Travel Trailer Legacy
New Zealand-born entrepreneur Wade F. B. Thompson, who made his name reviving the American Airstream brand of travel trailers, has died at his Upper East Side home, aged 69. Raised in Wellington, Thompson dreamed of living in New York City, which he knew only from photos in an old family encyclopedia. After college, Thompson made his way to the U.S., where he studied business at New York University while working as a salesman at Brooks Brothers, the men’s clothier. After graduation and in deference to his father’s wishes, he returned to New Zealand to open a clothing store in Wellington, to be called Shirtmasters. But after customs officials refused at first to allow him to import a crate of new Gant shirts from the U.S., Thompson decided to leave New Zealand. “I couldn’t live in a socialist system like that,” Thompson told the Dominion Post in 2004. “I thought, how in the world can this system work here?” In the midst of a business downturn for recreational vehicles in 1980 together with Peter Orthwein, Thompson formed Thor Industries – named using the first two letters of their last names – and bought Airstream, then a money-losing subsidiary of Beatrice Foods. The brand had a long history and a revered line of products: ovoid-shaped, aluminum-side trailers that were originally based on the design of the Pan Am Clipper, one of the early trans-Atlantic passenger planes. The company went public in 1984 and eventually branched out into making motor homes and transit buses. At the company’s peak, in 2006, it sold more than 100,000 trailers, buses and motor homes. “As long as there’s a Grand Canyon, there will be an RV industry,” Thompson was fond of saying. Although one of his companies produced an RV known as a Land Yacht, Thompson preferred to zip around in a red Mini Cooper.
Wade F. B. Thompson: died 12 November 2009