Vintage Airstreams a Rolling Bit of Americana

Several times a year, Chris Hildenbrand and Jim Lane hitch a 1967 Airstream Globe Trotter trailer to their 1969 Cadillac Coupe de Ville and embark on a road trip.

Chris Hildenbrand, left, and partner Jim Lane and their original 1984 Airstream Classic. motor home. The Wheat Ridge couple owns six Airstreams. (Photo credit: Cyrus McCrimmon/Denver Post)

Chris Hildenbrand, left, and partner Jim Lane and their original 1984 Airstream Classic. motor home. The Wheat Ridge couple owns six Airstreams. (Photo credit: Cyrus McCrimmon/Denver Post)

They also own five other Airstream models in various stages of restoration.

The Wheat Ridge, Colorado, couple’s foray into mid-century American road tripping comes courtesy of a 20-foot stretch of aluminum that resembles an oversized vintage toaster, gleaming and curvaceous, reports the Denver Post.

It is a home away from home, this single-axle Airstream. It is also something of an addiction: Like thousands of other collectors, Hildenbrand and Lane devote much of their leisure time to this rolling bit of Americana.

“We call it ‘alumin-itis,’ ” Hildenbrand says of fans’ name for the feverish condition.

“And it’s catching.”

Hildenbrand is president of the Vintage Airstream Club, which hosts caravan treks and collective drive-ins. It’s one of several clubs, including the Denver chapter of the Wally Byam Caravan Club International, inspired by the man known by many as the Henry Ford of travel trailers.

This harkens to the early days of Airstream, when Byam organized “caravaning” trips to Canada and Mexico, plus a Capetown-to-Cairo route in Africa and a journey in Asia that traced part of Marco Polo’s route.

Shari and Rob Davis won a best-in-show award for the restoration of their 1956 Airstream Safari travel trailer. (Photo credit: Cyrus McCrimmon/Denver Post)

Shari and Rob Davis won a best-in-show award for the restoration of their 1956 Airstream Safari travel trailer. (Photo credit: Cyrus McCrimmon/Denver Post)

Airstream trailers are revered as paradigms of industrial design, ranking with Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Hamilton Beach blenders for fusing sleekness and smarts.

“It’s an American icon,” Lane told the Denver Post.

“It’s an aerodynamic design and easy to tow.”

Early Airstreams were based on the work of Hawley Bowlus, construction supervisor on the “Spirit of St. Louis,” the plane Charles Lindbergh used for his 1927 solo hop across the Atlantic.

Airstream was created by Wally Byam, who built Masonite trailer kits in the late 1920s and bailed out Bowlus’ struggling firm several years later.

Before World War II, there were about 400 travel-trailer companies in the United States, including manufacturers of do-it-yourself kits. Airstream is the only survivor from that era.

Depending on a vintage trailer’s condition, ranging from average to fully restored, it can sell for anywhere from $4,000 to upwards of $18,000.

Lane says the most prized Airstreams were made from the early 1950s to 1968, an era when expanded leisure time and the interstate highway system were a siren call for middle-class vacationers.

Hildenbrand and Lane’s Globe Trotter model is cozy. It has two sofas and can sleep three. The small, propane-fueled kitchen has a sink and cabinets.

Forrest McClure of Aurora has two Airstreams, a 1966 Globe Trotter and a 1986 Excella.

“I’ve been into them since I was a teenager,” he says. “I remember going by a dealership and just falling in love with them. I told myself that when I was retired I’d have one. First thing you know the kids are grown, so about 10 years ago I bought one.

“If I had my druthers I would have done it a lot sooner.”

McClure likes the fact that Airstreams are well made, although his ’66 Globe Trotter needed some retrofitting to get it road worthy. “There’s no such thing as a vintage Airstream that doesn’t need work,” he concedes.

Rob and Shari Davis of Edgewater own a 1956 Airstream Safari. A couple of years ago, their restoration won them a best-in-show award at an Airstream roundup.

“They’re iconic Americana, with all the aesthetic and romance that goes with that,” Shari says.

“The great thing about these trailers is, wherever you are, you’re home.”

Airstream, maker of the iconic “silver bullet” travel trailer, is the oldest recreational vehicle manufacturer in North America. Following founder Wally Byam’s credo, “Let’s not make changes, let’s only make improvements” Airstream has remained a timeless classic.

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Worth Pondering…

I saw a peanut stand, heard a rubber band,
I saw a needle that winked its eye.
But I think I will have seen everything
When I see an Airstream fly.

—music and lyrics by Oliver Wallace and Ned Washington, in Dumbo

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