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The Bowlus trailer is back after 80 years

Feather-light and ultracool, the classic Bowlus trailer is rolling after 80 years, thanks to the drive of a father and daughter

Published: Apr 8, 2016 07:32:37 AM IST
Updated: Apr 4, 2016 05:50:11 PM IST
The Bowlus trailer is back after 80 years

After earning an undergraduate degree in economics at Wharton and a master’s in finance at the International University of Monaco, Geneva Long knew she had the entrepreneur’s itch—she dreamed of updating and relaunching forgotten brands. “I grew up watching my parents passionately build their company,” says the 25-year-old Long. “No matter the pivots or missteps, they made working look like the most fun you could have.”

Her parents, John Long and Helena Mitchell, had pioneered internet banking systems two decades ago. “In 1999 Helena and I sold Quadravision after growing it for seven years to over 400 employees serving financial institutions with internet solutions in the US, Canada and Europe,” explains John Long.

He spent his first years of early retirement restoring a 1935 Bowlus Road Chief travel trailer for road tripping with his vintage 1937 Tatra, which he showed at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 2011. “The positive reactions at the Palm Springs Modernism Show and by attendees at SXSW in 2010 encouraged the decision to rejuvenate the brand,” he says. “Bowlus Road Chief was actually a true zombie trademark,” adds Geneva. “It was never registered nor was it ever held by another party, so securing it was much easier than we anticipated.”

Developed by Hawley Bowlus in the years after he led construction of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis, the Bowlus Road Chief was 80 years ahead of its time. Bowlus, a world leader in the design of sailplanes and gliders who also worked on the early development of the Learjet, brought the engineering and design principles of aircraft and race cars to the travel trailer: A light weight, a low centre of gravity, stable aerodynamics and not a square inch gone to waste. The original Bowlus remains a marvel of efficient packaging and Streamline Moderne design. The iconic Airstream trailer owes its very existence to the Road Chief. (The Airstream company was founded by former Bowlus marketer Wally Byam.) And original Road Chiefs still have tremendous cachet: A 1935 Bowlus went for $187,000 at the Gooding & Co Scottsdale auction in 2011.

The Bowlus trailer is back after 80 years

Ride and shine: Geneva Long and her father, John, bought the zombie trademark for the iconic Bowlus trailer—a precursor to the Airstream—and breathed new life into the brand

The Longs have brought the Bowlus brand into the 21st century since relaunching it in 2014. Ten Road Chiefs were delivered in the past year, and 25 are under construction, cash deposits already banked. Prices range from $115,000 for the simpler Heritage Edition that sleeps three to the $140,000 Open Road Edition, which can accommodate four. Inside, ceilings and paneling are maple veneer on birch core, and owners can choose from a range of colour themes and special equipment.

“We gave a great deal of consideration to how people work and play today,” says John. “That’s why we offer tablet and laptop charging on the go with a cellular amplifier so you can catch up effortlessly with work or stream all your favourites. We added solar-panel hookups with an easy storage option and long-life AGM batteries so you can travel where and how you want. We want our customers to follow their dreams with as little to encumber them as possible.

“The vintage Road Chief served as our style icon and design DNA,” he continues. “While we elongated the new Road Chief to 24 feet, widened it to 80 inches and grew the overall internal height to 6 feet 4 inches, we kept the original aircraft quality of 2024-T3 aluminum along with 5,000 aircraft-grade rivets to create an ultra-strong monocoque [French for “one hull”] lightweight structure akin to an airplane wing or fuselage.” Overall, the Road Chief tips the scales at a featherweight 2,300 pounds, less than half the weight of a comparable-length trailer. Due to its superior aerodynamics and low centre of gravity, just about any SUV or crossover, and even some luxury sedans, can tow it. As John explains: “This appeals to many users who don’t want to add a new vehicle just to tow their travel trailer.” Geneva regularly pulls her Road Chief behind a V6-powered 2011 Porsche Panamera, and Helena does the same with her beloved Saab convertible.

Texas cardiothoracic surgeon Staton Awtrey and his wife, Blythe, exemplify the new Bowlus owner. They traded their 27-foot Airstream and requisite huge tow vehicle for a Mercedes SUV and a Road Chief. Blythe and their 5-year-old daughter, Lillian, keep logbooks of their travels so Lillian can replicate them one day with her own children in the very same Road Chief, which Staton named Spirit of Adventure, because it resembles the airship in Lillian’s favourite movie, Up.

(This story appears in the 15 April, 2016 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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