Home » Airstream Used To Sell Campers Not Made Out Of Aluminum. Here’s A Look At The Fiberglass ‘Airstream Nest’

Airstream Used To Sell Campers Not Made Out Of Aluminum. Here’s A Look At The Fiberglass ‘Airstream Nest’

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When the idea of a fiberglass camper comes to mind, the name Airstream probably isn’t your first thought. The brand is instead known for its beautiful riveted aluminum travel trailers and luxurious coaches. Airstream has maintained these images over nearly a century and cultivated a huge following. That’s what makes 2018 a weird year, because that’s when you were able to buy an Airstream not made of aluminum, but fiberglass. The Airstream Nest was the brand’s first and only modern fiberglass camper, and it disappeared from existence just a few years in.

During the weekend, I flipped through the pages of Facebook Marketplace looking for yet another motorcycle and maybe, hopefully, something resembling what we want for the official Autopian camper. I’ve found some wild stuff along the way, such as a vintage fire engine converted into an extra-large convertible pickup. There’s also a super rare Vixen SE out there with its fixed roof and Buick 3800 engine. Then, I found this, an Airstream Nest, perhaps the least Airstream to get the Airstream name.

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Airstream’s Fiberglass Attempts

As Airstream’s blog writes, back in the early 1950s, Wally Byam had the desire to build a cheaper, lightweight alternative to his aluminum trailers. The 1950s would see a rise in fiberglass camper designs and Wally Byam was among those testing out fiberglass as a camper construction material.

Fiberglass predated Byam’s experiment by decades. Airstream says fiberglass was developed in the 1930s, but its roots go back even further than that. In 1880, Hermann Hammesfahr was awarded a patent for a glass fiber cloth with silk woven into it. The fiberglass that we know today was a development of inventors in the Owens-Corning Company during the 1930s. Ray Greene of Owens Corning then took that fiberglass and in 1937, made a boat out of the material.

1952 Plastic Trailer Brochure

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It would take nearly 20 years for fiberglass to start gaining popularity as a camper construction material. As Airstream notes, it was Byam’s neighbor who would ultimately convince Byam to begin experimentation with fiberglass. Byam’s neighbor, Marius Hansen, was a Danish engineer and an expert in fiberglass. Hansen was for the most part a painter and a sculptor, but his sideline was in commercial fiberglass. Hansen and Byam often talked about how Airstream might be able to use fiberglass and eventually, Byam hired Hansen at Airstream to make it a reality.

In 1952, Airstream built its first fiberglass campers. Airstream’s use of fiberglass called for end caps that were single, molded pieces. Normally, those panels would be multiple pieces of aluminum. The trailer’s walls would also be made out of fiberglass panels. Of course, these were Airstreams, so aluminum had to go somewhere. In this case, aluminum panels were affixed to the interior fiberglass walls.

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These campers were pretty innovative too, outside of just being made out of fiberglass. A famous fiberglass Airstream was the 33-foot “Commodore” built for Cornelius “Neil” Vanderbilt, Jr. The trailer, which was named after Vanderbilt’s grandfather, was used as a mobile office during the 1952 Democratic and Republican National Conventions in Chicago. There, Vanderbilt penned articles while Byam promoted the fiberglass trailer.

Airstream notes that the Commodore was held together with aluminum bows and an aluminum floor. Additional features came in the way of a plexiglass skylight, a television, a two-way phone service, a bar, and even a library. The Commodore was essentially a rolling palace for elite guests.

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Unfortunately for Airstream, the early fiberglass experiments didn’t work out as planned. The trailers were discontinued and fell into obscurity, but that didn’t stop Byam from trying again. Sometime in the mid- to late-fifties, Airstream scaled down the fiberglass camper concept, making a trailer a lot closer to the fiberglass campers of today. The Wally Bee was smaller and was targeted at weekend campers. The construction was simplified as well. Instead of combining various fiberglass pieces together, the Wally Bee was made out of two fiberglass halves joined together, like a modern fiberglass camper.

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In 1962 in an effort to prove the Wally Bee’s worth, Marius Hansen took the prototype trailer on what Airstream calls the 1962 Central American Caravan. Apparently, the trailer made it all of the way to Nicaragua. Hansen proved his fiberglass design was durable, but apparently, it still ended up being not financially feasible. The Wally Bee prototype was discarded, used as a moving trailer, and then left to sit for decades before a rescue effort began.

