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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Airstream Gives Fiberglass Another Chance
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.)
Support our mission of championing car culture by becoming an Official Autopian Member.
- I May Have Trapped Jason In An Incidental ‘Cask of Amontillado’ Type Deal – Tales From The Slack
- The BMW M240ixDrive Is A Junior 6 Series That Doesn’t Need An M Badge To Be Great
- The Autopian Announces A New Membership Tier For The Cheap Bastards Among You: Cloth
- The Second-Generation Buick LaCrosse Marked A Rebirth For Buick: GM Hit Or Miss