The Airstream legend began with a single man and a most singular dream. That man was Wally Byam. He was born July 4, 1896 in Baker City, Oregon. In 1929, Wally Byam purchased a Model T Ford chassis, built a platform on it, towed it with his car to a campsite, and painstakingly erected a tent on it. The effort was tiresome and unpleasant, especially when it rained. Spurred on by his first wife Marion, Wally built a tear-drop-shaped permanent shelter on the platform that enclosed a small ice chest and kerosene stove.
When he was a young boy he travelled extensively with his grandfather, who led a mule train in Baker, Oregon and later when he was growing up he worked as a shepherd where he lived in a two-wheeled shepherd's cart outfitted with a kerosene cook stove, a sleeping bag, and wash pail. The combination of his early travelling and his shepherds cart no doubt spawned his dream. His dream was simply this: to build the perfect travel trailer, one that would move like a stream of air; one that would be light enough to be towed by a standard automobile and importantly it should do it with first-class living accommodations and anywhere in the world.
Thus, nearly three quarters of a century ago he gave birth to the very first Airstream trailer. And with it was born yet another dream, a dream of new freedom, new places, new experiences, and new friendships. It was a dream so powerful, so enduring it did far more than create a new way of travel; it created a new way of life shared by thousands upon thousands of families.
As a young man he joined the merchant marines, and then studied law at Stanford University. He also owned an advertising agency, and became a magazine publisher. The starting blocks for his dream had arrived. As a magazine publisher he produced a do-it-yourself magazine featuring an article describing how to build a travel trailer. However when his readers complained about the plans, he tried them out for himself and indeed, he discovered that the plans were flawed. Wally Byam was thus inspired to build his own travel trailer. Initially he considered his first attempt was rather primitive but nevertheless his design had a profound influence the evolution of travel trailers of the future.
He dropped the floor down between the wheels and raised the ceiling height so that his design made it possible for the occupants to stand straight upright when inside their trailer. He also around the same time wrote an article describing how to build his trailer for under $100. The second time round he got an enthusiastic response from his readers for it.
Throughout the late 1920s more and more Americans were taking the roads and Wally Byam’s new travel trailer was a perfect match for this increasingly popular mobile lifestyle. He therefore began selling sets of his plans for just five dollars each. He also sold full trailer kits, plus he sold completely built trailers which he constructed in his Los Angeles backyard. "The neighbors started complaining that I was making too much noise," Wally observed, "so I went out and rented a building."
His new business survived the 1929 crash so by 1930 he abandoned advertising and publishing to become a full-time builder of Masonite travel trailers and the Airstream Company was incorporated in 1931. In 1935, Airstream acquired the struggling Bowlus trailer Company owned by William Hawley Bowlus. Bowlus was by trade an aircraft designer who had worked on some famous aircraft such as ‘The Spirit of St. Louis’. On January 17, 1936, the Airstream Trailer Co. introduced the "Clipper" and a well-loved all American brand was born.
The Clipper was actually just a rebadged Bowlus but with the main door moved. It had a ‘semi-monocoque’ riveted aluminum body, which, not surprisingly taking in to account Bowlus’s background, owed its design more to the aircraft construction techniques of the day rather than its travel trailer predecessors. It could sleep four, thanks to its tubular steel-framed dinette which could convert to a bed. It also carried its own water supply, had an enclosed galley, and was fitted with lectric lights throughout. The Clipper boasted an advanced insulation and a ventilation system, and even offered "air conditioning" that used dry ice.
The Clipper was not a cheap trailer by the standards of the day - at a little over $1,200 it was considered to be expensive, however the American travelling public lapped it up. So much so that the company could not build the Clipper fast enough to satisfy the flood of orders. Wally Byam's meticulous attention to detail, quality and design, helped to guide the company through some very tough economic times. Of the more than 300 travel trailer builders operating in 1936, Airstream was the only one to come out at the other side of the Great Depression years.
The company did not escape all of the tough times however. With the start of World War II, leisure travel and the materials necessary to build trailers both became luxuries which the country could not afford and in response to the war the Airstream Trailer Co. closed its doors. Not surprisingly Wally Byam decided that the best way to help the war effort was to use his experience with aluminum fabricating in the aircraft industry, so he took up a position at Lockheed and Curtis Wright for the duration of the war.
When World War II ended, the economy boomed and Americans once again turned their attention towards recreational travel so Wally naturally once again opened Airstream and by 1948, the demand for Airstream trailers seemed limitless. Like the Coca-Cola bottle and Zippo lighter, Airstream travel trailers became one of the most recognisable products in the world. In July 1952, Airstream signed a lease for a new facility in Jackson Center, Ohio, designed to serve the eastern market. By August 1954 the first Ohio-made Airstream rolled off the production line and the Californian factory was also moved to a much larger site in Santa Fe Springs.
