Imagine 135 Airstreams gathered amidst the hustle and bustle of the working Airstream factory. Throw in some BBQs, seminars, factory tours, music, happy hour prize drawings and you have Alumapalooza, a fun filled week of all things Airstream. Held every year at the mothership in Jackson Center, Ohio (this was the 8th one) this rally is one of the biggies for Airstream owners and it’s been on our bucket list for a while. We weren’t sure what to expect, but ended up having a great time.
We arrived Saturday of Memorial Day weekend for the “early bird” parking. This not only meant we didn’t have to fight the Memorial Day camping crowds, but it positioned us near the front of the field and gave us some time to settle in before the event began.
The organizers have this thing down. You are directed into your spot by volunteers who line up the shiny trailers in perfect rows, and while the field was a bit muddy we had no problems since our spot was level and slightly elevated. Our neighbors weren’t so lucky as their leveling blocks kept sinking into the mud. They said a few years ago it was so muddy they had to get tractors to pull the trailers out of the field at the end of the week. While we were treated to some heavy thunderstorms on Saturday and Sunday nights, for the most part we had beautiful, albeit windy, weather the whole week and didn’t have that problem. Thanks goodness!
On Sunday we drove to nearby Dayton to visit the Dayton Aviation Historical Park. This site recounts the early days of Orville and Wilbur Wright in some of the very places where they worked, including one their bike shops (their shop had five different locations over time and one is preserved here). It was fascinating, especially since we plan to visit Kitty Hawk in the fall.
I loved the fact that they got their mechanical aptitude from their mother who invented toys for her children and things to help with the housework. Having attended college, unusual for a women of her time, she encouraged the boys in their intellectual interests and fostered an environment where their curiosity led to investigation. Later, this served them well as they would request information from the government on aeronautics and used models to test ideas for their airplane. The museum showed how important their bike building and repair were to their eventual success in flying too. Many of the parts on their airplane were modified bicycle parts.
Back in Jackson Center trailers kept arriving. By Tuesday, the official arrival day, the field was full. It was fun to see all that shiny metal and we took walks through the field eyeing all the different models.
As with any of these social events we are always a little apprehensive at first, feeling like the outsiders. Since we’re mostly home bodies it takes a bit to put ourselves out there, but with fellow Airstreamers there’s a quick ease that develops. After all you both have an affinity for these shiny things on wheels. The conversation usually starts with the details of your trailers (model, length, year), moves onto places to go in your trailer and just keeps flowing from there. It seems there’s no shortage of conversation once you get going.
Each day there were several seminars. We attended sessions on proper hitching, changing a tire, tips on riveting from Airstream technicians (with an Airstream you will eventually have to rivet something—we’ve had a few rivets pop out), taking a trip to Alaska, maintaining your Zipdee awning, and so much more. Lots of good information that we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else. Plus we made several trips to the Airstream store and came away with a few new shirts. 🙂
Daily happy hours meant door prizes, and we won one of the big ones, a free Zip Dee chair. Turned out that wasn’t the only luck we had during our week. The absolute highlight of our week was a private factory tour we won in a silent auction benefitting the local food bank. We toured the factory 10 years ago with our daughters on a trip to Ohio, and went on the regular tour early in the week, but this was a whole different experience.
It was phenominal. As Chuck says, we were both grinning ear to ear for the entire 3+ hours. Marion Slater, Director of Manufacturing graciously donated his time to take us on this comprehensive tour. He told us stories and answered our questions and let us peek in places the regular tour doesn’t go. Not once did he check the time or look at his phone. We were blown away by his graciousness with his time as well as his knowledge, pride in their product, and relationship with the production team.
Marion explained each step in the process. They begin with a chassis, add axles, wheels, water tanks, wrap the belly, and top it with a layer of Reflectix insulation (like shiny bubble wrap). At the same time another team is working on the body. A CNC machine routes the aluminum side panels which are tack riveted to the ribs and fit onto the plywood subfloor. Along with the end pieces these form a shell which is hoisted up and set on top of the chassis assembly. From there all the exterior pieces are attached, lights, vents, etc. and a team buck rivets every panel, one guy on the outside pushing the rivets in and another on the inside holding a metal buck tool which flattens the inside of the rivet. Marion let me step inside to see them in action. They can’t see or hear each other so they have to know how to work in sync and have a system of taps to communicate.
Once the outside shell is complete it is tested in a spray booth to make sure there are no leaks. Only 5 people in the company can clear a trailer to move past the water test, the 3 water test technicians, Marion, and another Director.
Next is when the inside magic begins. Wiring is run, insulation made from recycled cotton goes in, the inside aluminum walls are riveted in place, flooring is laid down, furniture is scribed and fit into place, and appliances are installed. It’s a lot of work and they do it all. From making their own cabinets to sewing the curtains. It takes 4 days from start to finish and they make about 85 units a week. With the increased popularity of Airstreams in the last few years they expanded the factory and now employ over 800. We were really impressed with the quality (from the water test to the multiple QC checks on the line, and the final check at the end) and the fact that these trailers are still handmade. There are some machines to help, but no robotic arms or conveyor belts.
One of those machines is in the original building where they have been making Airstreams since 1952. This machine forms aluminum sheets into the curved end panels that give Airstreams their rounded look. Amazingly it’s the exact same machine they’ve been using since 1952 and it’s still operated by feel, no fancy electronics here.
We saw the Interstate (Class B van) production line and learned that they import Mercedes vans with all the top of the line safety and comfort features, including a stereo they rip out just to keep the wiring harness.
The tour was quite thorough and after over 3 hours we ended up in the offices, which hide right above the production floor, and were surprised with an Airstream goodie bag. It was a great day and made the perfect early birthday present for Chuck!
All in all it was a great week. We learned a lot, made new friends, enjoyed great weather, and had a good time. Kudos to R & B events who put forth a well organized event!
Next up for us is a short drive north to Cuyahoga National Park.