Airstream Trailer History - Features
Whisper of the Open Road
Few people today realize that it wasn't until after World War II that we had a single paved highway that ran all the way across the United States. The now storied old Route 66 at the time was hardly what we would call a highway today. Its two narrow lanes meandered slowly westward, sniffing the air for the easy terrain, and most of the roads giving access to it were, well, improvement challenged.
General Eisenhower had been impressed with the autobahn system he had seen in Germany during the war, and he recognized that its effectiveness in providing corridors for the rapid movement of war materiel across that relatively small country had huge potential for both commerce and pleasure in a country as large as the U.S. When he became President in 1953 he set about implementing what we now know as the Interstate Highway system.
The enormous project of cutting roads and laying pavement through some of the world's most inhospitable and beautiful terrain put a lot of veterans to work, caused an explosion in both interstate trucking and the sale of private cars, and it opened the curled fist of the country to its citizens like an endlessly spreading hand. Before the war America, despite its rapid growth, was still a largely provincial country in which most people lived in a world bounded by a modest sense of community, and most of those who traveled saw only what was visible framed through the windows of a moving train.
With the advent of our highway system and the countless secondary roads that led away into the forests, the farm lands, prairies, and the big-shouldered panoramas of the West the country opened up to its people for the first time and gave us a sense of self like nothing before. In a few short years people from all over the country could travel at will on well-surfaced roads to see for themselves the sights they had only read about, been told of, or seen on calendars. The travel that it spawned runs deep in the American psyche today, whispering to us of other horizons and nudging us toward new ideas about living.
No one is on record as having foreseen the enormous effect this development would have on our culture or the huge opportunities it would bring to travel related businesses. There was, though, at least one visionary who was ready for it. In fact he had been developing a product fated to converge with the new highways and the post-war travel boom ever since 1929.
That was the year that Wally Byam, an outspoken, far-seeing entrepreneur, bought a Model T Ford chassis, built a platform on it, and towed it to a campsite, where he painstakingly managed to erect a tent on it. The tent was a cumbersome canvas affair (today's lightweight synthetic fabrics were way in the future) and the effort to erect and secure it to the car frame was a tedious and particularly unpleasant chore in the rain.
As there were no convenient alternatives if he wanted to camp under shelter and off the ground, he then built a permanent tear-drop shaped combing on the Ford platform that enclosed a small ice chest and a kerosene stove. Seeing that his idea might have potential, he published an article that ran under the headline, "How to Build a Trailer for One Hundred Dollars". Readers responded by writing Wally for more detailed construction plans, which he began to sell through the mail for $1 each.
Word spread, eventually earning Wally $15,000, a pretty nice income at the dawn of the 3rd decade of the 20th century. After building several of his trailers in his back yard for friends, the neighbors complained that he was making too much noise, so he went out and rented a building where he could work on the design at his own pace.
Thus was born the Airstream Trailer Company, founded in 1931, and into full production in 1932. This was at a time when fewer than 48 trailer manufacturers were registered. It was an idea whose time had come, though, and just five years later, there were nearly 400 such companies competing for the public's attention. Today, of all those 400, only Airstream remains.
So, just what is an Airstream trailer you ask? Well, anyone who has traveled America's highways has probably seen them. Their characteristic rounded, aerodynamic shape and polished aluminum shells, in which the landscape and the sky are always reflected, have made them icons of the open road.
They are seen literally all over the country, and now in Europe, following faithfully behind all manner of private cars and trucks, like silver cocoons. Sometimes called "Silver Bullets", today they are much more than camping trailers. Marvels of self-contained comfort, their interiors are designed to deliver the promise of the exterior. They are in effect land yachts, and their interiors share with ocean going yachts an aesthetic blend of luxury, utility and efficient use of space that is the heritage of Wally's original intent to maximize self-containment away from home.
The independent spirit whose sigh is heard on the winds of open spaces speaks of freedom-an elective freedom from the trappings of civilization, including outside sources of power. This means external trailer hookups, which would otherwise confine Airstreamers to managed campsites. Wally knew that if you really wanted to venture into the wilderness without having to sleep in the rain, you had to be self-contained.
As Wally saw the growing demand for his trailers, he began to travel the world in search of products that would improve the self-sufficiency of his design. He found better hot water heaters, door hinges, butane lamps, chemical toilets, small sinks and furnishings - any item large or small that would make an Airstream more livable and functionally independent.
