AP Photo/Paul Warner

Sales are about to reach pre-recession levels. Who's driving them and why?

If you're one of the millions of Americans planning to hit the road for a summer trip, be prepared: RVs are ruling the road.

Perhaps you've seen headlines that Airstream, Inc.—manufacturer of those signature egg-shaped aluminum trailers since 1931—celebrated a record year in 2014, with sales up 26 percent over 2013 numbers. It's an improbable-sounding accomplishment, given that the doors of at least one dealership are posted with a sign that reads, "Yes, we're still making them."

The retro-glam RVs, which run from $42,000 to $151,000, have found new life among an expanded clientele, mainly baby boomers. And smaller, cheaper, mini-trailers, like 1930s-style "teardrop" designs, have also resurfaced as appealing options for road-trippers of a certain sensibility.

An "offroad" teardrop trailer. (Flickr/indigoprime)

"Small is the new big," writes Bob Wheeler, President and CEO of Airstream, Inc. in an email. "The small-house movement, asset-lite lifestyles, and a move away from conspicuous consumption are all in this same basket. Airstream falls in line with much of this thinking: a small, self-contained dwelling that is mobile and fully functional."

There's no small amount of "tiny house" ethos implicit in the appeal of these compact, vintage-inspired models: Folks buy these vehicles expecting (and perhaps projecting) a sense of adventure and freedom, reduced belongings, and stylish, simple functionality.

Consumers of the smaller teardrop-style models are often retired individuals or couples seeking adventure—"from a mountain biker, kayaker, rock climber, wild life photographer and bird watcher to someone who travels to every state and puts huge amounts of miles on their teardrops," says Cary Winch, co-owner of Camp-Inn, a Wisconsin-based manufacturer of compact camping trailers that's seen consistently rising sales for at least six years. "Most of our customers consider themselves not part of the [mainstream] RV culture, and more [as] camping 'purists,' for a lack of a better description."

Wheeler writes in an email that Airstream buyers "crave authenticity, durability, and brands that have a rich heritage and history. I think this may be a backlash to the increasingly disposable nature of much of what we buy." Throwing down for an Airstream also means buying into a distinct social experience, with owners' clubs, rallies, and caravan trips beckoning across North America. Teardrop owners are similarly tribal.

But it's not just the sleek and liberatory RV models that are doing well. The whole industry has recently found a new stride. Behemoth motor homes and travel trailers—12, 28, 35 feet long—are hitting highways in the strongest numbers in years. Some 32,045 RVs were shipped from manufacturers to dealerships in February of this year. Compare that to 29,700 in February 2007 and 10,300 in February 2009, when the industry hit rock bottom. The industry projects it'll hit its top sales in nearly a decade this year.

Airstream travel trailers line the factory floor as they are assembled at the Airstream factory in Jackson Center, Ohio.  (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

"There was a lot of pent-up demand during the recession years, a lot of desire to buy an RV," says Richard Coon, president of the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association. "Now that people are feeling like they're not going to lose their jobs, and they're coming back to buy."

Plummeting gas prices don't hurt, either, and it's worth considering that Baby Boomers—folks between 51 and 69—are retiring in droves. At the same time, however, RV buyers are actually getting a little younger; According to the most recent consumer demographic study, in 2011, the average age of an RV buyer was 48 years old. The fastest-growing age bracket was 35-54. (Although the report does not touch on race or gender, participation in outdoor activities in general is overwhelmingly white and leans more male than female.)

Mainstream motorhomes and travel trailers run anywhere from $10,000 to $500,000. After financial ability, family was the leading factor in the decision to buy an RV. People perceive these vehicles as a way to spend time with the kids and grandkids, without the hassle and expense of flights, lodging, and food.

"In today’s busy world, simply being together as a family is becoming more and more important," says Coon. "An RV is the best offer for that. And you get to see the country. And it's safe. When was the last time someone got murdered in a national park?"

For the average buyer, an RV is like a cocoon. And although the consumer survey doesn't break down the stats quite this far, anecdotally, it's clear most teardroppers and Airstreamers see themselves as distinctly different from each other.

But unless you're living in your RV full-time (which, indeed, a small share of owners across categories do), any model—compact or otherwise, at just about any price-point—is about as discretionary a purchase as one can imagine. It's a big upfront investment, and that's before fuel costs, which with larger RVs are quite staggering. Buying any RV indicates a high degree of consumer confidence. And that's why Coon sees the uptick in Airstreams and teardrops as merely part of a larger trend: Now that people feel a little more freed by economic circumstances, they're buying RVs. Compact, more modestly-priced models are merely "entry-level" units.

"One reason the industry is so successful is that there’s something for every income level," says Coon. "You don’t have to be rich to buy a smaller trailer and go camping."

At least for however long this particular economic upturn lasts. When the next crash comes, Americans will be trading in their Ultimate Behemoth for a wagon, per some advice once given to Homer Simpson. Or for sleeping bags and a tent.

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