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How Thor Industries Saved America’s Most Iconic RV Brand

RVs have been an important part of American travel culture for decades. One brand often stands out among the rest: Airstream. However, did you know that Thor Industries owns the iconic Airstream brand? Furthermore, that Thor formed in an effort to save it from going under in 1980?

Airstream is famous for its unique silver bullet-shaped trailers. It has become an icon of camping and adventure. The vintage look and durable exterior have made the trailers even more popular in recent years. However, the road to success has not always been smooth.

THE TRUTH ABOUT THOR INDUSTRIES AND AIRSTREAM

Rumors About Airstream Quality Decrease

Around 2008, people started to notice the “Thor” badges being added to Airstream campers. Since it was around the time that Thor was acquiring other big names, like Tiffin, people got confused. Rumors started floating around that Airstream product quality had gone down since being recently acquired.

This revealed how many people didn’t know that Thor had actually owned Airstream for nearly 30 years at that time.

Thor Industries Actually Formed in 1980 to Save Airstream

In fact, the origin of Thor Industries is linked with saving the Airstream brand. In the 1970s, Beatrice Foods owned Airstream. It faced serious financial challenges that threatened the company. This financial trouble caused Beatrice Foods to put the iconic brand up for sale. When entrepreneur Wade Thompson and investment banker Peter Orthwein caught wind of this, they decided they couldn’t let Airstream fail. 

The duo created Thor Industries in 1980 at the same time they purchased Airstream. They named it THOR after the first two letters of the founders’ surnames, Thompson and Orthwein. What started as purchasing a failing brand turned into a nearly unstoppable partnership. Thor would grow into the world’s largest RV company.

A Brief History of the Most Iconic RV Brand: Airstream

To understand the importance of Thor Industries’ intervention, it’s helpful to know the history of Airstream.

Wally Byam founded Airstream in 1931. He revolutionized the RV industry with its aerodynamic design and innovative use of materials. Byam envisioned creating a stylish, durable, and functional travel trailer. The silver outside became synonymous with Airstream, making it instantly recognizable on highways and in campgrounds across America.

As Airstream became more popular, it became a symbol of adventure and the open road. However, by the late 1970s, the company was in trouble. The oil supply crisis and subsequent economic downturn changed what people could afford. The threat of going bankrupt cast a dark shadow over Airstream’s future.

Pro Tip: Go on a big adventure in the smallest Airstream model available.

lineup of airstream campers on a dealer lot
Airstream is an iconic RV brand owned by Thor Industries.

Who Started Thor Industries? 

It’s hard to imagine the Thor Industries we know today as just a couple of guys coming together to buy a camper brand. Today, Thor includes a diverse portfolio of RV brands and other related companies. However, the founders, Wade Thompson and Peter Orthwein, initially created the company with a simple mission to rescue Airstream.

Wade Thompson

Thompson was an entrepreneur from New Zealand who came to New York City in 1963 to attend New York University. He earned an MBA there in 1964. He met his friend and business partner, Peter Orthwein, in 1976. They bought their first RV maker, Hi-Lo Campers, soon after. But they didn’t form Thor until they negotiated the purchase of Airstream from Beatrice Foods in 1980.

Due to his New Zealand background, he was dubbed “Lord of the Rigs” in the March 2004 edition of Forbes magazine for his hands-on participation in the day-to-day operations that quickly turned the company around. He passed away in 2009 after a battle with colon cancer.

Peter Orthwein

Orthwein is from Connecticut and graduated from Cornell University in 1968. He was an avid polo player in his youth and earned an MBA from Cornell. By 1980, Orthwein had developed the business skills necessary to help save Airstream. He focused on and was mainly responsible for Thor’s strategic growth strategy. He continues to be involved with Thor Industries after serving many different roles, including CEO and Executive Chairman. Currently, he sits as Chairman Emeritus of the Board.

Airstream parked in driveway

When Did Thor Buy Airstream? 

Thor Industries bought the then-struggling Airstream in 1980. The purchase saved Airstream from financial failure and set the stage for its rebirth. Thompson and Orthwein recognized the intrinsic value of Airstream. They saw an opportunity to revive its iconic nature in the RV market.

How Much Did Thor Pay for Airstream?

Thor bought Airstream for a mere $7.5 million, all borrowed from the seller. Even in 1980, $7.5 million was a steal for an iconic RV brand. But why was it so cheap? 

