Near the end of a runway-straight stretch of pavement that parallels Interstate 87 in Plattsburgh sits a cluster of shiny silver pods glistening in the summer sun. The pods, which look like alien spacecraft that have just touched down to visit Adirondack Park, are Airstream travel trailers for sale to customers all over the world.
This is the home of Nomad Airstream. The 35,000-square-foot facility, formerly an April Cornell warehouse, is the exclusive distributor of Airstream travel trailers in Vermont and New York. Situated at the gateway to the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain, Nomad Airstream has become a global destination for recreational and business clients obsessed with the world’s first-ever modern recreational vehicle.
Anyone unfamiliar with the Airstream name has undoubtedly seen these iconic silver bullets sailing down the highway, parked in campgrounds or featured in countless films, TV shows and advertisements. Their sleek, art-deco designs have captivated consumers’ interest and affections since the first ones rolled off a Los Angeles production line back in 1936.
Since then, Airstreams have been used by everyone from U.S. military commanders and NASA astronauts to screen actors, directors and other celebrities. In 2001, Pamela Anderson reportedly received an all-white Airstream from Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. Dubbed the “Lovestream,” it was outfitted with a mirrored ceiling, white shag carpeting, a vibrating bed and a stripper pole.
Today, Airstream trailers occupy a unique niche in popular culture. There are now campgrounds, motor clubs, conventions, magazines, websites and even insurance companies devoted exclusively to Airstream enthusiasts, aka Airstreamers. And, though many people naturally associate the chrome domes with the national parks and deserts of the American Southwest — think Raising Arizona — more of the trailers are sold in New York State than anywhere else in the world.
Capitalizing on their exclusive status in the North Country and the global Airstream phenomenon are Nomad president Steven Clement and CEO Guillaume Langevin. Three years ago, Clement, then a high-end Canadian clothier, and Langevin, a Montréal advertising executive, set up shop not far from Plattsburgh International Airport with modest plans to renovate three Airstream trailers with $100,000.
Today, Nomad has become North America’s largest restorer and renovator of new and used Airstreams. From four employees in 2010, the company has grown to 17, many of whom, Clement notes, are former airplane technicians.
The need for aerospace expertise is understandable, given that Airstreams are built with double shells of riveted, aircraft-grade aluminum. Their aerodynamic, sausage-like shape, their rounded, windshield-like windows and hatch-like doors make Airstreams look as though they’re made as much for sailing on clouds as on asphalt.
In fact, Airstream founder Wally Byam launched the company in 1932 by marketing a camper designed by William Hawley Bowlus, who built Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. For the first few years, Byam sold kits customers could use to build their own trailers for $100; he released the first production model in 1936. That model, dubbed the Airstream Clipper, was named after the first transatlantic seaplane.
Parked inside Nomad’s Plattsburgh facility, which is as spacious as an aircraft hangar, sits a fleet of Airstreams of various sizes and vintages undergoing repairs and custom renovations. They include a 1947 model that bears a striking resemblance to a World War II fighter plane.
Nomad sells the latest Airstream models which are parked outside, ranging in length from 16 to 31 feet. But Clement says the company specializes in crafting custom trailers for individuals and corporate clients from as far away as Korea and Brazil.
One such trailer, Langevin says, will eventually serve as a rolling bar for a San Francisco restaurateur. Another, recently completed, is now a mobile corporate store for Vanity Fair. And a compact, nearly completed 16-foot Airstream is due to be shipped soon to a wealthy client in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
What kind of custom work does Nomad do? “We can do almost anything,” Clement says. “It’s always the customer’s budget that drives the decision.”
Those budgets can quickly inflate. A new, unmodified model from Airstream’s factory in Jackson Center, Ohio, runs from $38,000 to $145,000 and takes about 280 man-hours to complete. The customized projects Nomad does typically take 300 to 800 hours of work and can cost upward of $300,000. But each project is different, Clement notes. Sometimes just figuring out how to balance the trailer’s weight properly can take Nomad months.
