Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Thor Industries, Airstream, and Livin Lite

I've been a little obsessed with Airstreams since at least 2007 when I bought the 1973 Airstream that I full-timed in for 2.5 years. Since then I've owned three vintage Airstreams including the 1962 Airstream Safari I bought last year and just sold. I sold it because I'd maxed out what I could put into it and it still needed more work. It's an amazing trailer and it has a new owner who will continue with improvements and ensure it has additional life.

The aesthetic of an Airstream with its airplane-like aluminum body is the main appeal. But living in mine ten years ago also introduced me to a community of people who I fell in love with. The vintage crowd especially were a cool group, but I also became friends with owners of newer Airstreams.

When I decided to sell my latest Airstream I wasn't planning to get another RV, but over the last two weeks I fell down the slippery slope.

Before talking about my new trailer (yep, I bought a new one--and I mean brand new), I want to discuss Thor Industries. Thor is a company that was created in 1980 when Wade Thompson and Peter Orthwein purchased what at the time was an ailing Airstream from Beatrice Foods (which was a big conglomerate in the 1960s and 1970s). Airstream has its roots in the 1920s but officially opened in 1931. It's the only surviving brand of hundreds of travel trailer companies that existed before World War II. Under Thor, in the early 1980s, Airstream quickly returned to profitability.

And Thor itself began its rise to becoming the world's largest manufacturer of recreational vehicles. Thor took over that number one spot in the early 2000s after many acquisitions and savvy management of its growing list of subsidiaries. Today Thor dominates the RV market with 48% market share when all of its brands are added up. The number two company is called Forest River, they have 34% market share as of 2017.

I was not only infatuated with Airstreams, I was both an Airstream enthusiast and a snob. After selling my latest Airstream I ventured down to Parris RV, an SOB dealer (some other brand is what we Airstreamers call all other RVs) in Salt Lake. While there I had an epiphany. For the amount of money I had in my vintage Airstream, which I LOVED, I could have had a brand new RV. Now part of me probably knew that, but until very recently I wouldn't consider another brand unless it was some cool other vintage trailer.

A T@B. Like Airstreams (and me), made in Ohio!
I browsed the lot at Parris RV and found myself liking much of what I saw. It was T@B (Tab) trailers that drew me to that particular dealer--plus it was close to my house. But they had other brands that caught my eye. I loved the look of the Riverside Retro series--though I wasn't sure about the quality of the Riverside products. There are so many cheap RVs. With many brands you just can feel the bad or questionable quality when you step inside. (Riversides may be fine, but I wasn't feeling it).

The T@Bs were cool--they seemed very well built, but were very small. There was one T@B that was bigger (still small in the RV world but big for T@Bs) that I liked, but it was too expensive. At the end of the day I was intrigued by the Rockwood Geo-Pro. They came in a 14 foot floor plan that I liked and were very affordable. The Geo-Pro was cool, but as with the Riverside retros I was suspicious of its quality--though at that price . . . of course that's why so many cheap RVs are built and sold--because they can be made cheaply, in every sense of the word.

So I came home and started scouring the Internet. At this point I knew I was basically a goner. I'd probably be buying something.

I found out Rockwood was a Forest River brand and that Forest River settled with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for $35 million in 2015 for their shoddy work. After learning that, I was even more dubious of the quality of the very cute Geo-Pro. It may or may not be a solid product, but . . .

The RV industry is big so I figured there must be something out there that was a good product, given the price range I'd settled on. I didn't want or need a big trailer. My online search continued. I looked at the new teardrops. I considered the Minnie line by Winnebago. I considered some cool and very rugged little trailers like the Moby1 line, which is made here in Utah. As cool as the Moby1 looked, and it looks like quality too, it was just too small. I wanted small, just not that small.

So I went back to the mother ship--Thor. They own Airstream so I figured maybe one of their other brands would be worthy and in the size and budget of my search. And then I found it via Thor's website . . .
Livin Lite.

This is a brand I'd never heard of. I clicked through to Livin Lite's website from Thor's and it didn't take me too long to become smitten. Livin Lite makes all aluminum trailers, including the chassis! Even Airstreams have steel chassis and Airstreams are infamous for having rusted out chassis. Coming from the vintage world I was well aware of that problem (though I'd never dealt with it myself luckily, I have seen a number of horrifying Airstream chassis that were severely rusted out). Airstreams are also built on a wood floor, which rots. I did deal with some floor rot in my 1973 Airstream.

Livin Lite eliminated both steel and wood from their trailers creating what the founder called a "generational trailer," one that was designed to last for generations. I kept reading and looking online. Livin Lite seemed like a small company but one with a damned good product. I searched for the Utah dealer--Legacy RV.

My visit to Parris RV was on Saturday, January 27. On Tuesday, January 30 I stopped by Legacy to see Livin Lite's CampLite product. By the end of that day I'd signed the contract to buy a CampLite trailer.

This Airstreamer had fallen off the wagon!

Now back to Thor . . . and another division of theirs called KZ. I didn't know this on January 30, but it turns out KZ manages Livin Lite. Both companies are Thor subsidiaries.

As many people do when making a purchase like this, I kept researching and learning all that I could. I wasn't taking delivery until Saturday, February 3.

Late at night on February 2, I stumbled across some disturbing messages. There's a company-hosted online forum for Livin Lite products and a post dated February 1 was titled "Is Livin Lite really going out of business."

What?!?!

On the verge of making this purchase this was disturbing. Even worse, I found a Facebook owner's group where dealers were confirming this rumor. It turns out that around January 31 or February 1 dealers were notified by KZ that Livin Lite was being shut down.

