The Airstream trailer is a classic of the American road. First built by Wally Byam in 1931, its streamlined design, aircraft-type construction, and hyper-efficient use of space have made it a symbol of freedom and travel across the great open spaces of America.
And because many a Ford pickup or station wagon has been pressed into service towing these land yachts, it seemed natural for Ford and Airstream to team up to produce a vehicle to celebrate Airstream’s 75th anniversary.
Introduced at the 2007 NAIAS in Detroit, the Ford Airstream is not a trailer, as one might expect, but an SUV that looked to the future of a monoform crossover vehicle. One look at the concept and the Airstream roots are immediately apparent – the brilliant blue/silver paint, reflective to almost a mirror-like finish, echoes the cool aluminum of the storied trailer icon. And also the monoform exterior, rounded like the Airstream, but still recognizable as a Ford, fluently spoke the Blue Oval’s retro-futuristic language of the time.
Doors and daylight openings added a great deal of dynamism to the design. The DLOs are each a unique shape and rimmed with brilliant fluorescent orange paint. These openings were intended to have lighted edges, but orange paint was used instead and the overall design does not seem to suffer.
The openings, both door and glazing, are of unique shapes – hexagons, T's L’s – all making for intriguing views and interesting ingress and egress experiences. Ford called several of the doors ‘hatches’, suggesting aircraft and spacecraft as well as boats – not a bad set of inspirations for a concept of this type.
The most prominent of these is the giant clamshell door on the passenger side that spans fully two-thirds of the kerb side of the car. This gaping maw, with its accompanying lower step, makes for easy access to the interior, both in front and in the rear.
And speaking of the interior, the inside of the Airstream was quite a contrast to the retro-cool silver of the exterior. Brilliant red appointments assaulted the eyes as soon as the doors were opened.
Two egg-shaped captains’ chairs sat up front facing a simple curved IP. Only two elements pop up out of this simple IP surface; a round, single multi-function gauge that provides primary information to the driver, and a center screen for infotainment. Flush-mounted buttons control environment and other functions.
The captains’ chairs could swivel to engage the rear passenger compartment. And in the rear, passengers could sit in lounge-like seating wrapped in a red B&B Italia fabric cocoon. Overhead glass gave a view up and out and provided some relief from the unrelenting red surfaces.
The focal point of the rear seating area was a 360-degree tubular screen for entertainment and games. The screen’s default mode projected ambient mood settings including a modern lava lamp (!) and virtual fire (!!), but could also serve as an entertainment source, featuring games and a live camera feed.
Reporters at the Detroit show noted the similarities to the ‘shag and swag’ interiors of custom vans from the 1970s but, in reality, the Airstream had much more in common with the color-saturated interiors of Verner Panton (below, and the gallery at right).
Ford’s designers also cited both Airstream’s designs and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as inspiration.
The Airstream eschewed the traditional Ford V8 for an advanced plug-in hydrogen fuel cell/electric powertrain. In the Airstream, the fuel cell's sole function was to recharge the vehicle's lithium-ion battery pack as required, allowing it to work like a portable generator, instead of an engine. The fuel cell’s unique design allowed a significantly smaller, less expensive unit than other configurations.
The Airstream received a warm reception at the 2007 auto shows, but it was always meant to be a pure concept. Its individual features as well as overall design remain unique to this vehicle. But as the Airstream concept approaches its tenth anniversary, it is worth taking a look back – and ahead – to the possibilities of its design, especially as a new class of cross-country autonomous cruisers may yet arrive in the next decade.
Could there be another Airstream/Ford vehicle in our future – one that drives itself and leaves us to do the sightseeing? Sounds like a great way to travel, but maybe with just a little less red...
And for a little more background, here's CDN’s design review from 24 January 2007.