A Daydreaming Designer Imagines If Airstream Made An Actual Car In The Seventies

Topshot 23b

You’ve probably noticed that my what-if assignments from Torch have been fairly tame as of late.  Like in a horror flick or calm water facing black skies, this kind of peace merely means that shit is gonna get real very soon. So it came as no surprise when Jason popped up with this latest tortured vision for me to flesh out.

When a giant corporation takes on a task that is typically done by small industries, you can typically see advancements that would be unheard of from little manufacturers. The outstanding 1973-78 GMC Motorhome is a perfect example of something that tiny recreational vehicle makers didn’t have the capacity to do.  However, Torch wanted to know what would happen if it was the other way around. Say, a camper company wanted to make a car? He wasn’t talking about a car-sized camper; he meant just a regular car, with no motorhome aspirations at all.  Well, except that it might have had an optional toilet. Let me explain, or at least try to.

In the late seventies the market offerings for domestic subcompacts were pretty abysmal; other than the VW Golf ripoff Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon (which started with a carbureted Volkswagen motor, for chrissake) they were all archaic dogs.

1978 Chevrolet Chevette

sources: Barn Finds, Flickr, and Barn Finds

[Editor’s Note: While I’m perversely fond of the shitboxes The Bishop shows above, it’s worth noting that all of those were front engine/rear drive vehicles when imported compacts were turning to front engine/FWD, which does kinda back up his point. – JT]

At the same time, the first fuel crisis (and the looming second one) had spooked many camper makers as a harbinger of bad things to come for their business. What could they do to stay afloat in the dark times ahead?

One idea is that they could make their own car. Most recreational vehicle manufacturers had little to offer with their corrugated steel and wood construction expertise, but there was one manufacturer that had something different to expand on- Airstream. With their signature rounded shaped aluminum bodies, aircraft-style fabrication, timeless look, and ultra light weight construction, their products featured qualities painfully lacking in car production at the time. This is the manufacturer Mr. Torchinsky chose to create a new little car around 1978. Here are some seventies models of their iconic trailers:

Screen Shot 2018 06 13 At 10.06.45 Am

source: Varr and doyouremember

My first thought was that this wasn’t going to be that bad of an assignment. I starting doing tiny, very rough scribbles during boring meetings of what seemed like Delorean-looking sedans in aluminum instead of stainless steel and figured I’d get this one out of the way in a flash. However, my ‘client’ had other plans. He was INSISTENT that this car follow Airstream’s construction and brand language. It was like when Homer Simpson walking into the studio in the episode where he designed the car. “No. No. NO!!! I want a LOAF OF BREAD SHAPE, MAN! That’s what Airstream is”. Sure, Jason, but the Airstream aesthetic works since it is the size of a small house, not the subcompact commuter car he was requesting.

I told you this was gonna get fun.

Screenshot (92)

source: Jalopnik and The Bishop

Also, as a semi-plausible alternate reality, there’s other issues. I mean, how could a maker of primarily non-powered vehicles (other than Airstream’s Argosy Class A homes) actually procure car components? None of the big three or Japanese makers in 1978 would willingly sell parts to what might be a competitor. It would have to have been a company that stood little to no chance of peddling cars on these shores.

Enter Citroen. That’s right; if there is one car company that could match the innovation of Airstream it was this French firm. No, they wouldn’t use a pneumatic-suspensioned big Citroen or the ancient, dinky 2CV (as much as Jason wanted to, of course). The basis would be the new-for-1978 Citroen Visa, a modern subcompact with available four-cylinder power, about the size of a concurrent Civic. It’s also a car PSA group would never have sold here on their own (Citroen was owned by Peugeot at this point, who only marketed their bigger sedans as Volvo/Audi/Mercedes competitors in the US).

Citroen Visa 2066 7 (1)

source: autoevolution and wikipedia

These Citroens could be shipped to Airstream sort of like the special version of the Visa you see below, with no body or doors aft the firewall, and even the hood and front fenders gone as well.  Essentially, it would be like how the Renault in the James Bond movie ended up.