The 1970s were full of financial turmoil, with gas shortages and high interest rates at 12 percent in 1979. Who wants to buy an RV when there are long gas lines and so much of your payment going to interest? As a result, the RV market had fallen to near collapse by 1980. Airstream was losing lots of money, which drove down its sale price.

How Did Thor Save Airstream?

Thor Industries’ rescue of Airstream was not just a financial bailout. It was a strategic vision to preserve the brand while giving new life to its operations. But how

Thor Industries implemented a series of measures to revive Airstream. These included improving production processes, investing in research and development, and growing the distribution network.

As a result, Airstream went from losing $12 million in 1979 to making $1 million the first year Thor operated it. 

One key aspect of Thor’s strategy was preserving what made Airstream trailers unique. They kept its distinctive silver camper shell, rounded shape, and attention to detail. They made sure that each Airstream still had the classic look. 

Thompson and Orthwein worked to improve finance and production habits. They also wanted to enhance the relationship between Airstream and its customers. By year two, Thor had grown its sales, improved production quality, and formed a solid leadership team. 

Pro Tip: Want to test out an Airstream to see if it’s right for you? Discover Where You Can Get the Best Deals on an Airstream Rental.

Towing Airstream
Airstreams have a reputation for being high-quality, stylish travel trailers.

THOR: The Largest RV Manufacturer in the World

As Thor Industries successfully revitalized Airstream, it also grew its influence in the RV industry. It went public in 1984 and eventually became the largest RV manufacturer in the world. This growth was fueled by buying other key RV brands, each serving different market segments and consumer wants.

Thor Industries’ rise to the top of the RV manufacturing world showed its ability to adapt to a changing market. The company’s diverse portfolio allowed it to weather changes in the economy and RVer demands. This solidified its position as an industry leader.

How Many Brands Does Thor RV Own Now? 

Thor Industries’ extensive portfolio includes 16 RV brands and various other RV-related companies like Dicor and MaxxAir. Some of the notable brands under the Thor business include Airstream, Keystone RV, Dutchmen, Heartland RV, and Jayco. This diverse portfolio improves Thor Industries’ ability to adapt to market trends and stay ahead of the competition.

Back of Airstream driving on road
Airstreams will continue to be loved by RVers for many years to come.

Airstream Still Reigns Because of Thor Industries

The story of how Thor Industries saved Airstream shows the love of this iconic American brand. Because of their actions, Airstream is still one of if not the most iconic names in the RV industry.

Do you own an RV made by Thor Industries? Tell us in the comments what model you own!

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About Tom and Caitlin Morton

Tom & Caitlin Morton of Mortons on the Move gave up the stationary life for one where they are constantly on the move. They are full-time travelers, television hosts, and digital media producers.
They left their jobs, sold their house and possessions, and hit the road in September 2015 in their full-time “home on wheels”. Since then they have traveled the US, Canada, and even internationally by RV.
Now, they are Discovery Channel & PBS TV Co-stars of “Go North” on Amazon Prime Video, co-founders and instructors of RV Masterclass, and contributing authors for Hwy.co and an Arizona travel guide.

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Andy Bertolino

Saturday 6th of January 2024

I bought a used 2021 24'Freedom Elite in 2022 when we ( the wife and I ) down size from a 32' class A. I am now 81 years young and the 32' was too much for me to take care of it. I am very happy with the Freedom Elite. The first thing I did was to have the front end alined to help with steering wheel. (Made a Big Difference ) Looking forward to the coming year to see what else I can do. Good luck to everyone in the coming year. Andy

The Mortons

Sunday 7th of January 2024

Best of luck to you too Andy. We hope you have great adventures in 2024!

Mike Shippy

Friday 5th of January 2024

Thor may have saved the company, but the quality is abominable. Our friends bought a Airstream Caravelle in 2021. Several of us in our group bought RV's within a year of each other. We purchased a Northern Lite 10-2 truck camper (had a couple of minor issues I took care of). Out of all the RV purchases, Airstream was easily by far the worst quality. The Airstream had many, many problems, here are a few: fridge cabinet disconnected from the wall and fell over, bath cabinet and TV fell off the wall, wiring issues - one where the fridge quit working - poor connection, water heater electric heat quit, front outside panel would not stay on due to very poor fasteners and the AC will not heat in hot weather. I helped repair several issues while we were on the road with them. Several of us in our were on the road. The owner had to wait a year and a half for an appointment with the dealer and after 2 years of ownership the dealer finally "fixed" the problems. That was this past fall, we'll see...