JACKSON CENTER — Any list, compilation, encyclopedia, Wiki page, or anthology that claims to be an inventory of classic, iconic, or distinctive Americana and doesn’t give Airstream a big, fat entry needs a new editor. When it comes anything that is easily recognizable as being uniquely American, the sleek, aluminum-cased Airstream travel trailers rank right up there with baseball, Disneyland, the Harlem Globetrotters, Coca-Cola, and Hee Haw reruns.
This is not mere hyperbole. The first Airstream rolled off the line in Jackson Center in 1958. That same line continues to billow forth Flying Clouds and Classics to the tune of about 65 per week, and there is a six-month waiting list it you’re looking to buy a new one. Airstream sells units in Europe and is increasing its markets in the Far East. Airstream is the Gold Standard (or in this case, the Aluminum Standard) of travel trailers, so it could be forgiven for slapping up a smoked-glass office tower and going all corporate, lighting cigars with C-notes, oppressing the workers, and so on.
But that would be to la-de-da for Airstream. The owners like the fact that they set smack dab in the middle of the quaint and attractive village of Jackson Center. Most of those who work there, from CEO/President Bob Wheeler to the new hire with the impact wrench, know each other at least by sight. One can certainly see the plant on the north side of state Route 274 (419 W. Pike St. for you locals), but the corporate offices are, from the outside, nondescript to the point of invisibility. There is not one iota of pretense at Airstream.
Once inside the offices, the scene changes. The lobby is everything Airstream, including the reception desk which is a chopped-down Airstream International, ZZ Top-style, complete with running and brake lights. The same goes for the entertainment center and standing bar, both of which are tricked out in Airstream aluminum.
But if you want a tour of the actual plant, one must meet a certain requirement: You have to show up at 2 p.m. On any given business day. For groups of ten of more or those who require special accommodations, call ahead and they’ll get you in at 10 a.m. That’s it. Airstream may be the only manufacturing plant in the United States with a “just drop by” policy.
The plant itself calls to mind a Monopoly board with “Go” being the southwest corner. Airstream trailers are actually built from the outside-in. Once the floor is built at “Go”, the aluminum exoskeleton is lowered on to it and pushed down the line, when it is eventually mounted on a chassis, to continue the Monopoly metaphor, where “Jail” would be.
The remarkable part of the entire operation is that is not an assembly line in a traditional sense. Auto manufacturers, for example, are turning out hundreds of thousands of vehicles, so by necessity they must design a ‘line’ that turns out the exact same model 100,000 times.
Not so at Airstream. This is not mass production. As each and every of the various models are fashioned together by human hands and built on order, rarely will one see the same model sitting side-by-side anywhere in the plant. At any given point during the workday, a riveter may have a 16-foot Airstream Bambi sitting in front of him or her. With that Bambi comes a specific set of instructions for every screw, wire, rivet that goes into that model. Twenty minutes later, that same riveter now has to get to work on a 31-foot Classic, again with its own set of specifics.
Once mounted and attached to the chassis, the trailer heads past “Pennsylvania Railroad”, where it is subjected to a shower of several dozens jets spewing water at 95 psi because, as it was explained by our tour guide Gary Byrd, Airstreams do not leak. Ever. After making it though man-made hurricane with the force of a firehose, the tourists were inclined to believe it.
The trailers pull a u-turn around “Free Parking” and “Go to Jail” where they head down the high-rent district back toward “Go”. By this time, the outside of the trailer is complete from the wiring and lug nuts in the chassis to the running and brake lights on the body.
Now the electronics, plumbing, fixtures, lighting, etc. are installed. As these are ‘outside-in’ projects, beds and cabinets are designed be assembled inside the trailer, followed by the things that make Airstream trailers Airstream trailers: Top-shelf appliances, high-quality materials for the the flooring, woodwork, and fixtures, all constructed by hand and to order in a variety of colors and styles, depending on the individual order. Back at “Go”, we now have a finished product that might either be towed to Fargo, North Dakota, or shipped to Manchester, England.
For those wanting to take Airstream’s 90-minute tour, all you have to do is drop by at 2 p.m. on any weekday at 419 W. Pike St. when Byrd and his sidekick Don Ambos will give you the nickel tour for free. Eye and ear protection will be provided and while Airstream employees do a wonderful job at keeping the place policed, Airstream is a factory after all, so expect a little dust, a lot of noise, and the occasional folk lift.
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