At Airstream, the future is fibreglass.
Earlier this month, the brand built on aluminum Americana unveiled a small pod that’s almost entirely metal-free. It’s also not cheap. With the price starting at US$46,000, the Nest is Airstream 2.0, a matte play for well-heeled digital nomads, C-suite dropouts, and anyone who would choose a minimalist home on wheels over a Mercedes C-Class sedan.
“We’re crazy excited to pop the cork on this thing,” Airstream chief executive Bob Wheeler said. “We see an opportunity to fill some white space in the market where Airstream has never been before.”
The Nest is is 5.2 metres long, 2.1 metres wide and weighs about 1,540 kilograms without any iMacs, surfboards or rescue dogs aboard. It has a two-burner stove, a microwave, an outdoor shower and a queen-size bed supplied by Tuft & Needle. At first glance, it doesn’t look like an Airstream invention because, in part, it’s not.
The rig was designed by Robert Johans, who started restoring and retrofitting campers in 2006 out of a Bend, Ore., shop named the Egg Plant. He began selling the Nest to order about five years ago, one of many small companies cranking out compact, towable campers in the same austere style. Airstream liked Johans’s prototype so much, it bought the model, including its trademark and designs, in early 2016 and had its own engineers tune the little rig into a mass-produced vehicle. (Johans was kept on the team as well.)
“If we’d had a clean sheet of paper, I don’t know that we’d have designed the Nest,” Wheeler said. “But we recognized it for what it was, and we fell in love with it.”
Ironically, what the Airstream team most liked are the design features they can’t execute with aluminum. Because fibreglass can be moulded and tooled, the Nest is full of sharper angles, planes and concave surfaces. “It’s a little iPhone-esque,” Wheeler said.
If all goes as planned, the Nest will appeal to affluent customers, more interested in design and outdoor “experiences” than camping. So far, the company has leads from 100,000 people who’ve checked out the Nest online. Three out of four of them have not spent any time researching other Airstream models.
It’s a propitious time for towable RVs. Americans are camping a lot more these days and a greater share now have a vehicle capable of towing a 1,810-kilogram condominium. Airstream, in particular, has been on a tear. While its parent, Thor Industries, doesn’t break out financial results by nameplate, Wheeler said the brand has grown annual revenue by an average of 25 per cent each year for the past six years.
For customers still looking for something shiny, Airstream sells two models that will compete with the Nest. The Sport camper is a pint-size version of its famous teardrop design that costs US$46,000 and sleeps up to four. The Basecamp version costs US $10,000 less but sleeps only two.
Critically, the Nest has clean, uncluttered body panels and smooth lines that are an anomaly in the busy visual language favoured by today’s car makers. The rounded and bevelled window edges are downright retro. Even the logo is understated. The rig looks more like a 1960s houseboat or a sci-fi spaceship than a contemporary RV. In short, it looks, somehow, like an Airstream.