Words: Mike Ryan
Back in 2007, society was in a pretty good state. The GFC was still to come, Trump wasn’t in the White House and we had no coronavirus, so most people could look to the future with confidence.
Ford certainly did, and they expressed that confidence in a concept vehicle that debuted at the North American International Auto Show that year – the Airstream Concept.
While its ‘green’ drivetrain looked to the future, the concept’s name and much of its styling was inspired by the past.
Light Weight, High Style
The first Airstream caravan (trailer in US terms) was created by Wally Byams in 1931, using riveted aluminium panel construction that had been developed in aircraft manufacture.
Byams rightly figured the light aluminium panels reduced a caravan’s weight, while the rounded front and rear ends made it more aerodynamic on the road. Both attributes made the Airstream caravans distinctive. The basic design was popular, too, so much so that it changed little in the decades that followed.
Airstream was in the news through much of 2006, as they were celebrating their 75th Anniversary that year, which explains its influence in the look of the Airstream Concept that was developed at the same time.
"For 75 years, Airstream has been an icon synonymous with the optimism, discovery and wanderlust that's helped defined America," said J Mays, group vice president - Design, and Ford’s chief creative officer when the Airstream Concept made its debut.
"It seemed only fitting for us to come together through our shared passion for the open road and show a vision for the future of American transportation."
Chuck and HAL
While some of the Airstream Concept’s styling features were fanciful, others were functional, predicting the sort of comforts people would want, as well as the kit they’d need, on road trips in the future.
The modern drivetrain (more on that later) removed the need for a conventional grille, so the concept featured what Ford called a “single surface” treatment of the front end. A one-piece T-shaped headlight was supplemented with smaller foglamps below, created in the same design language.
While there was a conventional door on the driver’s (left-hand) side, the passenger side featured a large, two-piece clamshell door that stretched almost two thirds of the concept’s length.
That asymmetric side design meant that each window was different, too, with Ford Advanced Design boss Freeman Thomas stating that the orange trims for the side glass were inspired by the colour of the Bell X-1 rocket plane that Chuck Yeager used to break the sound barrier in 1947.
At the rear, the Airstream Concept’s tailgate was a three-piece affair, where each element could be opened separately. The main, T-shaped hatch picked up on the front end and windscreen design, providing access to the vehicle’s lounge-style rear area, while the two smaller hatches accessed built-in storage compartments, with video cameras and cables on one side (remember this was 2007 before the preponderance of camera phones!), and a first aid kit and tool box on the other side.
The past-meets-future theme was further explored in the interior, which was inspired by one of the most influential – and cerebral – science fiction movies of all time.
"Through the materials, color palette and technology, the Ford Airstream Concept has distinct cues from the spacecraft and environments portrayed in 2001: A Space Odyssey," said Thomas.
"We're able to maximize the spaciousness of the interior, creating a lounge atmosphere in contrasting colors of cosmic red and white that provides an inviting experience for the ultimate journey."
Up front, driver and passenger sat in pod-style seats reminiscent of the 1968 sci-fi classic that featured extendable headrests and integrated four-point seat belts. Both seats could rotate to face the rear, like captain’s chairs in conventional vans.
The driver was presented with a floating instrument panel that featured flush-mounted, touch-sensitive controls and a multi-function single gauge display for all the primary information.
A centrally mounted screen was described as a “dual-view” unit, providing secondary driver-oriented information, like a camera view for reversing, while also allowing the front-seat passenger to view DVDs (again we’re talking 2007).
Within the rear space, passengers sat on lounge-style seating in what Ford called a cocoon-like environment. The focal point was a 360-degree cylindrical LED screen that could be used to watch movies or play games, as well as serving as a “mood” element with displays like a lava lamp, open fire, or even a view of the road ahead from front-mounted cameras.
Developed by Taiwan-based DynaScan Technology Inc., these screens are normally on a much larger scale, for use in shopping malls, exhibition halls and sporting stadiums. The unit in the Airstream Concept was the smallest that DynaScan Tech had produced to date.
As much as its appearance may have been inspired by the past, the Airstream Concept was pointing to the future in all other areas, especially the drivetrain, which was a hydrogen hybrid fuel cell.
Called HySeries Drive, the plug-in hybrid powerplant was different from other hydrogen-powered vehicles in that the fuel cell was used solely to recharge the concept’s lithium-ion batteries, not to power the vehicle itself.
HySeries Drive was no wishy-washy, exists-only-on-paper drivetrain, either. At the time, it was in use in prototype form in a Ford Edge crossover SUV that shared broadly similar dimensions to the Airstream Concept (Aussie readers think Ford Territory in terms of size).
This advanced fuel cell system was developed in Canada by Ballard, a Ford partner, and had several advantages over contemporary fuel cells, being half the weight and cost, with one other major advantage over its rivals in the North American market being that it could operate in extreme cold, too.
Driving all four wheels via electric motors on each axle, the HySeries Drive’s 336-volt lithium-ion battery pack could only take the concept 25 miles (40km) before the fuel cell kicked in to recharge them, adding a further 280 miles (450km) to the range before it too was exhausted.
Cashing in on Crossovers
While it looked like a people mover in the vein of a Toyota Tarago or Kia Carnival (Dodge Grand Caravan, Chrysler Pacifica or Nissan Quest for US readers), Ford presented the Airstream Concept as a crossover of the future.
That segment was one of the fastest growing in the US at the time, with Ford predicting back in 2007 that sales of more than 3 million crossovers annually would occur by 2010.
The GFC put a dent in that, but the segment soon rebounded and not only met, but exceeded Ford’s predictions, with more than 4.6 million annual sales in the US by 2015. For Ford, their Escape crossover accounted for almost half their total passenger car sales in 2010 and outsold all their other car models combined by 2015.
So, as we stand here in 2020, the Ford Airstream Concept is not the crossover of the future that Ford predicted. But it’s still an intriguing interpretation of what may yet come to be.