The original Bowlus Road Chief trailer had a very short life back in the 1930s, but it's lived on in spirit through Airstream's ever-evolving line of aluminum trailers. And for a few years, it's been living on in name, too, through the revived Road Chief. The new Lithium+ limited edition steps the modern Road Chief's high-tech design up a couple notches, serving as a beautiful example of vintage styling teaming with modern technology. Its suite of off-grid features includes a solar-backed electrical system that's potent enough to run an 8,000 BTU air conditioner and keep the sockets fired up for a week between hookups.
Bowlus may not be the well-known brand name in aluminum camping trailer innovation that Airstream is, but its aluminum trailer came first and more than inspired Airstream's own aluminum designs. Bowlus-Teller company founder William Hawley Bowlus was an aeronautical engineer whose resume included work on Charles Lindbergh's world-famous "Spirit of St. Louis." Searching for a way to support airplane crews in distant takeoff locations, Bowlus applied his aircraft expertise to a travel trailer, and in 1934, the Bowlus Road Chief was born. The aluminum alloy-skinned monocoque construction kept weight of the trailer to around 1,100 lb (500 kg), and the design was light years ahead of steel frame/wood body trailers of the time.
While the trailer design was revolutionary, the revolution wouldn't happen under Bowlus-Teller. The business never got off the ground and went bankrupt in 1936, assets sold off to Wally Byam, the Bowlus-Teller employee and Airstream founder who reworked the Road Chief trailer and ran with aluminum trailer design at Airstream, a design that continues to this very day.
Airstream would be continuing on as Bowlus' main trailer legacy today, if not for young entrepreneur and Wharton School grad Geneva Long and her family. Long fell in love with the Road Chief when the family purchased and restored an original 1935 model. Eventually that love led to a business, and Long obtained the rights to the Bowlus name and launched a reimagined Road Chief in 2013.
Long didn't need to do much more than stay true to the original design to make the Road Chief an engineering wonder and piece of rolling artwork. So instead she focused attention on bringing the trailer's features and technologies into the digital age. Inside the shiny, riveted aluminum shell, the new Road Chief has a comfy, luxurious cabin designed to support the modern traveler with amenities like a built-in mobile device charger and a cellular signal booster. Other technologies include heated floors, LED lighting, prewiring for an optional solar panel, and a hydronic heating system with eight silent radiators distributing heat evenly across the cabin.
The new limited edition Lithium+ package takes that high-tech design to a higher level with more than two dozen new features and accessories that Bowlus believes makes it the most advanced travel trailer in the world. The package centers around a 4 kWh lithium-iron-phosphate battery that Bowlus says can keep the trailer running for up to a week before requiring hookup back to the grid. The battery is robust enough to run power-hungry appliances like the 8,000 BTU air conditioner (up to four hours) and microwave. It can even deliver an emergency charge to an electric vehicle from the external 120 V outlet. A 120 W solar panel is included, stored away in one of the closets and ready to start recharging the battery whenever needed.
Onboard electricity is managed by a power control system, and Road Chief occupants can monitor the system on a smartphone, tablet or even Tesla Model X dash display. Safety shut-off and disconnect features prevent overheating, overcharging and other complications.
For those that like to stay connected, even while traveling the country and camping, the Lithium+ packs a standard mobile router with 3G/4G modem and GPS, which can be used to set up an in-trailer Wi-Fi network fed by cellular or local Wi-Fi network. Occupants can more easily work from the road, stay in touch with family and friends, and enjoy digital entertainment, just like they would at home.
Beyond power and connectivity, the Lithium+ package includes a variety of other upgrades and accessories that go above and beyond the standard Road Chief "On The Road" edition. The living room gains a pair of skylights for a more intimate connection with the outdoors, and a set of fancy meteorological gauges lets occupants know exactly what's going on in those outdoors. Strategically placed magnetic tablet mounts help campers enjoy digital entertainment, and a selection of curated items from the Bowlus Road Chief General Store creates a homey, lodge-like ambiance inside.
The four-berth floor plan includes a rear bedroom with king bed that can also be split into dual twins. The galley fills out the front end of the trailer cabin with an Italian two-burner cooktop, stainless steel countertops and sink, 3.1 cu ft (59 L) fridge/freezer and microwave. Moving back from the kitchen, the flexible living room transforms between living, dining and dual sleeping berth duties with flexible sofa, armchairs and removable tables.
The 3 x 5-foot (0.9 x 1.5-m) bathroom is sandwiched between the living room and rear bedroom and includes a marine shower head that can extend outside, a cassette toilet, a stainless steel sink, and teak seating and flooring.
Materials like birch wood, aluminum, and buyer's choice of bamboo or zebra wood tables lend a luxurious look and feel throughout the cabin. Bowlus even includes a bed for the dog.
Beyond being shiny and distinctive, the Road Chief Lithium+ exterior is designed to be flexible. A side awning can be attached to either side to help campers properly shade themselves without moving the entire trailer. The included outdoor table and chairs set up provides a place to relax and dine. The propane hookup is designed for firing up a BBQ or a propane generator.
The Lithium+ package comes in two exclusive interior color packages, Sterling Sea Glass and California Dunes, and includes signature badging. The trailer has a 19-gal (72 L) fresh water tank and 21-gal (79 L) gray water tank. It weighs in at 2,300 lb (1,043 kg) and can carry another 700 lb (318 kg).
If you've been reading along thinking, "Nothing about that sounds remotely affordable," ding, ding ding! The Lithium+ Road Chief prices in at US$219,000, which is nearly as expensive as the Bentley Bentayga Bowlus shows it hitched to below, though to be fair, any tow car pulling this trailer is probably equipped well above base price.
For that kind of money, we'd have to insist on something that could find camp under its own power, maybe something like the EarthRoamer XV-LTS. We guess that wouldn't look so stylish parked on the sprawling grounds of an estate, white sand of a private beach or rolling hills of a vineyard, though.
Road Chief admirers can save some serious dough by opting for the standard On The Road model, but that one's still priced well into "insanely expensive for a trailer" territory at $137,000. That'll leave most of us ogling the Road Chief's agelessly stylish curves and lines from a distance, which really isn't so bad, either.