Prior to taking off and living full time in our Airstream, Trail and I paid little attention to the RVs we saw from time to time in neighbor’s yards or along the street. Now we see dozens on a daily basis. We began to pay close attention to similarities and differences among them. One thing that grabbed our attention before long were the swooshes. Nearly everywhere we looked, swooshes. Big ones, small ones, in all colors, and in a huge range of patterns. We had wandered out of our old life and into the valley of the almighty swoosh.
I began to wonder who decided swooshes were the best way to decorate RVs and why? It was clear that many different brands and manufacturers were using them. The only modern exceptions I could find were the Airstreams and the rental RVs. Airstreams typically have no decoration at all, just gleaming aluminum and their streamline jet-age design aesthetic. Rental RVs tend to be rolling advertisements for their service showing nature scapes, fake family members peering out of the windows and “Rent Me” in large letters on the back. I wondered whether they were made so ugly in part to deter theft.
Staying in a park with older RVs it became clear the swooshes were something of a modern trend. Older models tended to feature roll stripes or pinstripes. Typically the older it appeared, judging by wear and grime, the fewer swooshes there were to be found. I even spotted a few “swoosh curious” designs with a roll stripe and a swoosh or two lurking about. I decided to try and find out more about the swoosh.
As part of my investigation, I visited a few sites specializing in aftermarket RV decoration. Instead of offering a reprieve from the swoosh-tastic world of the commercial RV, their most popular service appears to be doubling down on your swoosh count. The before and after pictures are a long series of “some swooshes” before, and “MANY SWOOSHES” after. It would appear that manufacturers are not part of some swoosh conspiracy but instead are reacting to consumer demand for maximum swoosh. If anything they appear to be trying to save money by limiting swoosh counts below the full level of demand.
The very newest of 5th wheels and travel trailers seem to be embracing a further evolution of the swoosh design I refer to as the Energy Drink Aesthetic. These feature more dynamic swooshes, higher contrast, darker colors, and powerful energy names like Raptor or Razor. Innovations like the split tail swoosh and lightning bolt swoosh give these trailers a radical edge, ready to dominate the more pastoral swoosh-mobiles and give nightmares to the roll stripe RVs of old.
In my hunt for the origin of the Swoosh I first spoke with RV historian and collector David Woodworth proprietor of the Tin Lizzy Inn, a bed-and-breakfast that offers the opportunity to drive a restored Model-T. Mr. Woodworth did not recall exactly when or how the swooshes came to prominence but related that RV manufacturers were forever looking for a competitive edge by borrowing from design in other industries. Also, when one manufacturer has success with an idea, many others will soon follow in their wake. He suggested I follow up with a manufacturer that has been in the business for some time.
I decided to contact Winnebago, one of the most venerable manufacturers. They put me in touch with Craig Rojohn, a graphic designer who has been working at the company for 35 years and has seen his share of trends come and go with Winnebago often leading the way in new designs. Craig began his career in the 80s and told us that prior to that, and well into the 80s roll striping (like a pinstripe but broader) was the standard decoration, a design that became popular in the 70s and had quite a long run.
Craig told us that in the 80s Winnebago started going for a more streamlined look in their styling and body shape. At the same time, they began embellishing the roll stripes with cuts and curves giving them a more dynamic look, but the essential idea was much the same. Moving into the 90s many trailers began featuring painted designs of animals, or nature scenes in addition to the roll striping. Craig felt around 1998 Winnebago started doing full body styling paint on their high-end motorhomes by which time swooshes were taking hold.
In my own research, I found the first true swooshes on a Winnebago with the 1996 Vectra Grand Tour. Its swooshes are where roll striping would normally be and there is a two note paint with the off-tone along the bottom. Poking around at other contemporary trailers of the time, I can find a few ribbon designs where the roll striping takes on a wavy pattern but no true swoosh. From their humble beginnings the swooshes quickly gained in popularity and by the mid-2000s most brands were embracing the swoosh to some degree and Winnebago, according to Craig, had almost entirely dropped the roll striping on their motorhomes.
Today, Winnebago feels this particular trend of motorhome styling has peaked and they are looking to innovate again, this time moving back to a look Craig Rojohn described to me as “more simple and elegant” with at least a hint of the old striping making a comeback. The 2016 line-up is definitely not what I would call retro, but there are hints of earlier design elements, some harkening back to the popular two-tone look of many 1950s and 1960s trailer designs.
Swooshless in Seattle
I think it would take more time than I care to invest in order to find the true origin of the swoosh. Like many things, the point at which the first swoosh made an appearance and who designed it may well be impossible to pin down with authority. A slow evolution of design seems to be the order of the day with the roll stripe slowly transforming into waves and then swooshes.
It’s clear from looking at so many RVs and their designs that the swoosh, as well as the roll stripe and other decorations, are an attempt to give RVs a streamlined look. To transform them from a blocky monster to something that looks manageable on the road and evokes a sense of travel and adventure. And they are clearly successful. Modern RVs do look to be dynamic and streamlined despite the fact that they are in truth large and mostly big brick shaped things.
No doubt Nike had some influence here, their swoosh trademark on its own is valued at some 30 billion dollars. Also at play were technological advancements in automated painting that made full body styling both possible and affordable on a large scale. The earliest swooshes cost customers extra, and today there seems to be a thriving business in aftermarket swoosh application. It’s clear that whoever created them, people like them very much.
Being Airstream owners, we have no swooshes. Airstreams are pretty dynamic looking on their own due to their curved shapes and shiny metal materials. A certain amount of swooshy-ness is simply inherent in their design, inspired by the aircraft of the early 20th century. We will always be swoosh-less creatures awash in a sea of swooshes great and small. Yet whatever style or decorations we have, it is a brotherhood and sisterhood of fellow travelers and adventurers, all seeking to capture the spirit of the wind in our mobile homes, harnessing it to carry us to parts unknown.