Arrghhh.

Now I know many people spend a lot longer than I did doing their homework on these types of purchases, but I'd taken a pretty deep dive and was sold on the CampLite/Livin Lite products. Also with my background with Airstreams I knew a little bit about RVs (enough to be dangerous).

So I went to Legacy a little early the next day to see what they knew. They confirmed they'd received a similar message. It seemed like they weren't sure what it all meant. Would CampLite (a Livin Lite brand) continue under KZ?  Legacy's owner thought they might, but if they did KZ would do away with the aluminum chassis (and maybe more aluminum) because they were too expensive to produce. Though it was the aluminum chassis and frame that was one of the main things that differentiated Livin Lite to begin with!

I decided I didn't care. I liked the trailer I picked out. I wasn't worried about the warranty. If Livin Lite was to go away I was still buying a Thor product and Thor isn't going away any time soon.

So I took delivery.

My new CampLite by Livin Lite! 
But now my research kicked up a notch. I occasionally write and edit articles on Wikipedia. By Sunday night, February 4, I'd finished a substantial first draft of my new article on Livin Lite the company. You can see the new article on Livin Lite here.

I proceeded this week to contact KZ and Thor executives by email, to respectfully ask them what's up. I heard back from a senior Thor executive who assured me my warranty would be honored (which, again, I wasn't worried about).

Here's what he wrote:

As the management oversight group for Livin’Lite, KZ will continue to produce Livin’ Lite trailers as orders are received.  However, since they are not a fully mature product line, they will be batch run into the early summer.  At that time, final decisions will be made to the future designs of the product.  Although Livin’Lite is experiencing a transition in the products offered, rest assured that all warranties on all Livin’ Lite products are and will continue to be honored for their full terms, the same as any other brands we produce.

Thanks again for purchasing a CampLite and welcome to the KZ family. 

I pressed him on the question of what was happening and he said:

"no final decision has been made."

I didn't know I was joining the KZ family, but I found out soon enough! Hope it's as good as Livin Lite.

I'll write and post more on my new trailer later. I am excited about it.

To wrap this post up, here's the Thor family of companies as they stand today. If Thor wasn't the entity that saved Airstream I never would have found Livin Lite at all. I do hope Livin Lite's product lines continue. And don't miss the Livin Lite Wikipedia article I wrote to learn more about the very cool, if endangered, company that made my new trailer.



3 comments:

Ed Benson said...

Your experience is similar to ours, but we never actually bought an Airstream. We had never owned a travel trailer, and were similarly smitten with Airstreams. We joined Airforums.com, an Airstream owner’s forum. Though great people, we were taken aback by the reports of rotten floors, filiform corrosion and poor quality control. And theses problems were surfacing on fairly new trailers. Not what we expected for Airstream prices.

I think we found CampLite/LivinLite via a Google search for aluminum travel trailers. Ended up traveling to Indiana from N GA to purchase a new 2014 (2013 build) 21BHS for a very good price from Sunny Island RV. We wanted something we could tow with an SUV, and had purchased a 2011 Ford Flex with EcoBoost as a tow vehicle. Since our purchase, we’ve towed about 15,000 miles with no towing-related issues.

The trailer itself has had some nagging issues, mainly electrical, but we’re overall quite satisfied, and sorry to see LivinLite fall by the wayside, if that’s what happens. For now, our 21BHS suits us perfectly, and is a keeper.

Capt J-rod said...

I came to Camplite through Airstream as well. I've always been drawn to nostalgic cool stuff. My wife and I were tent camping more and more. I loved it and she tolerated it lol. After our first daughter was born my wife announced it was time for a camper or she was out. As an engineer that loves to restore cars, build projects and constantly tinker, I announced it was time to frame off restore a classic airstream. Being a brand new dad, time was a little less available (understatement). The wife lobbied to buy a clean used camper and go camping. I bought a 2007 jayco 19' in 2012. I figured 5 years old should have PLENTY of useful life left. There was a "small leak" in the front corner. That allowed water to wick under the membrane and destroy the entire roof. I re-framed and sheeted it and put a new commercial membrane on the top. It was then that I discovered that the flashing in the rear of the trailer actually funneled water under the wall and under the plastic membrane under the trailer. I next replaced 2/3 of the floor and laid engineered hardwoods. Short story long I frame off restored a POS jayco instead of the airstream I always wanted. Enter the camplite. We stopped at an airstream dealer while camping to drool over the new models. $65k for a 22' airstream was way out of the budget. The salesman showed us a camplite. We scoffed at the interior due to shock from stepping out of a luxury airstream into an industrial camplite. That evening a 16dbs pulled in behind our site. I grabbed 2 beers out of the fridge and went to ask some questions. The owner was more than happy to show it off. Ironically we spent more time looking under it than in it. 3 beers later I was sold. It took me a year and a half to find my 2015 21rbs used but I knew it was my next trailer. I wanted a 16, but I was all to happy to find a 21. I hate to see the company dissolve, but I consider myself very lucky to have found and purchased my trailer. I can now keep it as long as I want with no fear of rot or issues.

Mike McMahan said...

I just bought a Livin Lite 7x20 toy hauler for exactly all the Aluminum reasons. I've had several "stick built" rv's. Their life is definitely limited, it's just a fact. Mine is one of the last built with the aluminum bonded sides so I consider myself lucky, although the fiberglass looks great too. I plan to keep this rv forever, I'm 55, I see no reason to part with it even if I did buy something else in the future. It's size, volume and conveniences will always have a place in my life or I will leave it to my family members.