Vp Louxor 3

source: Lintermaute and Car and Classic

To this, Airstream would weld on a tubular frame to the back and make a signature aluminum body with four doors. Matching aluminum hood and fenders would go oved the Citroen nose and blend into the rear bodywork. Other than the Visa windshield and roll down front windows, the rest of the glass would be off-the-shelf Airstream components (including the skylight). Soft nose and bumper sections would take on the task of 5MPH bumpers, similar to what was done on the Delorean but here with the acceptance that color would never match the metal.

Sounds insane, and you haven’t even seen it yet. Presenting the 1978 Thumper by Airstream, a name chosen to complement the tiny Bambi mini-Airstream trailer camper.

Img20221022 21414509 Final

source: autoevolution , seekpng, and The Bishop

Seriously, I did the best that I could do, but at least the ‘client’ that I made this strange thing for seems pleased. Finishwise, I went more brushed aluminum than polished chrome, and I tried to tighten the radius of that bread-loaf back end to be more carlike.  I broke up the visual mass with a full perimeter rub strip like on the DMC-12 (and to protect from dents), and roof rails also try to ‘normalize’ the shape and add a sort of off-roader look as was done on the similar-in-concept car-based Matra Rancho.

1977 Simca Matra Rancho

source: wikipedia

In back there is some real innovation in the shape of the VersaGate. This is a takeoff on an idea Torch also wanted to explore where a tailgate opens DOWN to create a ramp. However, by repositioning the hinge pins it could open in a traditional way as a standard tailgate. The tailgate also features an openable window to allow cargo access in tight spaces, and the window can also tip out for flow-through no-buffet ventilation when driving.

Img20221025 20254026

source: The Bishop

Inside the seats sit taller than a typical sedan, allowing for enough room underneath ostensibly for storage.  Storage, that is, unless your client is Torch. I mean, why not put a cassette toilet under one of the seats? Or both seats. You want them under the rear seats as well? Sure, and so sorry that your entire family is suffering from Crohns disease but at least you have the perfect car now. There is also the option of a small built-in cooler under one seat as well, as long as users don’t confuse the two.

Img20221025 20222235

source: The Bishop

Had they built it the Thumper it would have been a pioneer in many ways, such as:

-Lightweight, corrosion free aluminum construction on a street car decades before Audi

-A tall compact wagon years ahead of the Tercel and Honda Civic wagons

-Bare metal finish on a production car before DMC

-Dramatic super-roundy aero shape when the Audi 5000 was still a box and the Tempo/Taurus was not even a dream.

Still, many pioneers got scalped, and I think Airstream would have met the same fate with this funky looking thing.

Actually, based on the odd shape and wheels-with-three-lug-nuts mechanicals I have a sinking feeling that despite being ostensibly designed to take on the domestic market, the Thumper would have found its biggest audience in France. Vive L’Airstream!!

I mean, with Jason directing the design, are you at all surprised?

 

 

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43 Responses

  1. Also they talked about the toilet car seat on Ricky Gervais podcast back in the day and it was hilarious. Taking a shit while driving down the motorway. They asked Karl ok at what point do you wipe your ass or wash your hands? He says at the end of the journey. Ok so you have a shit at Deptford and wipe your ass in Polperro

  2. It’s funny how much it looks like the current Dacia Jogger. Maybe it could have worked back then, after all Matra managed to sell 50000 Ranchos… Fanchao beat me at being the first to notice the proximity to the C15 Romahome, but I may have something much weirder, and close in concept even if it’s not Visa-based : The Barry Stimson-designed Renault Clio Sportique ! It’s a camper van based on the first gen Clio, and please just look at this little wonder of packaging : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JLvmsQb3gJc&t=1s

    1. Toyec- that sort of reminds me of the SAAB Toppola camper that fit into the hole where the hatch was removed in back.

      Again, what is odd is that Jason did NOT want this to be a camper; it is just a little station wagon. It took all that I had not to add sinks and bunks and such since it sure as shit looks like a camper.

