Airstream travel trailers are easily recognized by their signature style: a shiny, aluminum exterior with rounded roof lines. But the company has varied this look with its newest model, Nest by Airstream. Although Nest retains Airstream’s curving lines and has a gray exterior reminiscent of aluminum, it’s created from a very different material – glass fiber reinforced polymer.
The Nest, launched in April 2018, isn’t Airstream’s first experience with composite materials. In 1955, company founder Wally Byum, recognizing composites’ versatility, designed a fiberglass trailer called the Wally Bee. Although a prototype of this trailer traveled through Central America in 1962, the model never made it to production.
Other trailer manufacturers did embrace GFRP, however, and there have been many different styles and sizes of fiberglass trailers produced over the past 50 years.
Airstream got interested in the material again in 2016, when it saw Robert Johans’ design for a small GFRP trailer. “Robert had been restoring small fiberglass travel trailers and has a passion and a love for them,” says McKay Featherstone, Airstream’s vice president of product development and engineering. Johans designed an updated version of these fiberglass trailers and started his own company, NEST Caravans, to build them. He eventually connected with Bryan Thompson, an automotive designer who works with Airstream.
Thompson introduced Johans to Airstream executives, and the company liked his design so much that they bought NEST Caravans. Johans joined Airstream as NEST project manager, and Thompson helped Airstream re-engineer and refine its design.
The NEST’s modern interpretation of the classic Airstream shape takes advantage of the versatility of fiberglass material, Featherstone says. “This is a luxury, very design-centric little trailer,” he says. “You can do things with fiberglass that you can’t do with formed aluminum.”
Like traditional Airstreams, the NEST has a semi-monocoque structure. “The fiberglass shell caries the load, which is a pretty significant structural challenge as you’re going over potholes,” says Featherstone.
Goldshield Fiberglass of Indiana is constructing NEST’s fiberglass shells. They’re made from an E-glass roving with 5 mm thick core material and an Aropol™ unsaturated polyester resin from Ashland. The trailer’s three large sections – top, bottom and back – are manufactured in an open-spray mold coated with a premium rain-gauge gel coat. The parts cure in the open mold for 24 hours to ensure a smooth, high-quality finish.
Goldshield built a special fixture to precisely position and hold the three sections of the trailer in place before joining them with an adhesive and a fiberglass layer. While that makes the shell stronger, it means that all of the trailers’ interior furnishings have to go in through the small back door opening. Everything, including the bed, had to be broken down into subcomponents to fit through the door.