With both of Airstream’s attempts at creating a fiberglass trailer resulting in failures, the company went back to doing what it did best. Then, about 50 years later, Airstream would take another stab at fiberglass.

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Airstream Gives Fiberglass Another Chance

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In 2016, Airstream shocked RV blogs when it purchased the Nest Caravan Company, signaling that something small and different was on the way.

As Airstream writes, the Nest was the creation of Robert Johans of Bend, Oregon. Johans was an industrial and graphic artist who also worked with wood and fiberglass. Before designing his own trailer, Johans spent over a decade renovating old fiberglass campers. In doing this, Johans realized that not only was there a demand for a high-quality modern fiberglass camper, but that many of the designs on the market seemed to be warmed-over trailers from the past.

As an avid camper himself, Johans set out to create the perfect fiberglass camper. The concept drawings were uploaded to his website. When automotive designer Bryan Thompson saw the Nest concept, he called up Johans and the pair began fleshing out the camper. Thompson brought his own camper design experience after having worked on the Airstream Basecamp’s design.

All of this action caught the attention of Airstream. As luck would have it, Airstream was considering filling out its line with an inexpensive fiberglass camper. To make that happen, Airstream bought Nest Caravan and brought Johans onboard as project manager. The Nest would be released two years later in 2018.

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The Nest

Bet You Never Heard Of Airstream

When Airstream’s latest attempt at fiberglass rolled out, it did things a bit differently outside of the norm. For starters, Johans’ design was of something sleek and futuristic, very much unlike the egg-shaped fiberglass vintage-style campers you can still buy today.

Airstream says that the Nest starts off as a semi-monocoque molded fiberglass superstructure. Under it sits a hand-painted chassis and a torsion axle. The exterior is finished off with a two-tone gel coat. Aside from the exterior design, that’s pretty standard for fiberglass campers.

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What’s different is what’s inside of the 16-foot camper. Airstream took notes from the fiberglass camper industry and decided to make what it thought were improvements. Many fiberglass campers of this size do not have a bathroom of any kind. Airstream made sure that the Nest had a wet bath as standard. The company is also correct when it points out that for many fiberglass campers, water heaters, furnaces, and other appliances are options, if they’re even available at all. The Nest came with all of those plus a microwave, refrigerator, and two-burner stove as standard.

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Nest By Airstream Clutch Blue In

Airstream Nest Interior F2b Clut

The Nest also employs a lot of wood. Many fiberglass designs mold furniture right into the trailer. My U-Haul, for example, has a fiberglass bench, fiberglass seats, and fiberglass cabinetry molded right into the body of the trailer. Airstream notes that while that type of construction saves on cost, it isn’t visibly attractive. In another departure from the norm, Airstream fitted the Nest with all-wood furniture and cabinetry from top to bottom.

Apparently, in doing this, Airstream gave the Nest more interior storage than the company’s own 16-foot Bambi and Caravel trailers. Add in a 24-gallon water tank plus a 30-gallon combo gray/black tank and it seems like the Nest is a neat weekend travel companion.

Fiberglass But Limited Benefits

Airstream Power Usage And Batter

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Sadly, there were two glaring downsides. The first is that the Nest weighs 3,400 pounds before adding any water or gear. That makes it pretty heavy for a fiberglass trailer and adding any water or gear would make the trailer pretty close to the tow ratings of common crossovers. For comparison, a Scamp 16 fiberglass trailer weighs 1,900 pounds empty and about 2,500 pounds loaded up with water. For another illustration of the weight, the Airstream Bambi 16 comes in at about 3,000 pounds before adding anything.

Also heavy was the price. A new Airstream Nest was $42,900. It was the second-least expensive, with the all-aluminum Basecamp coming in at less money. Fiberglass campers are generally marketed as a lightweight and inexpensive alternative, but the Nest was both pretty heavy for a fiberglass camper and not really any cheaper.

