Monday, July 23, 2012

Airstreams

Pretty to look at, but expensive to own and difficult to maintain.  An Airstream is not really a very cost-effective form of RVing.

We have looked at dozens of Airstreams over the years - maybe over 100, I am not sure.   We keep thinking about buying one, but usually something stops us from making the purchase.  They are an American Cultural Icon, and like with a Harley-Davidson, people tend to pay more for the cache than they do for the physical equipment.

So what keeps us from buying one?

1.  Price:  The price of these things, new or used, is staggering.   A new Airstream like the one shown above, can cost over $50,000.   This is a lot of money to spend on a recreational toy, for anyone in the middle-class.  It is not as bad as, say, a $300,000 motorhome, of course.  But when you throw in another $30,000 for a tow vehicle, you are looking at close to $100,000 to go camping.   That is a lot of money.

Used trailers are slightly less, of course.  But often they need expensive repairs - we'll get to that later.   As a result, they can be a real money-pit, over time, if you want to keep them in good repair.

2.  Weight:  While advertised as a lightweight trailer (due to the aluminum construction) their very size makes them heavy, aluminum or not.  To safely tow a 22-27 foot unit, we would want to have an F-250 at the very least.   And this would not be cheap, nor would it get good gas mileage.

What sort of mileage?  Well, like with penis size, men lie about gas mileage all the time.  I've seen guys blow by me at 80 mph (which is not safe, for any trailer) towing a 31-footer, and then later claiming they are getting 20 mpg, which is an outright falsehood, as the underlying tow vehicle is not capable of such gas mileage.

The low teens or even the single-digits are more the norm, particularly for gas engines.  Diesels fare a little better.  But 20 mpg?  Not in your dreams!

This adds up, over time, if you want to travel a lot.  We drove 10,000 miles last summer, to Labrador and back towing our tiny Casita with a BMW X5.  At an average 17 mpg, that comes out to 588 gallons of fuel, which at about $4 (including Canada) works out to $2353 in fuel.   At 10 mpg, which is what our pickup truck used to get, towing a 27-footer, we are looking at 1000 gallons of fuel, costing $4000.   It is a lot of gas!

You might be able to tow a Bambi with a medium-sized SUV (I've seen them towed with Range Rovers and BMW X5's) but the height and width of the thing means you will have a lot of wind resistance.   And that is the smallest Airstream they make, and it still costs $50,000.   The folks with the Range Rover I met, had $100,000 of car and camper parked at their site.   Kinda expensive for camping - at least for us middle-class schmucks.   And while they might think they can afford it, in reality, well - that is what this blog is all about, middle-class people bankrupting themselves buying bling.

If you want to buy a larger Airstream, you'd better buy a big pickup truck and be prepared to pay a lot of money for gas.

3.  Size:  Even the smallest Airstream (the "Bambi") is large, compared to our present Casita.  It is taller and wider and thus is harder to maneuver into smaller spaces.   The larger rigs are even more so.   While having "space" in a camper is nice, you have to tow this (weight) and maneuver it (size).    Sometimes less is more.

For example, we like to go up the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the campsites there were created back in the days of car-camping.   For larger campers, the options are limited.  But we can wedge ourselves into the tiniest of spaces.   It is handy.  And cheaper than staying in an "RV Resort".

4.  Clear Coat:   Airstream trailers are not bare aluminum, but rather aluminum coated with a clear paint.  As they age, this clear coat scratches, yellows, and then starts to peel off.  It looks like holy hell.  At that point, you have two choices:  Buff all the clear coat off the trailer and polish it, like an old airplane (which will be so shiny as to blind other motorists), or take it back to the factory (or a skilled repairman) to have it re-coated.   Both are time-consuming and expensive processes.   Lesser trailers, which are painted or fiberglass, don't seem to have this problem - or if they do, can be inexpensively repainted at any body shop.

5.  Dents:  The heartbreaking part about owning an Airstream is dents.  The aluminum dents easily, particularly at the corners.  Our regular "square" trailers had no problems hitting the occasional tree branch when backing up.   Our motorhome was hit on the side by a runaway trailer tire coming in the opposite direction and suffered little more than a black tire mark.  Our fiberglass Casita hits tree branches all the time - with the result being little more than a scratch that buffs out.

But with an Airstream, you just touch it to something, and that absolutely prefect exterior now has a heart-wrenching dent in it.    I met a nice lady the other day with a year-old Bambi. I didn't ask how much it cost, but they are in the mid five-figure range, brand new.  She was off to a special repair shop to have a small dent (and resultant leak) removed. A slight impact with a tree branch had marred the "perfect" exterior of the Bambi.