      1. OK, the Toppola is even cooler than the Sportique ! Also (how could I forgot this one ?) I think I found the closest thing possible to your project : French coachbuilder Heuliez (who at that time made the BX wagon among others) proposed to Citroën a tiny, 7-seats, high-roof wagon based on the AX, the Visa’s successor. Sadly, it remained a unique concept, called the AX Evasion.

        1. Toyec- yes, that does look like what my concept ended up as. There’s likely plenty of room and height for a third row seat in the Airstream Thumper, but take a look at the engine specs for the Visa in 1978…and that’s WITHOUT emission controls added!

          1. Yeah, that would have been a bit too early for the 1.4 Liter version of the X engine, so torque would have been an issue. Happily, the Airstream guys wisely chose aluminium to reduce weight ! I don’t see any other possibility : the GS’s flat 4 never was a monster, and the Peugeot 304 engine wouldn’t fit I think (they waited several years to use the new XU to put a 1.6 Liter under the Visa’s hood).

  3. very funny that you choose this platform because Romahome, an english motorhome coach builder, choose the Citroën c15 (the utilitarian version of the visa) as their base, kinda similar to your idea ! Also, in the late 90’s Citroën created a segment with the berlingo called ludospace wich is basically your idea, still very popular in France, people consider it the modern 2cv..

  4. “…VW Golf ripoff Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon (which started with a carbureted Volkswagen motor, for chrissake) they were all archaic dogs.”

    I had a Plymouth Horizon. By mentioning the Horizon in the same sentence as archaic dogs, you have defamed archaic dogs.

  5. The car looks on point, but I doubt they would have sold that many, mainly because that segment of car doesn’t seem to have ever sold well. But that Versa-gate and the underseat storage I can see becoming a bigger hit and many copies showing up on other vehicles.

    1. Andrew- I think it wouldn’t have sold well since the segment of car it belongs in doesn’t really exist…sub compact bare aluminum tall wagons? Well, that and the fact that it kind of looks like a rabbit trying to escape from a big soup car. But then maybe that would be appealing to some?

  6. I don’t see the fold down tailgate working on a car from 1978. The bumpers were massive back then and you drew some kind of bumper that only protrudes like 1″ from the body. On a 70’s era bumper, the tailgate would have to have some kind of ugly notch built into it in order to overextend down to the ground while still clearing that huge bumper…. Or the huge bumper could have some kind of slope cut into the center to allow the tailgate or overextend to the ground.

  7. A side note on the Visa drivability… My Brother and I did various shenanigans with our mother Visa.
    ( I did more after with my own Axel, which was basically a Visa with the flat four from the GSA )

    The Visa was stuck to the road ( to this day I’m still wondering how my brother managed to roll it ) the best I ever managed was to get the back in front, in the shadow, on a frosty december day on the former F1 Charade Circuit ( some of the curves after the hairpin coming down from Charade towards the quarries ) before it got castrated and half of it ended up not being open road. ( obviously there was some ice on the road… at a normal pace it wouldn’t have been noticed, but at the pace I was going it was spinning time )

    It was not uncommon at that time for me to drive it at motorway speed on the small roads towards the Sancy Massif or some specific climbing location and it just took the curves.

    The Axel was a bit front heavy due to the GSA engine ( and the fact that I didn’t have any back seats ) so if I wasn’t careful it tended to want to slide.

  8. Berkeley Coachworks in the UK did exactly this in the late 50’s. They started out making campers and branched out into cars to smooth out the seasonality of the caravan business. They didn’t make very many, but some of the survivors have ended up as interesting projects. The Lane Motor Museum has a couple as well.

    https://bringatrailer.com/listing/1958-berkeley-special/

    I also see that someone has recently revived the brand with a couple new sports cars accepting reservations. Probably vaporware, but still cool to see the brand reboot.