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Airstream canceled the Nest after the 2020 model year. To date, the company hasn’t given an explanation for its remarkably short lifespan. Perhaps the paragraph above explains what happened, but as of now, we don’t know for sure. We also don’t know production numbers, but given the small swath of time the Nest was on the market, it’s likely one of the rarer modern Airstreams out there.

Sadly, don’t think you’ll get a deal on this orphan Airstream. A nationwide search suggests that sellers want $35,000 or more for one. Some dealers are even asking for more than the original MSRP.

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Nest Sub Gallery Exterior 13

Still, the Nest is a fascinating look into another oddball Airstream. We may never know why the experiment apparently failed for a third time, but thankfully, that hasn’t stopped Airstream from trying to make cooler campers. Maybe one day we’ll see Airstream fiberglass round four.

(Images: Airstream, unless otherwise noted.)

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Paulie Caps
Paulie Caps
8 months ago

Just popped in to say Bryan Thompson’s automotive design deserves a deeper dive on this site; at the very least, a feature on his museum-level restoration of his family’s Tercel 4WD wagon.

Gary Lynch
Gary Lynch
8 months ago

I’ll bet the corporate decision to cancel the Nest project was made before Covid hit. Imagine in they gave Nest another year or two to establish itself in the market. The trailer seems like a natural competitor to the inTek line. Certainly different enough. And up market enough to justify its price point and features / benefits

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
8 months ago

The Nest looks like a giant, fully enclosed tuk tuk. Not that that is a bad thing. I do like the interior.

3WiperB
3WiperB
8 months ago

The numbers tossed around the Airstream forums is 465 or 466 total production, but I don’t know where that rumor came from, but it could be right. I don’t think I’ve ever seen more than 1 in person and that was as it was being towed. The layout of the Nest would have kept me from buying one. It was all seating, and you have to convert it to a bed each night. The smaller Basecamp is the same way. I think you nailed the main reasons it failed.

I did camp next to another rare fiberglass camper last year. They were surprised that I knew what an Oliver was and were happy to give me a quick tour.

Small campers seem to be a niche product. I prefer something small, but when I’m camping, all I see is 30′ and up. I hear the Basecamp is Airstream’s best selling product, but I rarely see them, and rarely see the small Caravels and Bambi’s either, compared to the large ones.

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
8 months ago

I remember the Nest name but didn’t know it was local. That explains why I see several in the Bend area but they are outnumbered by Airstream Basecamp trailers.
I can see weight being a problem if you want it towable by a crossover with a 3500 or 4000lb max rating. Something weighing 4200 loaded works better with a truck since a Tacoma or Sprinter is usually rated at least 5000lbs

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
8 months ago

Regardless of cost or weight, fiberglass is amazing because you can pop out a form with complex geometry, ZERO SEAMS, and have it be strong and basically not ever leak. This is how boat hulls are made. Every airstream I’ve ever looked at, has leaked. I bet these don’t. Also 3500 is nothing to anyone that has a decent van or truck. I’m surprised they cancelled these; they must cost a LOT less to produce vs making them out of aluminum.

Defenestrator
Defenestrator
8 months ago
Reply to  ADDvanced

There’s still some sort of seams and potential for leaks and damage.

For one, there’s generally a top and bottom hull that are connected together in various ways. Some I think actually rivet and seal them together, but others actually fiberglass them into one piece and the “belly band” is mostly aesthetic to cover the visual seam.

There’s also all the various standard hull penetrations. Windows, doors, vents, drains, etc. All potential leak spots. They do tend to depend a lot less on wood for structure though, so water ingress isn’t necessarily the disaster it would be on something made of wood studs and fiberglass/plywood laminate walls. A lot of them also have wood floors that can be a problem, especially on Scamps where it’s kind of exposed on the underside.

But yeah, overall point still stands. They’re drastically less likely to get totaled after 5-10 years because a seam leaked. I think a substantial percentage of the molded-fiberglass trailers made are still on the road today.

Taargus Taargus
Taargus Taargus
8 months ago

This seems like a luxury Scamp, which I could see the benefit of, especially if you want a nice camper but have limited space to store it/limited towing capability.