Sadly, this cut short her camping season, as the repair shop needed over a MONTH to remove the dented panels, replace them with new ones, re-rivet and re-clearcoat the trailer.   She e-mailed me later: 
"I picked up my Airstream Sept. 16 from Knoxville, TN and she looks like new. Thank heaven for insurance because the total repair cost 8,000.00 as there was more damage then I first thought."

Ouch. $8000 is what I PAID to purchase my secondhand Casita. And insurance notwithstanding, the costs are not "free."  File a few claims like that, and well, your insurance will skyrocket, over time.

Notice the rock guards on the front of the unit shown above.   Airstream had to add these, as the tow vehicle throws up rocks and gravel, which over time, pits and dents the trailer (this happens with our Casita, but most of the time, it just means buffing out the fiberglass).  The idea is, the rock guards can be replaced easily, without having to replace the underlying trailer panels.

I have an idea - why not cover the entire trailer with these guards?  Then, you can easily replace them when the trailer is dented!  Oh, wait, that makes no sense at all, does it?  And neither do "rock guards".

Repairing such dent in panels is problematic.  You have to get the exact same panel from the factory, and it has to be buck-riveted in place, which means accessing the interior, which means tearing out cabinets and interior walls to do the job right (blind rivets, of course, just won't do!).

And when the new panel is in place, well, you have to seal and re-clear-coat it.   Sounds like a practical design, no?

As a result, you see older Airstreams with dents in them, as the owners cannot afford to make repairs, and even if you do repair them, you risk causing....

6. Leaks:  Airstreams leak, over time.  The design uses a number of panels riveted together, and over time, they start to leak at the seams, the windows, the doors, etc.  The entire design relies on sealant and caulking to keep tight, and that is not a good design.  Sealants dry out, caulking cracks, and as the unit goes down the road, joints flex and let in water.

Since the shape of the trailer is like a twinkie, water rolls down the sides, and hits every seam and crevice in the trailer.  Eventually, it finds a way in.  (Our Casita has the same shape, but being made from one piece of fiberglass on the top, there are no seams to let in water).

Square trailers can leak, of course.  But since the walls are vertical, the water runs off the roof and doesn't tend to run down the sides, seeking ingress at every window or door joint.  And since most have single-piece fiberglass panels and roofs (or rubber roofs) there are fewer joints for water to find.

Water causes a musty smell, creates mildew, and eventually rots out the floor, in the rear of the trailer, or by the front door (we've seen it all!).   This is staggeringly expensive and difficult to fix, as the "Belly Pan" has to be removed, in many cases, to get at the wood flooring.

Of course, if you kept your Airstream indoors when not in use, you could reduce the incidence of leakage, and preserve that expensive clear-coat.  But that can be hard to do, as they are...

7.  Hard to Store:   When we had our barn in New York, we set it up with a bay for a large motorhome or trailer.   Most people don't have such storage facilities handy.   For the average suburbanite, it is simply out of the question.  The alternatives are to store the unit outdoors, in your yard, or to keep it outdoors at a paid-for storage yard.   In either case, the unit sits outside, the clearcoat oxidizing, and rain running down the sides of the thing, looking for an entry point, 24/7.

And if you bought a truck to tow it with (which you will need) you need a place to keep that.  For us, the idea of having a giant pickup truck blocking our driveway just seems, well, impractical.  We store the Casita in a storage locker (indoors) and the X5 fits in the garage.   It is a lot less hassle and wear and tear.

8.  Layout & Space:  Many Airstream folks tout the increased size of their units as an advantage over other kinds of rigs.   But the layout of many Airstreams leaves a lot to be desired.   Square trailers, which are very cheap to buy and own ($15,000) have far more headroom, flat walls, more cabinet space and more storage space underneath.

The Achilles heel of the Airstream is storage, and many folks complain there is not even a place to put a folding chair, in an Airstream.  There are few, if any, outside storage compartments.

Inside, in addition to the sloping wall problem (which cuts into cabinet space), is the lack of a place to eat.  Even our 17' Casita has not one, but two dinettes.   Most Airstreams, particularly older models, have none.   We looked at a 31-footer the other day, and it had no dinette.  You are expected to eat on the couch in the front, and you know how handy and comfortable that would be.

Some newer units have dinettes, as people have complained about this long and loud, over the years.

And many older units have twin beds with a center aisle.   Very Ricky-and-Lucy, but not practical for a modern age.

