For Some, Life Is But An Airstream

Members of the Ford family poseon the White House grounds in this undated file photo. From left, standing: Steve, a son; Susan, a daughter; Jack, a son; Michael's wife Gayle; and Michael, a son. President Gerald Ford and the First Lady Betty Ford are seated.
AP (file)
The image is startling: a streamlined space-age capsule floating along the nation's highways in a shimmering aluminum skin, a giant alien cocoon nestled into the landscape.

A mobile home away from home.

CBS News Sunday Morning Anchor Charles Osgood reports.

Craig Lundberg and his wife, Carol, have been Airstream owners for almost 25 years. Currently, they are owners of a 1994 Airstream Excella.

"We started this long before I retired," recalls Lundberg. "And I found when I did retire, we took one year and said we were going to go around the country."

"By the time we got home, we said the heck with the going back to work stuff, and we've just sort of kept going ever since because it was so much fun," he adds.

The Lundbergs have a home in Arnold, Md., near Annapolis.

Quips Lundberg, "I affectionately call it my four-bedroom Colonial storage shed, because we're never there, but our stuff is stored there."

More than 1,300 vehicles a year are manufactured at a former paper factory in Jackson Center, Ohio, ranging in cost from $25,000 to $80,000. Over the past 70 years, more than 120,000 have been produced, 60 percent of which remain on the road. It's a testament to an American influence as old as the road they travel.

"This idea really came from…covered-wagon concepts or the ability to be mobile and bring things with you that sort of made your time there more comfortable," says Bryan Burkhart, a graphic designer and author who has studied and written about the evolution of the Airstream. "Later on, as people built into these and put more and more weight inside them, the structure itself began to give way and needed to be strengthened or developed."

Airstream founder Wally Byam took his inspiration from the structure of airplanes and applied the then-emerging theories of aerodynamics to his vehicle. In 1931, the Airstream was born, its arrival coinciding with the growing popularity of science fiction literature and America's growing enchantment with the future.

Notes Burkhart, "He developed the Airstream trailer out of his own love for traveling. And, specifically, it was an interest to bring his wife along in a more comfortable fashion."

"Wally's true strength was really promoting the concept of traveling in your trailer and separating it from the concept of being a mobile home, which doesn't really aspire to travel," Burkhart adds.

Byam road tested his vehicle in a series of caravans that began in the early '50s. They traveled Central America, Africa, Asia and Europe, nomads criss-crossing the globe - an image that fed right into our mid-century fascination with the road as a symbol of freedom. From these adventures came improvements in design.

"The word Airstream evokes an era of clean lines and streamlining without the decoration for extra ornaments," says Burkhart. "Airstream was a very stripped-down form that ws meant to cut through the air. Simple as that."

It is a simplicity embraced by many, though being redefined by each new generation.

Design historian Grace Jeffers and creative director Jim Huff of the New York-based firm Inside Design have redesigned a prototype Airstream interior to mirror its classic outer shell.

"When people see them, they may not understand how much it costs or how it was made. But they say, 'Oh, there's something special about that,'" says Jeffers.

"The core thing is, we want to see new design injected into something that has a great history and heritage," adds Huff.

"We came up with a interior that was deserving of the design of the shell," explains Jeffers. "Inside of our trailer, there's exposed metal walls that are contrasted with laminate panels and laminate cabinetry. And the advantage to that is, laminate's warm. It's warm to the touch. It's aesthetically warm. And the metal is cool. So, then, you have this dialogue between warm materials and cool materials that creates a really lovely tension in the interior."

It is a vehicle whose design foreshadowed a rush toward the world of tomorrow, yet has managed to remain relevant today. Its success is less the success of an idea than it is the success of a union: the marriage of form and function that would give birth to a lifestyle.

It's a lifestyle that continues to resonate in caravans and ever-increasing numbers of individual travelers.