His innovations include the first workable hot water system for a trailer and the first steam pressure toilet valve for flushing waste into a holding tank. Many of these components can be found on other makes of trailers today, but it is Airstream that introduced them and refined their use, thus providing the camping, boating, and outdoor leisure industries with truly dependable and practicable alternatives to home living.
As a result of the company's dedication to improvements, over 60% of all Airstreams ever built since the early 1930s are still active on the road today.
Hollywood long ago discovered the advantages of using Airstreams for mobile dressing rooms on location. The latest trend among some of the stars is to seek out vintage Airstream trailers and to have them custom renovated to individual taste. Sometimes this work is performed by Airstream in Ohio, but often the person who has purchased an older trailer will have the interior done over by a yacht builder or by one of the many west coast specialists in executive aircraft interiors. The solid construction of the rounded Airstream shell lends itself to imaginative custom alterations, and of course there is nothing quite like a signature dressing room to salve an ego when it's resting between takes.
Some of the stars who have Airstream trailers are Sean Penn, Sheryl Crow, and Tim Burton. Rutger Hauer owns an updated customized model from 1937, and there is even a vintage Airstream on display in the lobby of MTV headquarters. Airstreams have been featured in dozens of movies and TV shows since the '80s, but of course the place you're most likely to sight one is in the wild, on the hoof, out on the open road.
In an ironic echo of America's earlier sense of community, the largest organization for recreational vehicle owners and the largest club dedicated to a specific RV brand is the growing International Wally Byam Caravan Club, with over 20,000 Airstream owners, who meet in regional, national, and even international rallies throughout the year. When you see an Airstream on the road, it will have a large serial number painted on the back. This is a membership number by which other members can look each other up in the Club Guide to find old friends and to make new ones. They constitute a roving community of both full-time and part-time wanderers with a common love of new horizons and the joy of discovery.
At the center of Airstream lore is Frank Bates, dealer extraordinaire, of Bates RV in Dover, Florida. Frank is an original, not unlike Wally himself. He is also the largest Airstream dealer in North America and has an attitude toward sales that is seldom found today. He wants the customer to be happy with any purchase and is willing to see to it by barter and trade. He has an unusual customer consciousness and has accepted everything from moose pastureland in Alaska, to player pianos, aircraft, and loose sapphires to make a sale.
Among the cognoscenti of the RV world, Frank Bates is well known. He has been written about extensively, and those familiar with the business will recognize his name. Frank's colorful advertising is a reflection of the fun-loving nature of his customers as well as the recreational nature of the product. In additional to unusual trades, he has placed an entire half-shell of an Airstream on bill boards, buried a row of Airstreams nose down in the ground in an echo of the famous Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, and in addition to having designed his dealership in a way that anticipates his customers' comfort, he uses a guy in a cow suit to make some of his marketing points. Now who doesn't like cows?
The success of Airstream is not simply a legacy of Wally Byam's entrepreneurial skill. It is a living testament to the company's dedication to quality construction and on-going design innovation, both characteristics of the Airstream Company's inherited DNA. A positive attitude toward what is possible, combined with a proven product, combined with the pleasures that accrue to the owners of these unique trailers, have made the Airstream an American icon. It has prompted rival designs, developed systems that have benefited other branches of the leisure activity industry, inspired creative dealerships, and enabled the company to celebrate its 75th anniversary in an age when the tradition of good service, once a way of life for any business, has too often given way to the drive for short term profits and disposable products.
Whether it's the forested slopes of the Rocky Mountains, or the silent immensity of the Grand Canyon, an ocean of grain with breezes swimming through it, or a tree-smothered village huddled in the broad folds of the land, the self-contained trailer and the American highway system offer up to latter day pioneers an adventure in discovery every day.
They say that the difference between Europeans and Americans is that Americans think 100 years is a long time, and Europeans think 100 miles is a long way. What we may lack in comparative history, we more than make up for in dramatic reserves of the world's natural beauty, and the Airstream trailer has been instrumental in giving us a whole continent full, right up close.
(Editor's note: John Rixey Moore is an accomplished actor and writer living in the mountains north of Los Angeles, California. In his vast travels, John has become well versed on the history of American culture.)