WASHINGTON -- In a deserted RFK Stadium lot, 17 silver Airstream trailers were parked in neat rows, their proud owners having come from as far away as England last weekend to see Washington's monuments.
Some might say they had it backward.
BYLINE4: Airstreams, those silver bullets that have rolled across the national landscape since 1936, are attractions unto themselves. Marvels of compact efficiency, all sleek and aerodynamic and riveted into machine-age sensuousness, they attract thousands of fervent devotees.
BYLINE5: ''My grandparents used to speak of them as the Rolls-Royce of the travel trailer,'' says Bryan Burkhart, co-author of the just-published ''Airstream: The History of the Land Yacht'' (Chronicle Books, $19.95).
BYLINE6: The book asks: ''Why is an Airstream considered a family heirloom to be passed down to the grandkids, while you'd be lucky if your Winnebago gets credit on a dealer trade-in?''
BYLINE7: The answer, in part: that sense of community among owners who camp and travel and trade Airstream tales together. The RFK gathering was just one of 1,500 held annually by Airstreamers around the world. Wherever they congregate, the rites of arrival are often the same: Stabilize the so the propane-powered fridge will work; extend the awning; raise the flags; break out the tools, a cold brewski or the TV; unfold the lawn chairs and start visiting.
BYLINE8: Much of the RFK socializing was of the ''glad-to-meetcha/good-to-see-ya-again'' variety. But then the folks got down to what really bonds Airstreamers: pooling solutions to pesky problems and admiring each other's handiwork.
BYLINE9: Many of the vehicles were works in progress, bought for a few hundred or thousand bucks in varying states of decay.
BYLINE:: All Linda Moore wanted was to quit having to camp in a pop-up trailer or tent when her husband, Wayne, took her to see a 1964 Airstream near their Windham, N.H., home. ''It a disaster. It had been used as a kennel for 25 years and was infested with dead mice and squirrel nests. I didn't want it. But then as I looked around inside, I said, ''Wow! This is cool.' ''
BYLINE;: They bought it for $1,400 and spent $9,000 to rebuild it. Then Wayne bought a second one. ''It's a sickness,'' she says. ''A collector's thing.''
BYLINE=: But the real marvel is the bathroom. Shut the chrome and opaque plastic door Howarth retooled, and the entire chamber -- sink, toilet, lights and all -- becomes a shower stall with a drain in the stainless steel floor. ''You just have to remember to put the towels outside before you turn on the water,'' he says.
BYLINE>: This is precisely the amenity level Airstream pioneer Wally Byam had in mind when he wrote his creed, which opens with the premise, ''to place the great wide world at your doorstep for you who yearn to travel with all the comforts of home.''
BYLINE?: Byam fancied the era's sleek machines that cut wind resistance, like Chrysler's Air-Flo autos and Pan Am's Clipper planes. He also possessed a love of the road and plenty of marketing savvy.
BYLINE@: This was the 1920s and America was on the move, for work and play. The Depression triggered a demand for cheap housing, and trailers allowed families to travel in search of jobs. The mid-1930s saw a boom in trailer factories, and Byam became a salesman for lightweight, aerodynamic versions built by aviation designer William Hawley Bowlus.
BYLINEA: Bowlus was producing curved, unified trailer bodies of an aluminum alloy that did not rust, peel or sag and was two-thirds lighter than steel. When the company went bust in 1935, Byam -- who briefly had made custom trailers -- took it over. A year later, he rolled out the first Airstreams, which soon boasted iceboxes, electric lights, chemical toilets, gas stoves and dry-ice air conditioning.
BYLINEB: In 64 years of operation, Airstream Inc. has produced an estimated 124,000 trailers, motor homes and vans.
BYLINEC: In 1955, nearly 20 years after his first trailer sold for $1,200, he created the Wally Byam Caravan Club International (www.wbcci.org/) to promote group travel abroad. Byam, who died in 1962, used these trips not just for fun and global goodwill but as rolling labs to test the vehicles, whose owners became perfect focus groups. Local clubs are still being formed around the world.
BYLINED: ''Streamlining is cleanlining'' was an Airstream notion that endures, from today's 19-foot, $26,996 Bambi to the 34-foot, $75,733 Limited, whose amenities include a ''slide-out'' that expands the living room by 16 inches, high-end furniture, Corian counters, ceramic tile floors and an electric fireplace.
BYLINEE: Wally would be proud, yes?
BYLINEF: Probably. But it would be far tougher getting bus-size behemoths on a rickety ferry to cross the Luvua River, which was how 41 trailers did it on Byam's 1959 Capetown-to-Cairo African adventure.
BYLINEG: Like fellow 'streamers, Washington unit president Howarth loves WBCCI camaraderie and competition. He won four first prizes, including ''shiniest,'' and best restoration of a vintage (pre-1975) trailer at the 1999 International Rally in Dayton, Ohio, which drew thousands of owners.
BYLINEH: At 41, Howarth is about two decades younger than the average owner. He and his wife, Kathy, were among the few families with small kids at RFK.
BYLINEI: Howarth so loves his gleaming machine he sometimes takes it on business trips. ''Government per diem hotels are no charmers. You don't know when they changed the sheets. You can see through the towels. This way, my wife makes meals I bring with me,'' he says. ''I'm more comfortable.''
BYLINEJ: Londoner Anthony Slocock, 31, hopes to turn his vintage 19-foot Pacer into a country ''home'' when he takes it back to England. He bought it on eBay for $3,000 and had it towed to Howarth's home, first clapping eyes on it last week when he flew over to start fixing it up. He was delighted to find that, even at 6 feet 8, he can stand up in it.
BYLINEK: ''I'll keep it here for a while and see America. Then I'll ship it back. I have a 2,500-square-foot loft in London with a big mortgage. So I'll use this to travel around the countryside. I have relatives who have farms and friends with homes where I can park,'' says Slocock. ''Eventually, I want to buy six or seven and rent them to people to travel around. The caravans in Europe are so ugly, I wouldn't be caught dead in one.''
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