But what about bigger units?  The 31-footer we looked at has the same layout as smaller trailers - they just give you a giant closet to fill up the space.  Who needs 8-feet of closet in a camper for chrissakes?  It makes no sense.  Eight feet of closet and no dinette.  And no, a closet is not a handy place to store your folding chairs and barbecue grill, unless you want your clothes smelling like charcoal.

And despite their enormous length, they sleep few people.  The 31-footer had rear twins (which were not really full-size twin mattresses, but more like bunks) and could theoretically sleep two more on the pull-out couch.   Thirty-one feet and it sleeps four.   Our 18' Prowler slept six!

Clearly, these are not the choice for a family with more than two kids.

9.  Parts:  You can go to Camping World or go online and find parts for your RV all day long - unless, of course, it is an Airstream.  For example, I just bought a new stove vent housing for $7.99 on eBay.  It was also on Amazon and several other RV parts places, as well as from the original manufacturer of the part.

But for an Airstream?  Many parts are "special" to the marque, and nothing else "fits" on an Airstream.   You want to add a fantastic fan to your camper?  Not a problem, if you have a regular camper.  Oh, wait, you have an Airstream.  You need the special Airstream model, as they decided to use a different sized vent opening than everyone else.

And so on, down the line.  Simple parts that cost a couple of bucks for a regular trailer, are special-order pieces for an Airstream.   Even the awning is different, as the arms have to have a "bend" to them to fit the side of the trailer (sort of).  Nothing is simple!

10.  Keeping it "Perfect":  The Airstream has a "perfect" exterior, and if kept spotless - no dents, no scratches, no peeling clearcoat - it will hold its value and not depreciate too much.  This is not to say they don't depreciate.  If you look at NADA guides, you can see that a $67,000 23-footer, after five years, is worth about half as much (that old "depreciates half in value every five years" rule of thumb).

This is in contrast to our 1988 Prowler 18' which we bought for $4000 and used for several years and sold for $4000.  Or our 27' Wilderness 5th Wheel, which we bought for $6500, used for several years, and then sold for $6000.   And the Casita, which we paid $8000 for, might fetch $6000 - or more - today.  And with a cheaper trailer, even if they depreciate down to nothing, you don't lose much.

But in order to keep even the value that an Airstream has, it has to be kept original.  You cannot modify it or use non-Airstream parts on it.   They detract from the value, considerably.

And yet, over time, the interiors wear out - and the tambor doors for the cabinets are either NLA or horrendously expensive, so people "restore" an older Airstream using non-stock cabinets and appliances (some folks put 110V refrigerators in them!).   Many become lakeside camps, and are never run again.

While a classic Airstream in excellent condition, with all-original configuration will fetch high dollars, a gutted-and-redone trailer, "modernized" and updated, may be worth a lot less.

With other types of trailers, this is not so much a concern.   I am not running a trailer museum, just going camping.  So, if I want to drill a hole in the side of the camper and bolt on something, I am not "desecrating" a "classic RV" or anything.

Camping should be about camping, not keeping some talisman of an icon in perfect condition all the time.  When you worry about tracking dirt into your camper, maybe it is time to give up on camping.  I'm just saying....

* * * 
So why do people buy Airstreams?  Well, they look cool, to be sure.   And it is a cult product - you can go on Airstream Caravans, camp at Airstream parks, and join the Airstream club and lean the secret handshakes and all of that nonsense.  It is retro, it is funky, and it has cache.   But is cache worth spending money on?   Not to me.

Like with a Harley, you can fantasize about how cool it will be to cruise down the highway in your shiny new Airstream, with everyone looking on in envy.   But of course, that is sort of a ridiculous reason to buy anything isn't it?  And yet we all do it, don't we?  We all want to have the baddest or best whatever-on-wheels to show off our implied wealth and sophistication.

And of course, it goes without saying, that it implies status.  The fellows I met towing a Bambi with their Range Rover weren't making a sound economic choice, they were making a status statement.  And the statement is, "Look at me!  I am better than you!  I can afford to spend $100,000 to go camping!"

That sort of thing gets old really quickly.   It takes no talent to go deeply into debt for status.  And the ability to borrow is not a sign of real wealth.  I could afford, right now, to buy 17 of such rigs.  I choose not to.  The cost of buying "brandy-new" is just too staggering.  And frankly, what is the fun in that?  It takes no talent to go to the dealer and write checks (or worse yet, take out a loan).  No one is "impressed" by your ability to go into debt to acquire consumer goods.

(Some people really think this - that their ability to borrow to buy bling is a sign of their wealth, which they measure in terms of monthly income and credit score.   Borrowing is not wealth, it is anti-wealth.  And anyone with a W-2 and no common sense can go into debt up to their eyeballs to buy just about anything.  It is not a sign of wealth or sophistication, but often poverty and stupidity).

