Unless you're doing a grand tour of apple pie festivals or baseball stadiums, it's hard to get more American than the classic cross-country road trip. And over the past 80-plus years, Airstream has earned its reputation as the go-to vehicle for the journey.
These days, Airstream offers quite a few more models than their debut Clipper, but the craftsmanship and attention to detail in each finished trailer has only grown more remarkable with age. With help from our incredibly talented photographer pal Nick Fancher, we scored a behind the scenes tour of their sprawling Ohio production facility. Enjoy.
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Airstream's origins are in California, where founder Wally Byam started building trailers in his yard back in the 1920s. But once production scaled up in the '50s, operations moved east to Jackson Center, Ohio, where they remain today. They haven't forgotten their humble beginnings, either, considering the modest wood-paneled visitors' entrance.
That framed jersey is signed by Phil Keoghan, the Emmy-winning host of The Amazing Race. Airstream sponsored his charity ride across America to raise money for multiple sclerosis research.
While the bulk of the work here focuses on the production of brand new trailers, owners can also drop off their worn-in whips for repairs, upkeep, or modification. Here, an employee is getting ready to install a bike rack to the back of an older model, which made the trek all the way from New Hampshire.
The bulk of the production is still for their traditional towable trailers, which start around $43,000, though they also fabricate their more luxe drivable models, too, which are based on a Mercedes Sprinter frame. Those are significantly pricier, starting at nearly $150,000.
Every piece of aluminum that makes up the finished trailer is hand-cut, which is why they get their nickname "snowflakes," since each one is ever so slightly different. As you may have figured out based on the litter of thin scraps at his feet, this guy is meticulously shearing the edges at a designated trimming station.
Before any of the aluminum makes it into the actual production line, it's first stretched out in a separate facility so that each panel edge fits together seamlessly like a puzzle. This helps cut down on the amount of riveting that's done in the next phase.
While the riveting is crucial, it's highly specialized work that must be done in pairs with one person working a tool on either side. This can get especially difficult when you can't see your partner, as you're trusting the other person to be your second set of hands.
Only employees with years and years of experience are even allowed do it.
An Airstream wouldn't be an Airstream without the classic windows from which to watch the US of A reveal itself. This guy's cutting out a hole by hand where one will eventually be installed. Steady, steeaaady.
These tiny rivets hold every single Airstream together—the very same technology entrusted to keep airplanes from falling apart as they cut through the skies at hundreds of miles per hour.
They're also the reason each frame can stand secure completely on its own without an attached chassis. The trailers are fairly lightweight at this stage, and can be pushed around with help from just a few guys.
Here, a team works on assembling the chassis, which is nearly ready to be attached to the completed top section.
Once they've become one whole piece, the wiring begins.
They run each one through this car wash-like tunnel, which tests that the rig's fully waterproof by spraying it with jets of water at 100 PSI. An inspector surveys from inside with a flashlight to check for any sign of leakage.
Then it's time to get down to insulating, to keep you comfortable from the Alaskan tundra to Death Valley.
To install the air conditioner, a worker on the line is harnessed from the ceiling to ensure the rig is properly set up top.
From there it's time to bring the inside to life. Every single design element that they plan to install in there—the cabinetry, shower, bed, you name it—must be sized to fit through the main door. That means clever engineering of all decor components and breaking up larger furniture into separate pieces.
That's part of the reason why their gorgeous signature wooden laminate detailing and cabinetry is done by hand, right on the line.
You're looking at a mountain of unassembled kitchens.
The window screens aren't left to some machine, either.
Nor is the upholstery.
At the end of the production line, an inspector meticulously looks over the finished trailer, pointing out potential trouble spots. He leaves notes for the team, who'll go over and remedy whatever's not perfect.
After all that, she's ready to ride. Are you?
Joe McGauley is a senior editor at Supercompressor. If and when he visits the Grand Canyon, he hopes its in an Airstream.