In 1955 Wally Byam travelled to Europe with his wife Stella in a one of kind Airstream Bubble to scout the 1956 caravan. In 1956 he travelled to Europe again in a Gold Anodized trailer towed by a Cadillac. Wally famously led caravans worldwide as publicity exercises for the Airstream brand. His most notable caravan was a 1959 trip from Cape Town, South Africa to Cairo, Egypt. A re-creation of Byam's legendary Cape Town to Cairo caravan was supposed to take place in 2009, but had to be canceled due to safety and political concerns, not to mention the prohibitive insurance costs.
Wally Byam died of a brain tumour on July 22, 1962 at the age of just 66. He is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale CA in the Garden of Honor, Columbarium of Honor, however his legacy lives on in the Airstream name, now owned by Thor Industries, Inc., the largest travel trailer manufacturer in the world. Airstream say that their philosophy has always been and will always be " Let's not make any changes — let's make only improvements!" and that every inch of an Airstream has a functional purpose with no planned obsolescence. This is as true in today's models as it was of the first Airstream to see the light of the open road. The classic Airstream of the thirties is no museum piece, they are still in use today, and are as sturdy and modern in appearance as the first day it swung into traffic.
Anecdotes are legion about Wally's passion for product innovation. Wally scoured the world looking for efficient hot water heaters, door hinges, butane lamps, chemical toilets, small porcelain sinks and chairs — myriad large and small items that would make an Airstream more functional and livable. In Europe he discovered a heating system that took up little space but gave off plenty of radiant heat. He borrowed the design, improved it, and renamed it the Byam Burner. In France he spied a compact gas refrigerator manufactured by Dometic. He arranged for the refrigerators to be installed in Airstreams, making an end to ice-electric refrigerators that required travelers to be constantly on the prowl for ice. More than 50 years later, Dometic still supplies refrigerators to Airstream.
When nothing suitable was available on the world market, Wally urged someone to manufacture it. In 1954 he persuaded Max Bowen, president of Bowen Water Heater Co., to develop the first workable hot water system for a trailer. Other innovations were brought directly to him by customers. Frank Sargent, an engineer, approached Wally in 1960 with a novel toilet valve that used steam pressure for flushing waste into a holding tank. Sargent's Thetford toilets have been used in Airstream models since the 1961 model year. Wally tallied several inventions of his own, including the idea of a flat-sided underbelly to reduce wind resistance, and an 18-by-40-inch escape window in the back of the trailer in case the side door was jammed.
Wally also was a master promoter — an audacious showman who waxed rhapsodic on radio and television, and posed for wild photographs. Charles Kiefer, who worked in Airstream's Way of Life department in the 1950s, said Wally "did not fear expressing his honest opinion whether it bruised someone's ego or not." Others said he inspired them to achieve their dreams. "He gave me the opportunity — the brashness — to imagine what could be done, and believe it or not, to see it happen," said Andy Charles, Airstream chairman in the 1960s. Wally's cousin Helen Schwamborn said he "had an uncanny way of giving confidence. When he said you could do it, you didn't question him, you did it." Charles Manchester, Airstream president from the 1970s, said Wally "was a dreamer and he dreamed big. But he also knew that ideas only have real value when effective action is taken to embody them."
Wally in person was larger than life. While his suits were tailored in tasteful blues and tweeds, he liked to wear Wellington boots and plaid shirts with them. His choice of headgear was a blue beret, which he had spied in France. He wore the beret on his first Central American caravan, and it was quickly adopted by fellow caravanners as a means to identify each other in a crowd. The blue beret became a caravan essential
While Wally's fashion taste was offbeat casual, his office at Airstream was a "nightmare of disorder," recalled Stella Hall Byam, Wally's second wife. The walls were covered with clippings of all kinds — religious and philosophical scraps; pictures of people, things, and even his burros. He slept one or two hours at a time, then worked until he took another nap. "He would often excuse himself, go to his trailer and nap for 30 minutes," his cousin Dale Schwamborn recalled. "He was always active, always moving fast. I don't think he ever did anything slow. I don't think 'impatient' would be the word for it, but he didn't like to repeat things, so he said things very clearly so people understood him."
Today, the Airstream is the most thoroughly tested trailer in history. It is years ahead in engineering — the culmination of over 70 years of experience in trailer making, millions of miles of Caravan travel throughout the world; plus millions of miles more, run up by happy Airstream owners! More than ever, the Airstream remains a testimonial to the practical vision, the tenacity and know-how of one dedicated man — Wally Byam, and his team who made your travel dreams come true.
Airstream, Inc., of Jackson Center, Ohio is the oldest recreational vehicle manufacturer in the world. Today’s Airstreams are the perfect blend of retro exterior style, modern interior luxury and convenience, and rugged all-American construction. A complete line of Airstream models makes any excursion, from day trips to the beach to cross-continental treks, a comfortable and exciting journey.
