University of Rochester

Alumni Gazette

‘Tin Twinkie’ Top Man

Among the very few instantly identifiable icons of modern American consumer culture—the Golden Arches, Coca-Cola, Levi’s—the Airstream travel trailer has stood out as an enduring image of cross-country travel since the early part of the 20th century.

The “tin twinkie” celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, and Bob Wheeler ’88, president and CEO, is thrilled to be at the helm of Airstream as the company experiences a resurgence of popularity.

“When you see an Airstream going down the highway, it evokes something visceral,” says Wheeler. “It symbolizes freedom and adventure, as well as a sense of tradition.”

That tradition began in 1931, when Wally Byam founded the company and almost single-handedly invented travel-trailer vacations. But the tradition—and the company’s success—really took off after World War II, thanks to a strong economy and families with ex-soldiers happy to be back home more interested in seeing the United States than any other place in the world.

In the latter part of the 20th century, when vacationers were more inclined to travel to foreign countries, or to choose large RVs for their drive to the Grand Canyon, Airstream remained in the game with motorhomes of their own.

But it was the Airstream trailer that customers remembered and preferred, so Wheeler is leading the company’s return to its core business—tin twinkie trailers—and their sense of tradition.

Wheeler, who graduated from Rochester with a degree in engineering and who has been in the motorhome business for the better part of a decade, is proud of that tradition, which includes not only the design, but also the construction of the trailers.

“Our Airstreams are made the same way they were in 1931,” he says. “They’re assembled by hand—the shaping of the aluminum panels and the riveting. There’s no automation in the assembly process. And consumers respond to its authenticity.”

Keeping that sense of tradition doesn’t mean the company is stuck in the past, however. The new models, including the 19-ft. Bambi and the 16-ft. Basecamp with a pop-top tent, have remodeled interiors.

“The inside of our old Airstreams contrasted with the outside—the inside looked like your grandmother’s kitchen,” Wheeler says. “But the new design is Danish modern, utilizing the same aluminum on the outside and wood veneers to keep everything attractive but lightweight at the same time.”

The retro design and the new models’ flexibility—ideal for traveling to out-of-the-way places for “extreme” vacations, not just KOA campgrounds—has won over a whole new generation of young fans.

Wheeler is pleased to report: “We’re blessed with a return to hipness.”

In the meantime, the old models are still on the road. Every state in the country has a Wally Byam Caravan Club, named after the company’s founder, and there’s also an International Vintage Airstream Club for owners of quarter-century old—or older—trailers and motorhomes.

And Wheeler isn’t just the spokesperson for the company—he’s also a member of the fan club. “I could talk about Airstream all day,” he says. “I’m even renovating an old Airstream Flying Cloud that was dug out from behind a barn. It’s still in good shape. You can’t kill these things.”