The Bowlus Travel Chief Is the RV Lifestyle For the Rich and Famous
Do you need a classically styled, $200,000 aluminum travel trailer? That’s a rhetorical question.
Like Buckminster Fuller and other fantastic visionaries of the Streamline Moderne era, Hawley Bowlus was a dreamer who dreamed in teardrop-shaped aluminum. Unlike Bucky, whose three-wheeled, ass-engined, front-drive Dymaxion was a murderous death trap that was never put into production, Bowlus created the Road Chief, the first riveted aluminum travel trailer, of which he built about eighty between 1934 and 1936. Wally Byam, the founder of Airstream, the enduring brand whose name has become synonymous with these shiny argent bullets, worked as a salesman for Bowlus in the mid-'30s and borrowed liberally from his unpatented design. Bowlus, though, was the original.
Now, as with many other artisanal examples of what I like to refer to as American Do-It-Yourself-Referentialism, the innovative brand has been revived by some deep-pocketed folks who want to hand-manufacture a revisionist version, seemingly transforming a plebian and utilitarian object (in this case, a trailer) into an expensive artistic vision solely for the wealthy.
“If you look back in history, the Bowlus was actually the most expensive, most advanced travel trailer of its day,” corrects Bowlus revival co-founder John Long, who came to his love of these shiny cruisers by restoring a vintage 1935 Bowlus over the course of ten years. “So we’re actually just staying true to Hawley’s vision.”
It’s a fair rebuttal. Unlike a restored vintage Jeep that costs $150,000, the new Travel Chief is more of a modern re-launch—like what luxury brand Burberry went through some years back—than a move up-market. Plus, there are actual functional advantages to a well-designed travel trailer; namely, because of lightweight materials and aerodynamic sculpting, it's smaller, more maneuverable, roomier, and has a lower center of gravity so you can tow it with a smaller, lighter, more maneuverable, roomier, vehicle.
“You could tow this with a compact crossover,” Long says. “Or a plug-in hybrid like the Volt, which we’ll be doing soon.” He posits that the same conditions that gave these trailers credibility in the '30s, during the era of 70-horsepower full-size sedans, could find new applications in our contemporary world. “Towed by a small electric car, you could take a zero emission holiday,” he says. “Which is not exactly how people traditionally think of the RV industry.”
All Bowlus Travel Chief trailers come equipped with bent birch plywood walls, bamboo tables, teak accent trim, stainless steel appliances and countertops, radiant floor heating, air conditioning, indoor/outdoor showers, hygienic odorless toilets, cellular signal repeaters, and a material sensitivity that extends to limiting the use of Volatile Organic Compound Emissions. (This means that your trailer’s marine-grade interior vegan faux-leather and organic cotton beddings won’t be off-gassing for years to come. Breathe easy.)
The latest addition to the family, the Limited Edition Lithium, upgrades the interior experience with a pair of oversized skylights, yacht-style meteorological instruments impregnated into the wall, fancier linens and throw pillows, and a matching dog bed. But the big improvement is in the electrical system. Ordinary trailers use lead-acid batteries, but the average Bowlus trailer uses absorbent glass mat (AGM) batteries, which provide greater charge and longer life.
The Limited Edition uses lithium-ion batteries, like your laptop (or Tesla), which are one-third the weight of AGM cells and last more than twice as long, allowing the trailer to pack far more power—enough to charge all of your devices, and run the microwave and air conditioner—while weighing just fifty pounds more than a regular Bowlus. There’s even a portable solar panel for the roof, so you can charge your batteries (slowly, but steadily) while off the grid, allowing you to access those truly inaccessible places.
“People aren’t traveling in the same way anymore,” says Bowlus spokesperson Helena Mitchell. “They’re looking for fabulous experiences.” I assume that means outside of Kampgrounds of America campsites and Wal-Mart parking lots, two places I’ve proudly spent my lifetime avoiding, and two places that are synonymous with RVs. Mitchell assures me that new glamping grounds are now sited at alternate locations like vineyards and golf courses.
If you choose a Bentley Bentayga, as the folks from Bowlus did when they picked me up during Monterey Car Week, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding or getting to those upscale, out-of-the-way spots. The Bentayga is not only extremely capable, it is one of the few SUVs on the market that tops the Limited Edition Lithium’s base price of $219,000. You don’t want to put the cart before the horse, so to speak.
Bowlus has fifty orders for its various trailers, and Long claims that these dear little mobile sheds seem to spend more time on the road, more frequently, than the industry average, which he says generally amounts to a two-week trip, once a year. But that might have as much to do with the income level and vacation habits of their owners—who hop over to their ranch in Montana, or out to their property in the desert for a few days when they can—as their approachable ease of use. Long confirms that many have also found use as pool houses or guest houses."Usable, portable pool- and guest houses," he adds.
The temperate ocean breezes blew in to the Bowlus through the myriad Vicodin-shaped windows, so I felt as cool and luxurious inside my tubular aluminum shell as champagne in a can. (Speaking of appropriating the humble to service the noble.) For a trailer, this thing is truly fabulous, even for me, a consummate non-camper, for whom sleeping outside is little more than a harbinger of "incipient homelessness." But $220,000 buys a lot of stays in an amazing AirBnBs, and requires no towing, setup, cooking, or cleaning.
Then again, $230,000 rents a lot of weeks in a Cadillac Escalade or track days in a Ferrari 488. The Bowlus folks have made a truly unique bit of kit, and it should be praised. Arts and Crafts and high Modernism have had their comebacks; maybe, with our contemporary celebration of the hand-machined and our need for a nomadic/quasi-aquatic life in the face of rising seas, the Road Chief is the first step toward a revival of the American nautical aesthetics of Streamline Moderne. I'd welcome that.