Exploring NZ by Airstream

By: Jill Malcolm , Photography by: Jill Malcolm, Ku Design Ltd, Grant Collins, Westcoast Classic Imports


The classic Airstream Caravan is a rare sight around NZ campgrounds, but NZMCD writer Jill Malcolm was fortunate to come across one in recent travels

There I was on a balmy day in February, sitting under the caravan’s awning, contentedly staring at stroppy little waves slapping the sand and contemplating very little, when an apparition as American as apple pie slid into my vision and blotted out the view.

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Grant Collins and Jo Langwell’s Tradewind Airstream at Matauri Bay

I changed gear to high alert. Never before had I seen an Airstream caravan (travel trailer in American speak) in a New Zealand camping ground, let alone one attached to the rear end of a classic, bright-red, 1973 Ford F100 pickup.

Most Airstreams I’ve come across had been converted into coffee carts or food outlets, like the two outside Auckland Airport’s International Terminal.

This new arrival in the campground was a head turner. The truck, all gleam and grunt, made a noise like a ramped up Harley Davidson. The retro, space-age-looking ‘silver bullet’ caravan glistened in the Matauri Bay sun like a temptress.

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A 1964 Airstream Safari imported by Westcoast Classic Imports

The model was a design classic, sleek-looking with a curvy retro shape, one of the long line-up of Airstream caravans, which now dates back about 85 years. My curiosity was not going to be satisfied by viewing it at a distance.

After a suitable pause, I introduced myself to the owners. I knew they’d be unlikely to crave privacy as by now they’d have learnt that wherever Airstreams go in New Zealand, they are the centre of attention. In the next 24 hours, half the camp had sidled past for a chat or a closer look.

Celebrity ownership

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The Flying Cloud is easily pulled by Joseph’s 3.5L Highlander

Many famous people have owned Airstreams: Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington, and Sandra Bullock—all from America—and Grant Collins from Panmure. Grant and his partner Joanne Langwell talked enthusiastically about the object of my interest.

"I’d always liked the look of them and so had Jo," Grant says. "Jo already owned a small caravan and when we got together as a couple, we decided we’d go to the States and see if we could find an Airstream we both liked. We came home with three, and the Ford pick-up as well.

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The Land Yacht Bar

When I met Grant and Jo six months after that first encounter, it was at a glitterati party celebrating the launch of The Land Yacht Bar. The couple had organised to have the Sovereign artfully altered into a mobile cocktail bar.

There is still room for a comfortable lounge with leather seating at one end and a modern toilet at the other. Had the founder of the Airstream brand seen us sipping champagne as we clustered around this swanky transformation glowing under the party lights, he might have wondered what he’d started.

Airstream history

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Retro Espresso at the Auckland International Airport

American Wally Byam was an educated man and an inveterate traveller. "Adventure is where you find it," he once said, "any place, every place, except at home in a rocking chair."

In 1921, he built a rudimentary trailer in his Los Angeles backyard and began experimenting by adding a chemical toilet, gas stove, a water pump, and an ice chest.

Designing and manufacturing travel trailers took over his life and he called his innovative products Airstreams, claiming they travelled like a stream of air. And then in 1937, came the now legendary, ‘Clipper’ an ovoid-shaped, aluminium-clad trailer based on the design of early trans-Atlantic passenger plane, the PanAm Clipper.

This Airstream was revolutionary: the steel-framed dinette converted into a bed; the galley was enclosed; it had its own water supply, electric lights, insulation, and ‘air-conditioning’ using dry ice.

Over the years, the Airstream brand flourished even after Wally died in 1962, but the company continued to turn out more and more sophisticated models until in the 1970s when an economic downturn threatened its existence.

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Camped at Glenorchy, Lake Wakatipu

And now comes an interesting New Zealand link. In 1980, the company producing this iconic piece of Americana was rescued by a Kiwi businessman, the late Wade Thomson who, with American, Peter Orthwein, founded Thor Industries who still produce Airstream caravans today.

By then, the brand had a long history and a revered line of products. Today, Airstream trailers are still manufactured at the Jackson Centre, Ohio, US. Thor Industries has broadened its range of products and, as one of the world’s largest RV manufacturers, employs more than 800 people.

In Hawke’s Bay, I came across another couple who shared Grant and Joanne’s passion. Steve Norman has always had a love of classic American cars and hot-rods and a strong attraction to polish and chrome. It was hardly surprising then, that when he first came across a classic American icon, a 1977, 31F, Sovereign Airstream with an aluminium body as polished as silver, it was love at first sight.

"I was already importing classic cars into New Zealand and my wife, Jill, and I were also running or caravan rental company," he says. "It seemed it pre-ordained that the couple would start importing Airstreams to New Zealand.

"We are not caravanners," Steve says. "We don’t like confined spaces, so for us, the attraction was the thrill of the chase. For 10 years, we travelled all over America seeking out Airstream models and bringing them home to sell. I think we imported about 30 before we gave it away last year.

"Buyers have to have deep pockets because shipping costs are horrendous. Instead of being used for recreational purposes, a lot of Airstreams in this country are converted into food and coffee carts or other uses they were not intended for. I’m not a purist. I am just pleased they are saved and serving a purpose."

But if you’re camping in the South Island, you might well come across a magnificent Airstream that is being used for its original purpose. Joseph and Ying Ku live in Christchurch and regularly tour the South Island in their magnificent, 2013 20-foot Flying Cloud, which Joseph chose from one of three that were on sale by the grandson of the founder of New Zealand’s oldest auction house, Dunbar Sloane.

Getting together

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Ying and Joseph Ku on tour with their son Jeadon

Joseph started the New Zealand Airstream Club (airstreamclub.co.nz ) in 2013. Its first rally was held at the DOC campsite in Peel Forest, north of Geraldine. Three Airstreams attended (the other two were a 2006 16-foot Bambi and a 1978 20-foot Argosy).

"Currently we have around 100 members," Joseph says, "and at a guess, there are about 100 Airstreams in New Zealand. We enjoy touring in the Flying Cloud. It is a practical caravan and easy to tow with our 3.5L Highlander. The insulation and gas heating is effective. Three ceiling fans efficiently circulate the interior air. There are on-board water tanks and we are able to dump grey and black water at the same time through a large bore hose."

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Flying Cloud

Before I started to write about this distinguished brand, I skimmed through many Airstream websites to bone up on the subject. Now the cookies have got me. I’ve had seven emails and three phone calls from America offering me deals on the latest models, such as a 2019 Flying Cloud 19CB with a price tag of $68,209 USD, and a 2019 Globe Trotter 27FB for a mere $110,384 USD.

I thought I’d take one of each. The phone calls were brief and my e-mail replies just two words: "No deal". But I guess that won’t be the end of it.

Interesting Airstream caravan facts

  • Since 1984, NASA has used a modified Airstream (known as the Astrovan) to transport shuttle crews to the launch pad
  • Vincent Price narrated a mini-series about the Airstream. 
  • In the late ‘80s, the Airstream was available in a square shape. It was not a popular move!
  • The Grand Daddy Hotel in Cape Town has seven authentic Airstreams on its roof – each individually themed to provide unique accommodation.
  • When visiting troops in Afghanistan in 2008, First Lady Laura Bush travelled in her own luxury Airstream which was transported on-board the military aircraft.

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