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Airstream Trailer - Truck Trend Legends

The Shiny Capsule Takes Us -- And Our Creature Comforts -- To Wide-Open Spaces

Colin Ryan
May 1, 2014
There are so many quintessentially American aspects of the Airstream story: cutting-edge designs, visionary marketing, plain hard work, breathtaking scenery, and the romance of the road being just a few.
It all started with a set of instructions called "How to Build a Trailer for One Hundred Dollars." Wallace Merle Byam, aka Wally (onetime sailor, shepherd, law student, ad agency man, and magazine publisher), sold more than 15,000 of these plans for a buck each -- the equivalent of around $13 today -- back in 1927. He'd already learned the hard way that pitching a tent on a Ford Model T chassis was not a good idea, but he persevered with the principle. Byam soon heard from DIY trailer-makers, however, that his plans contained errors. So he went into his Los Angeles backyard and started constructing his own out of Masonite and plywood, to get to the root of the issues. Passersby saw his creations and offered to buy them, and making the trailers soon became his full-time occupation. But the Airstream as we know and love it didn't come into being until Byam (born on July 4, just to add to the American-ness) teamed up with aero designer and builder William Hawley Bowlus, who was working in aluminum and had made Charles Lindbergh's famed Spirit of St. Louis airplane. If the vehicles doing the towing weren't aerodynamic, at least the trailers behind them were. Bowlus had the designs; Byam had the selling smarts.
Photo 2/15   |   An undated photograph of Wally Byam next to his International Harvester A-120, which he took to Africa and beyond. (Photo courtesy of Helen Byam Schwamborn's estate.)
The first shiny, happy trailer was the Airstream Clipper, born in 1936, able to sleep four, complete with indoor lights and running water and even a dry-ice-based form of air conditioning. At $1200, the Clipper wasn't cheap, but it sold in sufficient numbers to help Airstream survive as a brand while every ounce of aluminum and every rivet was earmarked for the World War II effort.
When the troops came marching home, they bought cars, started families, and wanted to enjoy the fruits of a hard-won peacetime. They bought Airstreams to travel around America's wide-open spaces while taking their creature comforts with them.
One of Byam's abiding philosophies was: "Let's not make changes; let's make only improvements." Using that approach, he was always on the lookout for hinges, heating systems, and hundreds of other items that would make an Airstream better.
Wally Byam started a caravanners' club, organizing trips to places such as Central America and taking a convoy the length of Africa from Cape Town up to Cairo in 1959 over 221 days. Not only were these trips fun, but they helped raise the product profile. The Airstream became America's trailer. President John F. Kennedy had one as a mobile office. NASA kept astronauts of the first three lunar landings in quarantine for three weeks at a time in a specially built model. Airstreams also were used to ferry space shuttle astronauts to the Kennedy Space Center launchpad.
Photo 3/15   |   Here's a photograph of the International Harvester used by Wally Byam on his African adventure in 1959. Although this is a black-and-white copy of the original photo, the vehicle shown is gold and white and absent of any graphics on the door. (Photo courtesy of Helen Byam Schwamborn's estate.)
Wally Byam died of a brain tumor in 1962, at the relatively young age of 66. A company called Beatrice Foods bought Airstream in 1967 and proceeded to lose millions. The business is now in a much healthier shape under its current owners, Thor Industries, Inc.
A community sprang up around these trailers and continues today, with devotees calling themselves Airstreamers. There are even dedicated parks. Old models are lovingly restored, contributing to the remarkable fact that, in 2006 (the company's 75th anniversary), around 70 percent of the Airstreams ever built were still in use. Tom Hanks owned one. Matthew McConaughey has three. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City keeps one on permanent display.
Airstream ownership doesn't come cheap. Even a 16-foot Sport Bambi retails at $43,357. But it does bring with it the camaraderie of fellow travelers, as well as knowing that Airstreams are built to last.
Photo 4/15   |   2014 GMC Sierra 1500 Denali CrewCab Front View Towing
Photo 11/15   |   15852833
Photo 15/15   |   2013 Range Rover Airstream 684 International Camping


Airstream Inc.