Operation Airstream: Meet the World’s Coolest Camper
When I first met Mark Fisk, it was over a series of industrial-strength gin and tonics at a charity auction. This was followed the next day by some quality time with famed Porsche builder Magnus Walker and his late wife Karen and culminated with a Sunday filled with classic cars and amazing exotics at the 2015 Ault Park Concourse d’Elegance. Fisk was an interesting guy who seemed to know almost everyone, and with his well-groomed mustache, sharp sense of humor, and mischievous grin, it was hard for me to not take a liking to him immediately. His self-proclaimed Porsche affinities aside, it eventually became apparent to me that Fisk was about to obtain a 1974 Airstream Globetrotter, a small, aluminum-clad bubble of a camper that he lovingly refers to as “The Land Yacht.”
I have always harbored a strange fascination for these uniquely shaped, shiny conduits of nomadic living, and part of that has something to do with my grandparents who always trailered a camper behind them on their bi-annual peregrination to and from Arizona and Michigan. So after befriending Mr. Fisk and following his Land Yacht’s transformation on Facebook, I took it upon myself one afternoon to check out his custom creation in person and to hit him with a few questions about how one goes about customizing and restoring one of these relics.
But before we get into the details on how Fisk’s Airstream came to be customized in such a fashion, let’s look at the brand itself — because these things have been around for a long time. Even though they may have aesthetically gone relatively unchanged over the past few decades, the first version from 1929 looked absolutely nothing like the aluminum jelly beans we see today, and when Wally Byam built the world’s first Airstream trailer, it started out as nothing more than a tent attached to a Model T chassis. It was a crude, leaky contraption at first, but after many overhauls it slowly began to morph into something spectacular, and by 1932 it became the first marketable trailer, a concept commonly referred to as “The Torpedo Car Cruiser.”
Over the next eighty years Airstream saw the trailer segment boom then bust under the weight of the Great Depression, designs that were inspired and constructed from WWII aircraft, a new home get built right up the road from me in Jackson Center, Ohio, and the unfortunate passing of its father figure, Wally Byam on July 22, 1962. After Byam’s death, Airstream soldiered on, constructing a “mobile quarantine unit” for members of Apollo 11 after their return from the moon, building a massive plant that topped 150,000 square feet, creating motorhomes, and eventually building affordable offerings for first time buyers in the 1990s. Now owned outright by trailer specialists Thor Industries, Airstream has become a true household name, and in 1987, Money magazine named the Airstream travel trailer as one of “99 things that, yes, Americans make best,” alongside world famous products like Coca-Cola and Heinz ketchup.
According to a report by Airstream, “In 2006, 65% of the Airstreams that had been built since Wally Byam’s first trailer were still on the road.” Even some of these registered trailers include ones that were built when Byam’s “five-dollar plans” brought in the first customers, which was well before the first factory ever opened. Up until his procurement of this Globetrotter last spring, Mark Fisk had never owned, restored, or maintained one of these aluminum gems.
Since his beloved Land Yacht is a Globetrotter edition from 1974, that means it is the second smallest trailer from that time period (The “Bambi” being the slightest of stature). It is 22 feet long and has the more traditional, “quilted” aluminum shell. Aerodynamic, solar heat deflecting, and completely period correct, Fisk felt that buying a project that his wife and he could both work on would keep them both happy, a notion that proved fruitful since his spouse isn’t into turning wrenches in the garage with the boys.
After working on their trailer all summer, Fisk is not afraid to admit that much like a car from 1974, the Land Yacht did indeed have quite a few issues to go along with all of that period correct pizzazz. The aluminum siding is notorious for being fragile after too many blustery winters and scorching summers, and the rivets that hold the shingles in place are prone to popping out after a series of severe bumps down the highway, allowing water penetration during the next hard rain. It also is a bit compact, being that it is an older model, and when Fisk says that the interior was “overtly 1970s god awful in many ways,” just take his word for it and don’t ask to see before and after pictures.
While Fisk’s wife went about removing the old drapes and upholstery and replacing them with fresh linens and classy upgrades, her husband purchased an industrial-sized order of rubberized glaze for spraying every part of the trailer’s exterior to prevent any future water penetration issues. When they were done, the interior had LED lights in classy sconces, the cabinets had been vinyl wrapped in white, all of the cloth interior pieces had been updated, and while all of this added a certain level of modern day refreshment, the Fisks were still able to retain a fair degree of period-correct flare.
When I got the chance to check out this Land Yacht in person, I was blown away by how fun and funky this trailer was in comparison to what you see on the road today. The cover that shields the sink doubles as a cutting board once it flips over, the metal tray that covers the stove folds back to become a back-splash, and everywhere you look little cubbies and storage spaces lay hidden for when it’s road trip time. This is about as simplistic and practical as it gets when it comes to living the nomadic trailer life, and having a bit of 1970s funkiness to keep it all interesting makes it that much more worthwhile to the Fisks, who own a vintage furniture boutique.
According to Mark, if time permits they would like to attend Alumapalooza for the first time at the Airstream factory in Jackson Center, Ohio, next June. This annual event draws thousands of Airstream enthusiasts, and much like a car show, attendees can show off their custom and well-maintained trailers, network, partake in workshops, speak with industry specialists, and party like only a massive caravan of campers can. When asked about his take on America’s love affair with the Airstream trailer, Fisk smiles at me with that mustached grin of his and says, “People make it a lifestyle thing man, or maybe it’s just a vagabond thing. Who knows? All I can say is that you just have to get out there and buy one if you want to truly understand.” As for us, well, let’s just say that the cherry wood, Corian counter-topped, stainless steel-equipped model that Outside Online reviewed recently would be more our speed.