It would be fun to restore a vintage Airstream from the 1960's and tow it with a restored International Travelall (with fake wood on the sides, of course).  But then again, the reality of the costs involved make me realize that it would be an expensive fantasy, and the reality of driving an older vehicle and an older trailer, well, it would have its challenges.

But for me, the allure of RVing may be wearing off, quickly.   Event the maintenance on a "small" trailer like we have, gets to be a lot, over time.  I have spend the last four days repacking wheel bearings, fixing a refrigerator door, steam-cleaning the carpeting, and tightening screws and replacing loose rivets.  Keeping even a lesser RV in good working order is, well, a lot of work.

Just driving somewhere and staying in a rented house or B&B starts to look more alluring than dragging your house with you, all the time.  And maybe in a few years, that is what we will do.

But the thought of spending tens of thousands of dollars on an RV?   It is just not in the cards, even if I could afford to "pay cash" for one - and I can, but I choose not to.   Maybe if I won the lottery.  But then again, if I won the lottery, I would have a private jet and a limo, right?

11 comments:

  1. One other thing to think about with an Airstream is frame rot.

    Land Rover had a problem with this, too. Aluminum body, steel frame. Throw in some road salt, or salty air in Florida, and the steel frame acts as an anode to the aluminum shell. As a result, the frame rusts through, which is difficult and expensive, if not impossible to repair.

    Land Rover had a class action suit over this, and I have seen many a used Land Rover with a "perfect" body and a rotted frame, particularly up North.

    And yes, I have seen Airstreams in the same shape, with the belly pan removed. Placed in Florida for long periods of time, they rot out, frame first.

    If you are looking at an older "classic" Airstream to "fix up" or "restore" - be sure to crawl underneath and get a good look at the frame, close-up.

    A 31-footer we looked at the other day was in great shape - few dents, even on the "banana peel" section. Underneath, though, the frame was swiss-cheesed with holes. It was no longer roadable. In fact, it would be dicey to tow it from the owner's house. Maybe it might serve as a permanently parked camp. Maybe....

    Sorry, but while these are funky cool campers, they are not really worth the staggering prices charged for them, new or used.

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  2. I almost forgot another "nice" feature with older airstreams - no grey-water holding tank!

    Yes, many older airstreams have no grey water holding tank. Your options are to dump grey water on the ground, or use the tiny black water tank (suitably re-plumbed) to hold grey water as well.

    Or, as some folks do, rebuild the trailer with a grey-water tank.

    It is odd they did this, in an era where most trailers had separate black and grey water tanks.

    But often, "premium" products like this have antiquated features. For example, BMW was putting cassette decks in its cars as late as 2005. Pretty odd, no?

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  3. Some new Airstreams (smaller Bambi models) still do not have a grey water tank. Rather, the grey and black water tanks are COMBINED into one. Is this bad? Well, the sink drain is going into the black water tank, which means if you get any backup, well, it gets ugly fast.

    Even the cheapest of travel trailers made have separate grey and black water tanks. Why Airstream combines these two on the smaller models - in 2013 - is a mystery to me.

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  4. I should note that only the older Airstreams (like pre 1969, according to the factory tour guide) can be polished to bare aluminum, when the clear coat paint fails. The later models have anodized aluminum which the tour guide said could not be polished.

    The roofs on the newer units are actually painted white! We saw a roof being made on a "wide body" unit, and since the roof is so wide, they riveted a 6" wide strip to white aluminum to the roof panel, creating an additional, unnecessary seam on both sides of the trailer. I was kind of appalled at the craftsmanship - the space between each rivet (which is about 1" on these seems) was crimped and "oil can" dented. Brand new, these things leave the factory with oil can dents where the rivets mean the sidewalls.

    The tour guide said they sell all they can make. So I guess there is a demand for these things. But for middle-class folks, I think they are not a very good bargain.

    I met a fellow at a campsite who had a traditional "box" trailer - his third in a decade. He traded them in every three years. His latest 25-footer cost him $13,000.

    That is a heck of a lot cheaper than even a Bambi. Heck, even adding up the cost of all three trailers, it is less than a new Bambi - and that's not even factoring in the trade-in costs.

    The trip to the Airstream factory was enough to convince us never to buy one. Sheesh, they have vinyl floors in them! Even the cheapest box trailer from Coleman has engineered hardwood flooring!

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  5. A reader asks:

    "How fast to Airstream Trailers Depreciate?"

    Good question. Most towable RV's, particularly if bought used, depreciate little, if kept in good condition.

