Auto History Of Airsteams
In North America, the term ‘recreational vehicle’ is used for motor vehicles or trailers that are equipped with a living space and all the amenities that can be found at home. In most cases, RVs come equipped with a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, and a bathroom. The terms motor-home, camper van, or caravan, are most commonly used in other parts of the world and the vehicles vary. However, they do tend to be smaller than those used in North America. Recreational vehicles include any vehicle that can be driven or towed, which have the at home amenities inside which include slide-in campers, pop-up trailers, fifth-wheel trailers, travel trailers, and motor-homes fitting into three classes: A, B, and C. These recreational vehicles are used for all types of leisure activities from full-time living to camping and vacations.
What is An Airstream Trailer?
Most recreational vehicle users have their preference of the type of trailer suitable for their needs and in many cases, their choice is Airstream trailers. If you’ve ever traveled down the highway and have seen a trailer that looks something like a silver bullet, you’ve seen an Airstream trailer. For many years, this trailer has taken precedence over other campers. This is mainly due to its durability and slender appearance. This travel trailer has rounded corners which increase its gas mileage by cutting drag up to 20 percent versus other square cornered trailers. Airstream trailers are popular with celebrities as well including: Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, Sean Penn, John Mellencamp, and Matthew McConaughey, who used one while he promoted his film “Sahara.” McConaughey lived in his trailer for a few years before purchasing a home that had enough room for his 3 travel trailers.
It has been said that avid traveler, Wally Byam, came up with the idea for the Airstream trailer after his wife decided that she would not go camping without having a kitchen. When he was a child, Byam traveled a lot through Oregon with his grandfather. His grandfather owned a mule train running through Baker, Oregon. Most of Byam’s adolescent years were spent living on a donkey cart having only two wheels, and this served as his inspiration for the very first of the Airstream trailers. After Byam finished high school, he served in the marines for three years. He earned a law degree and completed college in 1923 but never opened a law firm. Instead he worked as a copywriter at the Los Angeles Times. After his success in this industry, he started publishing magazines.
Time for Change
Byam was asked to write an article that provided avid travelers a travel trailer blueprint, from a magazine publisher he was employed with. Several readers made complaints about the plans for the travel trailer so Byam built the trailer from the blueprints only to find that he had the same complaints as the readers. It was then that he made the commitment to build a travel trailer model of his own. The prototype seemed bland in the beginning but there were many who admired the model and purchased it as soon as it was made available. Soon after, Byam wrote an article about how to build your own trailer for one hundred dollars or less. Byam sold the plans for only five dollars and due to popular demand, he started creating newer and more improved versions of the trailer right in his own backyard.
The Beginning of Success
Sales started skyrocketing which means Wally’s innovation was successful. He was able to raise the trailer’s ceiling by lowering the floor between the wheels. Doing so made it where campers could stand up straight in the trailer. Brand new trailers were taken all over America by travelers because of this. Byam’s business survived the Great Depression which allowed Wally to leave publishing and advertising altogether and put his complete focus on building his trailers.
An American Legend
The first trailers were made from plywood; however, Byam quickly switched to using Masonite. Then Byam would add amenities including water pumps, gas stoves, chemical toilets, and ice boxes. He also started implementing a more aerodynamic design with the intentions of the trailer being able to withstand wind resistance. The sleek appearance is what prompted the name Airstream in 1934, as they cruised like a stream of air. The trailer model that would eventually become an American legend, the Clipper, was first introduced in 1936. This model looked similar to today’s modern aircraft and housed four travelers. There were electrical lights in the interior, a ventilation system that was insulated, and could be purchased for $1,200. Although a bit expensive at that time, the company could not produce this model fast enough.
The Doors Close
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Wally Byam’s livelihood was threatened. Leisurely travel was now a luxury that most people in the country simply could not afford. Structural aluminum was only available to construct aircraft during World War II. Gasoline and tires were also a rarity during this time. Due to this, Byam closed his doors and no longer manufactured trailers. He went to work fabricating aluminum for Curtis and Lockheed Wright until the war ended but never forgetting his dreams of creating the perfect travel trailer.
Back in Bloom
The economy picked up again after the war ended and consumers were, once again, demanding services and goods that were not obtainable during the Great Depression. Airstream Trailers, Inc. helped satisfy travel demands with their California facility in 1948. Byam gained a lot of knowledge on fabricating aluminum during his time with Curtis and Lockheed Wright which was a skill that would prove to be essential in revamping his older trailer designs. New designs caused consumer demand to explode and Byam knew that his company needed to become nationally known. In 1952, he opened another facility in Ohio which would serve the eastern United States. Less than a month later the first trailer was completed in Ohio and Byam shut down the California factory and moved it to San Fe Springs.
The Next Decade
Byam’s travel trailers would continue to be improved and refined over the next decade. The company thrived and made the transition from direct sales to a dealership network. This helped provide a larger service to the customer base. Byam passed away in 1962 but the company continued to do well. During the 1970s the first motor-home was introduced and the Land Yacht motor-home was released during the 1980s. This model used laminated fiberglass and had rear and front-end caps. It became their best-selling motor-home. The Airstream legacy has continued over the last twenty years and astronauts from NASA were even housed in a selected Airstream trailer. To this day, Airstream motor-homes play an important role in the NASA program.
To learn more about Airstream, visit the following links:
- Vintage Airstream Club
- Classic Airstream Travel Trailers (PDF)
- Polishing Vintage Airstreams (PDF)
- Travel Trailer Ordinances in North Carolina (PDF)
- Travel Trailer Occupants: Stay Warm Safely
- Abbreviations for Trailer Makes (PDF)
- Airstream Caravan: History Detectives
- Assembly Line: Airstream Trailers
- Airstream: An American Legend (PDF)
- Wally Byam: The Man that Started it All
- North Texas Airstream Community
- Trailer Brake Performance (PDF)
- Economic Census: Travel Trailer and Camping Manufacturing (PDF)
- The History of Airstream
- Recreational Vehicle Industry Association
- Architecture is a Verb