Anything as momentous as the introduction of the new Chevrolet Silverado deserves an extra special observance. After all, it's the equivalent of Paul Bunyan emerging from the woods to trade his ax for a chainsaw, of Mighty Casey stepping up to the plate with an aluminum bat. Naturally enough, we just had to try the Silverado with a load on the road. Considering the pickup's iconic status, we matched it up with two other icons by tugging a 1974 Airstream Overlander travel trailer on a pilgrimage to Elvis Presley's birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi. Thereafter, we would go to Trailerpalooza in the Florida Panhandle.
On a chilly Monday morning, the day before Halloween, our party of three set off from Ann Arbor, driving 150 miles south to Jackson Center, Ohio, a "quiet outpost in the heart of America's farmland," as Airstream Incorporated's official history describes it. Although founded in California by Wally Byam, Airstream opened a facility here in 1952 and eventually consolidated all operations at the spot. Today's 140,000-square-foot plant turns out about 2300 trailers annually, some of which cost up to $90,000 and boast elegant Danish modern interior appointments.
In the gleaming lobby of Airstream's service center, where trailers are restored and retrofitted, we met customer relations manager Dave Schumann, who had agreed to lend us his "fine piece of aluminum," namely, the twenty-six-foot Overlander. While a hitch was being fitted to the Silverado, company president and CEO Bob Wheeler explained that Airstream's singular growth in a suppressed industry can be attributed to the current interest in premium brands, mid-century design, and product authenticity. "We hit all those notes," Wheeler said. Although the company has been "very careful about not tinkering with what's iconic about Airstream," the BaseCamp, conceived at Nissan Design America and harking back to the historic teardrop Airstreams, is currently ramping up to weekly production of ten units; it reaches a new audience of younger, utility-minded people who would never be caught dead at a rally of Wally Byam Caravan Club International (WBCCI) members.
Soon enough, the Overlander was attached to our Silverado, the brake controller was adjusted, and we were southbound on I-75. It was formerly believed--even inside executives' offices at General Motors--that pickup owners cared nothing about ride quality. (A long, 1962 diary entry by Chevy general manager Bunkie Knudsen furnishes proof.) Yet, with our substantial load, we marveled at the new Silverado's jet-smoothness. The previous generation's torsion bars have been ditched in favor of coil springs in front. Rack-and-pinion steering has been added. The frame, fully boxed and with a hydroformed front section, is vastly stiffer. The suspension provides compliance for a supple ride, and roadbed furrows and ripples are easily dismissed. Meanwhile, the balance is just right for stable handling, so a chuckhole at the apex of a turn causes no turmoil.