the RV.

August 31, 2008|Dan Neil | Times Automotive Critic

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — Maybe it's because I'm punchy. It's been a trying day, 10 hours on the road. The babies got carsick in the mountains, and one threw up rather spectacularly. After arriving at Upper Pines campsite, I had to back the 26-foot Airstream trailer into a tight space between trees, in the dark, a nerve-racking man audition with a gathering audience of seasoned and skeptical RVers shouting advice: "Cut the wheels to the left. . . . The other left!"

But now the day is done. Roz and Viv (my 10-month-old twins) are finally asleep in the trailer and my wife, Tina, with them. I'm sitting at a picnic table in the sumptuous, high-corniced night of Yosemite Valley, drinking coffee, looking at the Airstream. Just looking.

The orange lick and leap of the campfire light pours off the polished aluminum skin like lava. The Airstream hovers; it glows. Why, Miss Watson, I never noticed before, but with your glasses off, you're beautiful!

As I said, I'm punchy.

I've never been much interested in the recreational-vehicle lifestyle. You call this camping? Please. But I've always wanted an Airstream. Billed as the world's oldest recreational-vehicle company -- born in Los Angeles in 1932 but now in Jackson Center, Ohio -- Airstream has had the rare good sense to keep its classic design classic. The riveted aluminum capsules of today are, aesthetically at least, not much different from the silvery streamliners of more than half a century ago.

An Airstream is a shiny telegraph from midcentury America, an object that reflects our grandparents' restless, road-hungry energy. One Airstream -- a 1960 Bambi model -- made it all the way to the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. So, when the company asked whether I'd like to borrow one of its trailers for a week, it felt like being asked whether I wanted to borrow the 20th Century Limited or the Chrysler Building. Oh . . . yeah.

The fire's dying out now. Man, that sure is a pretty trailer.

BUMPS IN THE ROAD

The road ahead is rocky for America's RV industry. Shipments are off by 17% for the first half of 2008 compared with the same period last year, and sales of the big class-A motor coaches are off more than 50%. It doesn't help that gas and diesel are so expensive and that a big motor coach gets around 6 miles per gallon.

There are other factors too: As it has with the housing market, the tightening of credit is suffocating sales. Also, the decline in home values has shut off the flow of equity-rich RV buyers.

Airstream has been partly insulated from these forces. For one thing, the products are designer-label expensive -- two to three times more costly per-foot than comparable trailers -- so they play to a more affluent demographic. For another, the Airstream's retro-Modernist style attracts buyers who would not otherwise consider an RV.

"People will buy an Airstream because it's different, and they think they are different," says Rich Luhr, editor of the enthusiast magazine Airstream Life. "They tend to be more artistic, a lot of teachers, a lot of small-business owners and entrepreneurs. They're more design oriented. They look at a white-box RV and say, 'Ugh, I can't be seen in that.' "

In the last decade, Airstream has focused on high-swank interiors and co-branding ventures with such companies as Design Within Reach and Quicksilver. The 26-footer we're borrowing is a "Christopher C. Deam" edition. Deam, a San Francisco architect, loved Airstreams but hated their "grandmother's kitchen" interiors. He took it upon himself to redesign the interior in a cool Scandinavian style. The company liked it so much, it hired him.

"All of these products have lowered our average age of buyer dramatically," company Chief Executive Bob Wheeler says.

In what would have likely struck the company's founder -- the highly eccentric caravaner Wally Byam -- as a very odd turn of events, Airstream has become a hip luxury brand. Matthew McConaughey hip, Sean Penn hip, Dr. McDreamy hip.

THE RV WAY

If you ever go shopping for a recreational vehicle, you will hear the argument that -- compared with the cost of airline tickets and hotels -- RVs are a much cheaper way to vacation. I've done a quick run of the numbers and I think that's crazy.

"You know what you'd spend for airline tickets to Europe or Hawaii and hotel rooms?" asks Fred Donson, a salesman at California RV -- a plainly rhetorical question. Yes, but I won't be taking an RV to Europe or Hawaii, will I?

The economics of RVing depend on lots of things: number of days of use, the monthly payments (the interest may be deductible as a second home), residual value, per-mile costs of operation and number of people in your family.

Whatever the ratios, they all look worse when you're talking about an Airstream. The 26-foot rig the company is lending us costs $70,000; a white-box travel trailer would go for half that.

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