I’m taking a break from gawking at custom RV builds to take a peek at another type of camper that tugs on my heart. Vintage travel trailers rock, and here’s another that would look great parked at any campsite. The Airstream Argosy was built to be a cheaper trailer that you bought before you got a “real” Airstream. But today, they’re a real gem for vintage RV lovers.
A few times every year, I run into a vintage Airstream while out and about travelling the country. They’re always a sight to stop and stare at and their owners are enthusiastic about their aluminium-bodied living quarters. But less often I find Airstream’s old experiment into more affordable travel trailers: Argosy. And when I do find one of these beauties, they’re often beaten down and nearly forgotten. It’s time to shine a light on an important part of Airstream’s past.
Those of you who aren’t familiar with Airstream’s designs might be a bit confused by the paint. After all, Airstream is known for its shiny aluminium campers. What’s going on, here?
According to Airstream, the Argosy line of campers was created in 1972 to serve two main purposes. The first was to move Airstream down into the mid-price camper market. The other was to use the Argosy line for Airstream to try out new ideas before moving them into the main line.
An Argosy was different than the typical Airstream. Whereas a mainline Airstream presented itself in shiny aluminium, an Argosy had coats of paint. Airstream says that the paint hid the dents and scratches in the aluminium sent in from the Airstream plant. And steel was used for the front and rear end caps instead of sections of aluminium.
The interior was also brought down-market to further fit the travel trailer’s price bracket. And where an Airstream came with a lifetime guarantee, an Argosy got just a single year. This cost-cutting meant that an Argosy could be had for $US1,500 ($2,082)-$US3,500 ($4,859) cheaper than an equivalent Airstream at the time.
The plan for the Argosy line was to get people hooked on the RV lifestyle then later get them to switch to a more expensive Airstream. The company was delicate with advertising and made sure that buyers knew that an Argosy was merely almost an Airstream. These campers weren’t even initially eligible to join the Wally Byam Caravan Club, a group for Airstream owners.
But it wasn’t all about being cheap. Airstream used the Argosy line to try out ideas it was too afraid to try out on the mainline. The most prominent is panoramic windows, which proved to be very popular.
As the Airstream Hunter blog notes, those end caps were also an experiment. Airstream used them to test if end caps could be made cheaper and easier than using multiple aluminium segments. Unfortunately, paint didn’t always stick well to the caps.
In 1974, the Argosy line expanded to include the Argosy Motorhome. And yes, this was an Argosy travel trailer adapted to fit on a Chevrolet chassis.
Perhaps even more amazing than the Motorhome is what the company developed the vehicle into. The Motorhome was used as the base for the Argosy Compact Bus.
This wasn’t an RV but a tiny shuttle or transit bus. I mean, just take a look at this:
In 1977, Airstream would shrink the Argosy line down enough to make trailers that could be towed by a compact car. The Argosy Minuet weighed in at 1,236 kg. It was advertised as the lightest self-contained travel trailer.
That “self-contained” part is important, as you could get fibreglass trailers that were 454 kg lighter, but they weren’t as fully-featured.
At this point in automotive history the oil crisis and a recession was changing the landscape. The same happened for Airstream, too. The Versailles plant stopped making Argosy campers in 1978, and Argosy as a whole disappeared after the 1980 model year.
Argosy would only make a brief comeback in 1986 to have the name slapped on a more generic travel trailer and a fifth wheel.
Both of which would end up replaced by Airstream-branded trailers.
The white and red Argosy featured here was put up for sale on Bring a Trailer. At the time of writing it was one a reasonable auction. However, it has sold for $US83,000 ($115,221). Cheaper ones can be found dotted all over the marketplace.
Today, Argosy campers enjoy a loving fandom and they’re even welcomed in the Airstream club. While Airstream hasn’t provided production numbers, it says that Argosy campers are rare. Many sit falling apart, neglected and forgotten.
They’re still used as a base for restorations and custom jobs today. And while Airstream no longer makes the Argosy line, its spirit lives on in some of the company’s recent offbeat designs.