But the weight of this is a little high compared to the Scamp line, probably from all those cabinets and such. Personally, I’d rather have a Scamp, though the prices of those are fairly nuts as well, and they don’t look as nice, or have the large windows of the Nest.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
8 months ago

Also, Scamp does offer a deluxe interior package that adds wood cabinetry and paneling, I don’t think its going to be quite as upscale as an Airstream, but its a reasonably close approximation if this is the sort of thing you’re looking for.

The World of Vee
The World of Vee
8 months ago

Maybe I’m just not the market for something like this, but if you’re gonna spend all the money for an airstream why would you stop at 16 feet? Why not something a little bigger to give you some proper weekend space?

Alexander Moore
Alexander Moore
8 months ago

Presumably weight? You could probably tow the smallest one with my XC70, rated in the U.S. to tow 3300 lbs, but anything more than that and you’d need a real SUV or truck.

Last edited 8 months ago by Alexander Moore
ADDvanced
ADDvanced
8 months ago

Astros pull 5300lbs 🙂

PaysOutAllNight
PaysOutAllNight
8 months ago
Reply to  ADDvanced

When’s the last time you could get a new Astro? Or any Astro with a warranty?

Someone else’s tired old workhorse might be OK to pull an Autopian’s camper, but most people want something much newer and nicer than an Astro.

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
8 months ago

My astro is pretty nice. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

This is autopian. If all you do is lease new shit maybe you should check out autoblog.

Last edited 8 months ago by ADDvanced
Alexander Moore
Alexander Moore
8 months ago
Reply to  ADDvanced

Astros are trucks with a van plopped on top 🙂

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
8 months ago

That’s what I thought til after I bought one. Actually not a body on frame, has sub frames but is unibody.

Alexander Moore
Alexander Moore
8 months ago
Reply to  ADDvanced

Right, but the Ridgeline is a truck too 😀

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
8 months ago

As far as the EPA is concerned, so is the PT Cruiser

Goose
Goose
8 months ago

Cost. On the lower end models, going bigger doesn’t really get you a much more functional space. Sure, it’s bigger is more comfortable, but stuck with a family in a rainstorm in a 22′ Bambi isn’t much more roomy than a 16′ Bambi. There is still one seat per person, one bed per person. Sticking with the Bambi, you’ll only ever be able to sleep 4 regardless of the 16′ or the 22′. Sure, you go from a full size to a queen bed, get an actual cramped bathroom instead of a toilet in a shower; but you still have the same number of seats and table, same number of beds, etc. So not only do you have to pay to go bigger if you want more space/features, you end up jumping up models and instead of looking at a $60k Bambi, you’re looking at a $100k Flying Cloud.

Last edited 8 months ago by Goose
3WiperB
3WiperB
8 months ago
Reply to  Goose

Yep, though most of the larger ones don’t sleep more than 4 either. We cram 5 in our 23′ Safari, but one is on the floor on an inflatable pad and sleeping bag. We have an odd, discontinued floor plan though, with a convertible couch and fold down table at the front, so there’s a ton of open floor space when the table is stowed, so there’s plenty of room for a kid on the floor. 2 of our Kids are off to college already though, so we bought small, knowing it would just be two of us traveling in a few years.

Goose
Goose
8 months ago
Reply to  3WiperB

How few people the big Airstreams sleep is surprising when you first start looking at them compared to cheaper campers. But I get it; luxury isn’t utility or function…. it’s luxury. Boy do I dream of a 30’+ Airstream… A fully renovated Excella 34 would be the bees knees.

3WiperB
3WiperB
8 months ago
Reply to  Goose

The Excella’s are loved in the community. I love the 23′ as a couple’s camper. I just pulled it 1500 miles round trip last week to go to a family reunion and was so nice and comfortable compared to getting a hotel room someplace. It towed great and was drama free. The 23′ rear bed has some compromises with it’s tiny dry bath area and main bed that is slightly smaller than a double, but it has a great kitchen and living space. I love cooking when camping, so it makes it near perfect for us. That’s also where we can save money on vacation, since it’s like $70-100 every time we eat out as a family of 5.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
8 months ago

Be OK size for a single person or couple.

Defenestrator
Defenestrator
8 months ago

It’s always a tradeoff. More space, bigger tow vehicle, lower mpg, and just generally more hassle to tow and park.

Last edited 8 months ago by Defenestrator
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