    For example, we bought an 18' Prowler about 5 years old, for $4500 and after five years, sold it for $4500 (zero depreciation).

    Our 27' Fifth wheel, we bought about five years old for $7200 and sold it five years later, for $6500. Not bad.

    Our 15-year-old Casita, we bought about eight years ago for $8300 and it would easily fetch $6000 today - or more. Again, not bad.

    But an Airstream, even a "Cheap" one adds another zero to the price. Even a basic Bambi can cost $40,000 or more - often far more.

    They seem to take a beating in price during the first few years, level off and then slowly go downhill. The idea that that "hold their value" better than other trailers is a bit specious. And since they are SO EXPENSIVE, even "low" depreciation amounts to an awful lot of money (tens of thousands of dollars).

    So, if you buy a new Airstream, expect to lose several thousand in depreciation the first year (more than I spent on my trailer, or indeed, what you could spend to buy a brand-new "box" trailer).

    After several years, you are likely losing tens of thousands of dollars.

    If there any leaks or dents, well, expect to lose more.

    After a while, they do level out - when the prices are dirt cheap. My brother-in-law bought a 25 footer from the 1980's, for about $14,500. He kept it for several years and sold it for $14,000. He did keep it in a barn, and other than the peeling clearcoat issue, it was in pretty good shape (well, it had a couple of leaks, too).

    But then again, anything 20 years old pretty much levels out in price, and price depends on condition more than anything else.

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  6. Want an all-aluminum WELDED camper? Check out the Camp Lite:

    http://www.livinlite.com/camplite-overview.php

    Very interesting construction - even the floor is aluminum and all welded together.

    Maybe a better, cheaper and LIGHTER option than an airstream. Even a loaded unit is less than half the cost of an Airstream.

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  7. I found a video on YouTube that shows a 1985 model being polished:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HNZepfqL2ow

    So the factory tour guide was blowing smoke up my ass when he said the newer units cannot be polished!

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  8. Thor, the parent company of Airstream has just bought the Camplite company. I presume they will position these campers as an entry-level all-aluminum camper.

    Or, they will shut the company down to curtail competition.

    Stay tuned....

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  9. On our latest annual trip (three months, 7,000 miles, 17 States, two provinces) we've noticed that you don't see a lot of Airstreams on the road anymore. Time was, they were plentiful. But I think most folks rather would spend less on a "box" trailer with all the slide-outs and storage than on a cultural icon.

    Older Airstreams seem to remain parked - turning into full-time residences, camping cabins, or food wagons. A few 'restored' old ones, in immaculate shape show up at shows and contests, but rarely are taken out on the road camping. When you do see one being actually used, it is neat.

    And that is too bad, too. I wish that Airstreams were practical and easy to own, but the more I look at them, the less I like.

    The old Casita (15 years old this year) still looks like new. A coat of wax once a year, and repack the wheel bearings every other year, and that's about it. Very cost-effective, economical, easy-to-own, durable, leak-free, dent-free living.

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  10. A reader asks, "Why are Airstreams so Expensive?"

    Like anything else, they charge what the market will bear. Harley-Davidson charges more for a motorcycle than you'd pay for a small car. Why? Because people will pay extra to have a "real" H-D bike. Knock-off and lookalike bikes made in Japan or Canada just don't cut it.

    The same is true of Airstream. They sell all they make, and the folks buying them have a lot of money. I've seen more than one brand-new $60,000 Airstream "Bambi" being towed with a brand-new $70,000 BMW X5 or Range Rover. These are folks who want to go camping in style and have the money to pay (or so they think....).

    Prices of commodities are based on supply and DEMAND, not cost of production.

    However, at the factory they told us their labor cost was well over $100 an hour. Given the horrendously inefficient "production line" I saw, it is no wonder they are so costly to make. An assembly line, it really isn't. They are hand-built, one at a time, and that is not always a good thing....

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  11. This site about vintage airstreams discusses the leak issue:

    http://vintageairstream.com/frequently-asked-questions-faqs/leaks/

    Leaks are heartbreaking, not only because they stain the inner walls and floors, but rot out floorboards, cause mold and mildew problems and also leave a very nasty smell in an RV.

    Yes, box trailers leak - perhaps more than Airstreams. But they cost 1/5 as much to buy! For the money you spend on an Airstream, they should never leak!

    We met a couple in Provincetown with a beautiful 22 footer with no dents and not even any peeling of the clearcoat! They drove it carefully, every year, from New Jersey to Provincetown and then back. A very expensive vacation home.

    Even treated carefully, it has started to leak. And they can't find the source of the leak, either.... Ouch!

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