It was as if Airstream had ordered the rain.
Midway through a test sleep in the brand’s new Nest camp trailer, a deluge swept across the sky like a Springsteen ballad. Our tired band — including my wife, three-year-old son, and 80-pound Labrador retriever, Woodrow — was literally stuck in the swamps of New Jersey. But this is why one spends a Mercedes-size chunk of money for a tiny house on wheels, rather than rely on a flimsy tent. As the storm raged, we curled up under blankets and turned up the Moana. Woodrow, always up for a mud bath, was the only one put out.
After almost a century of crafting nearly identical, metallic, tear-drop trailers, Airstream has finally learned a new design language. The brand, one of 17 RV lines owned by Thor Industries Inc., ditched its silver-bullet style and created a fiberglass camping trailer in a bid to attract those who “love modern design.” There is nothing else like it on the market, save for a few craft vehicles assembled by startups at preciously low volumes. If any rig is going 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 simultaneously 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 balances delicately on the line between matte and glossy. Even the extendable awning comes pre-strung with tasteful LED lights.
The interior is just as meticulously crafted, with a spacious closet, thoughtful storage, and a custom-size Tuft & Needle mattress. All of the cabinetry is designed to spec and installed by hand. Nothing rattles or squeaks; the overall feel is solid.
Most of this is attributable to one man, an industrial designer named Bryan Thompson who mocked up 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 shinier, metal siblings get.
Each Airstream takes about 350 hours to make, with 75 percent of them still on the road today. When each rig is complete, it is blasted with 10,000 gallons of water at hurricane-level forces, like a ship under a waterfall. The test roughly approximates our night in the Nest. It didn’t leak in either instance.
Such quality comes at a premium — $45,900 for the Nest, specifically. The Starcraft Satellite, a slightly larger camping trailer in the Thor family, can be had for less than half as much.
Still, the Nest wasn’t entirely a Wes Anderson fever dream for us. We found the air-conditioner ultra-efficient but awfully loud. The “blackout” curtains effectively blocked the sun, but proved awkward to tug open or close. The two-part lock on the door was both confusing and flimsy. And the only way to level the trailer is to drive it onto a stack of boards, a humiliating exercise in trial and error.
Did I mention that it’s small? That’s the point, of course, but as the toddler and dog jostled in the single, narrow passageway, I found myself mentally rearranging things. Airstream makes two similarly sized products that have arguably better floor plans.
The Scout, a $48,900 vehicle with the marque’s classic silver-bullet aesthetic, can be had with a bed at the aft end and a table at the fore (which can also be lowered into a second bed). The door is placed between the two.
The $37,400 Basecamp has two doors — one at the rear and one on the side — to prevent dog-induced bottlenecks. The Nest-curious would be smart to take a good, long look at the Basecamp, which is 19 percent cheaper and 24 percent lighter. (At 3,500 pounds, the Nest is beyond the tow capabilities of most small and midsize vehicles.) The Basecamp’s roof is also pre-wired for solar panels, unlike that of the Nest.
Not surprisingly, the Basecamp is more popular, according to Airstream Chief Executive Officer Bob Wheeler, who says the Nest is “starting to hit its stride,” particularly with urban buyers looking for “a little more Zen and a little less adrenaline.”
Gripes aside, the introduction of Airstream’s new mini-models appears to have driven a bump in business, or at least coincided with one. Airstream sales have increased by 7 percent in the past 12 months, and roughly half of the brand’s contemporary customers have not previously owned an RV. The momentum is particularly impressive in light of how the industry at large has performed. Overall sales have skidded in recent months as interest rates ticked up alongside fears of an economic downturn. In the past four quarters, wholesale shipments of RVs in the U.S. dropped by 12.4 percent, including a 27 percent plunge in the first three months of 2019, according to data from the RV Industry Association. Towables such as the Nest proved more resilient than more expensive motorhomes (which include an engine and driving cockpit), if only slightly.
Thor hasn’t avoided the fallout entirely. Company shares have shed almost two-thirds of their value since they peaked in January 2018. Some of Thor’s factories have scaled back to a four-day work week. Competitor Winnebago Industries has been going through a similar rough patch. “Wholesale market conditions … are even tougher than we had originally planned,” Winnebago CEO Michael Happe told analysts in March.
The mood at New Jersey’s Colonial Airstream, the company’s busiest U.S. store, is more upbeat than share prices would suggest. The tear-drop trailers are luxury goods, explains Operations Director Jerry O’Dell, and they roll off the lot, no matter the market conditions. In the meantime, more affordable options such as the Nest are expanding the base.
O’Dell recently went in for 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 the entire time,” O’Dell recalls. “He even went and got printouts of it to show me.”
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.