  9. You know, we think the imports turned to FWD so much quicker than the domestics, but I’m not sure that’s really the case. Yes, Honda was FWD from the start, the Golf/Rabbit got to it pretty early, but Toyota, Nissan, and Mazda didn’t really start bringing over FWD products until the early 80’s, right about the same time that the domestics did (the Chevette was admittedly archaic way into the late 80’s).

  10. I think that a variation of this might have been a big seller for Airstream – as a “tow car” behind the trailer. Why drive your tow rig into town for milk when you could take your ‘Thumper”?

    “But, but”, you gasp, “That would be illegal!
    Not so fast there pardner. I just double-checked and it is indeed legal to “double-two” in 28 American States! https://drivinvibin.com/2021/03/16/double-tow/ . I am confident that enough Senators own or have friends who own Airstreams to get an special exception carved into the laws in most of the other states, if lobbied.

    Airstream owners are almost without exception, ah, ‘well off’ enough not to blink at all at another (1978) $15,000 toy, especially when you imagine the pride of being the first guy in your RV park to show up with one of these in tow. Think early Tesla adopter levels of smug pride of ownership.

    Further, the market would not be as small as you might think. In 1985 the “Good Sam”
    RV Club had over 450,000 members, and has 2.1 million today. That’s only one RV club and so you might imagine the number of unaffiliated loners out there is pretty big.

    Oh – no need for the toilet and the cooler. There are better ones in the trailer. What I would propose instead is an extra large fuel tank and an engine – integrated 120 volt AC generator that could handle the load of running the A/C in the Airstream all night. That would be a huge selling point.

    Finally a pedantic quibble. You mention Audi as the first all-aluminum car makers. As usual in these cases somebody else got there first. Marmon (who also made the car that won the first Indy 500) had an all aluminum car in the early 1930’s. My family owned one… https://www.cobblebeachconcours.com/1932-marmon-sixteen

    Sigh.. if only my grandfather hadn’t invested all the family money in electric buttonhooks. Poor bastard never even saw the Zipper coming. We lost everything.

  11. Is it wrong that I love this design and can totally dream of a world where not only did it get made but I could afford one. And YES, at least one toilet as well as fold-down seats for sleeping – this beats #VanLife all to Hades. (just keep a fold-out tent pump shower in the back)

    1. jadielyn- no, it isn’t wrong. I will admit that after I finished it (per Jason’s specs) I was quite certain that I’d gone insane following this madman into the abyss but now a few days later I think it’s kinda charming. I mean, the Beetle and 2CV are really acquired tastes as well.

  12. Sorry Bishop wrong again, both these rigs rock it. I could see some resistance in the USA but not among the small car driving rebels. Place these next to the competition all were a bit weird. Cancel the ugly black lines on the first car it would be better. I don’t think a ramp with a window in it would work. Having granny drive up the ramp in her Rascal would probably break the window and dump granny on her big fat ask me no more questions. Maybe with some kind of metal flap. But nice car designs.

    1. Dave- glad you like it! By the way, if you see the notes on the sketch for the VersaGate, there is an optional glass window cover (just as Jason had proposed a little while back) that would flip over the glass to prevent the issue that you described.

  13. Several weeks ago an editor of this blog asked for ideas for suitable sponsors of this blog. After viewing many of these exercises by the Bishop, in conjunction with untempered stimulus by JT, I have concluded an ideal sponsor would be a pharmaceutical house offering mood stabilizers. There is just a little too much ‘tripping the light fantastic’ going on here and this could spin into another dimension of time and space if not arrested early.

      1. It would’ve been so cool to have the built-in toilets be able to be emptied below the car with a lever too kind of airplane style. “Mom, Billy flushed in the driveway again”

        Footnote: AC is an absolute must on the Thumper. Could you only imagine the hot stinky summer travels with what ended up in the dumper if no AC? Thinking public KOA bathroom now.

        1. bertfrog- yes, I’m in Chicago where Dave Matthew’s tour bus did just that over a river sightseeing tour. Not good.

          Yes, I can imagine it’s like the smell you sometimes get on buses when they have that tiny bathroom in back. Even if you sit way in front you get that odor.

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