Did you know?
- The most commonly recognized aluminum Trailer the world over is an Airstream.
- Airstream is the oldest manufacturer of recreational vehicles in the U.S.
- The aluminum-skinned Airstream is based on an airplane fuselage, with rounded corners to help increase gas mileage – their aerodynamics cut drag by 20%.
- It takes about 240 man hours to build the average Airstream.
- Several specially-built Airstream trailers are commonly used to transport American officials around the world. The trailers are strapped down inside a military cargo plane, usually a C-17 Globemaster III, an American strategic airlifter. Vice Presidents, First Ladies, Generals, and Admirals are among the more frequent travelers.
- When flying across Afghanistan in 2008 to visit the troops, First Lady Laura Bush was cocooned in her own private Airstream trailer which had been towed on board The Spirit of Strom Thurmond, named after one of the country’s longest serving senators.
- Airstream was the first trailer to have a holding tank, the first ladder frame, the first pressurized water system and the first fully self-contained travel trailer.
- In 1951, the first Airstream caravan left for Central America traveling from Mexico to Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.
- In 1955, the United States military used an Airstream in atomic bomb testing in the Nevada desert.
- The Capetown to Cairo Caravan began in Africa in 1959. More than 100 caravanners visited the pyramids of Egypt and the camels of central African desert. They met Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and visited a Pygmy enclave.
- President John F. Kennedy had a mobile Airstream office which he used during a visit to White Sands, New Mexico, where the Army demonstrated its latest weaponry for Kennedy and Vice-president Lyndon Johnson in the early 1960s.
- In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson’s daughter Lynda Bird toured America in a caravan of Airstreams to help publicize the nation’s beauty in the, “See America First” campaign. The tour was covered by National Geographic and McCall’s magazine.
- A caravan of 100 people in 45 Airstream trailers set out from Singapore in 1964, to trace portions of the route that explorer Marco Polo had traveled in the late 13th century. They covered 35,000 miles in 403 days – visiting almost every country in southern Asia plus the western Soviet Union and most of Europe.
- Every Airstream is inundated for 40 minutes at 100 pounds of pressure in a special rain test booth to ensure that it’s water-tight.
- In 1969, Neil Armstrong and members of the Apollo 11 were quarantined for three weeks in a specially-built Airstream after returning from the first voyage to the moon, until it could be determined that there was little likelihood of them having brought back “lunar pathogens” with them. President Richard Nixon visited them while they were quarantined.
- For decades, NASA has used a fleet of Airstreams to transport astronauts to the launch pad.
- In 1974, a record 4,493 Airstreams attended the WBCCI International Rally in Lexington, Kentucky.
- Between 1975 and 1979, Airstream branched out during the recession to make postal vans, airport people movers and funeral hearses.
- Airstreamers are a group of RVers who share a community spirit because of their mutual love of the trailers.
- The first caravan to China departed in 1985.
- By the 75th Anniversary of Airstream in 2006 sixty-five percent of all Airstreams ever built were still on the road.
- A 1960 Airstream Bambi Travel Trailer is on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), in the Architecture and Design section for excelling in style and design.
- There are many Airstream trailers used as coffee shops and restaurants across America.
- In 2008 Airstream partnered with longtime fan Jesse James to create a one-of-a-kind motorcycle with a sidecar rig with Airstream designs features. The $300K Airstream Chopper was built by James’ company West Coast Choppers, in exchange for an Airstream trailer which he gave his wife, actress Sandra Bullock, for her birthday.
- Airstream was featured on NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice in 2008, where candidates competed to create successful businesses inside Airstream trailers.
- An Airstream trailer was featured in the 2000 box-office hit Charlie’s Angels, starring Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu and Drew Barrymore.
- Airstreams have also been featured in films including Raising Arizona, What’s Eating Gilbert’s Grape, Independence Day, Mars Attacks!!, American Odyssey, and The Hills Have Eyes, among others.
- Celebrity owners include: Tom Hanks who was gifted by his wife Rita Wilson, Colin Farrell, Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington, Sandra Bullock, David Duchovny, Tim Burton, Lenny Kravitz, Green Day’s Billy Joe Armstrong, John Melloncamp, Eddie Vedder, and AC/DC’s Brian Johnson.
- In 2003, Airstream linked up with Silver Joe’s Coffee to provide travelers with a unique coffee experience in a sleek, silver, aerodynamic can that invites consumers to taste the adventure of sipping on the road.
- In mid-2008 Airstream unveiled the new Airstream PanAmerica “Crossover” trailer, designed for the adventurer that wants to explore every mountain road and open highway The new 34-foot 2009 Airstream PanAmerica can haul two motorcycles, ATVs or other action/adventure gear, up to 3,000 pounds worth. The rear 11 feet of the trailer is configured as a garage, complete with a durable aluminum interior skin and textured floor.