That’s because, first and foremost, Airstreams are designed to be mobile, which puts certain features, such as hot tubs and waterbeds, out of the question. Mobility does not, however, rule out a commercial bar with three 50-gallon kegs and beer taps mounted on one side, like the one Nomad is currently building for a San Francisco client out of a 1965 Airstream Caravel. The frame that will eventually hold the hand-carved, African mahogany bar had to be completely rebuilt for commercial purposes. One side of the trailer will open upward, like the cargo bay door on a military aircraft.
Nomad also customized a personal Airstream for Michael Dell, of Dell Computer fame, to put on the beach at his summer house. It featured two bedrooms, with a five-foot glass shower and a red-oak interior. Another Airstream, still parked inside the Plattsburgh building, was built as a self-contained restaurant for a New York City couple. It’s outfitted with commercial-grade gas burners, refrigerators, freezers and stainless-steel sinks. Alas, says Langevin, the couple split up and have yet to determine which one will take delivery.
What’s the appeal of Airstreams?
For one thing, it’s the oldest company of travel trailers in the world, Clement explains, with a reputation for quality and durability that an “SOB” can never equal. (The acronym, meaning “some other box,” is how Airstreamers refer to other trailers and mobile homes.) Airstreams are built to last, as evidenced by the fact that 70 percent of them are still on the road — or, more accurately, still in use. The Airstream door alone takes eight hours to build.
“This door is very strong,” Clement says, hanging on it with both hands and bouncing up and down to demonstrate. “You can’t do that on an SOB. You’ll rip the door off.”
Airstreams also have a reputation for retaining their value. Recently, Nomad sold a 1978 Airstream for $18,000; a 1941 model went for about $40,000. In fact, Airstreams can be financed for as long as 30 years, an indicator of their lifespan.
To the untrained eye, all Airstreams may look alike, but, as Clement explains, Airstream fanatics can look at one and immediately tell in which year it was built based on the number of aluminum panels and the pattern of its rivets.
Outside the building, Clement shows off some of the newest Airstream models Nomad sells. These have as many amenities as most modern homes — or more — including full kitchens, bathrooms, wall-mounted TVs, stereo systems, queen-size beds, stand-alone showers, cedar closets, skylights and carbon monoxide detectors.
One model, the 2014 Flying Cloud, is a 25-foot trailer that sleeps up to eight people and features three wall-mounted TVs, two bunk beds, Blu-ray players, LED interior lighting and a spacious bathroom. Another model, the 27-foot Eddie Bauer, sleeps up to five and features a fern-green “sunbrella” awning and a sports hatch in which users can stow a couple of bikes or kayaks.
The 27-foot International, with its trim, modernist design — the Airstream catalog describes it as “SoHo loft meets spaceship vibe” — has plush leather seats, sleek metal cabinets and surfaces, even a doorbell outside. When Clement left his 6000-square-foot loft in Montréal, he moved into one of these for seven months, and says the large windows made him feel anything but claustrophobic.
“I had a fabulous time,” he says. “It was awesome.”
While the RV industry isn’t generally known for its eco-friendliness — remember how Gulf Coast Katrina victims were sickened by formaldehyde-tainted FEMA trailers? — Clement says Airstream strives to make its products as green as they are silver. Last year, Nomad acquired a Brattleboro-based company that builds Airstreams specifically designed for people with heightened chemical sensitivities. The company’s new insulation is made from silica, a plant-based material that is naturally resistant to mold and pests.
The Montréal business duo see their dealership not just as a place to buy high-end RVs, but as a destination unto itself. In the coming months, Langevin and Clement plan to renovate their entire showroom with the look and feel of a cosmopolitan convention center. By later this year, they expect to have a modular Airstream installed on rails; they’ll be able to separate it into several parts and roll it around the showroom floor. Projectors will flash images of Airstream’s rich history on the walls and ceilings. Eventually, Langevin and Clement envision renting out the showroom for corporate events, holiday parties, perhaps even Airstreamer weddings.
Admittedly, Airstream living isn’t everyone’s idea of rustic camping. But Clement and Langevin are selling an image and a lifestyle as much as a product. Both in their work and in their workspace, positioned at the edge of New York’s largest natural outdoor recreational area, they’re looking to create what Clement calls “the wow effect — with the Adirondacks in the background.”
The orignal print version of this article was headlined "Silver Bullet"