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Airstream trailers trace their history back to mule trains

By the Out West staff    

They look a bit like slender silver marshmallows rolling down the highway. And even though the RV industry has changed dramatically in the last half century, the now legendary Airstream looks a lot like it did way back in the olden days, when it set the standard for luxury
An Airstream in Brussels, 1963

Wally Byam, Airstream's founder, was practically born a traveler.  As a young child he traveled extensively with his grandfather, who led a mule train in Baker, Oregon.  Later, as an adolescent, Wally was a shepherd, living in a two-wheeled donkey cart outfitted with a kerosene cook stove, food and water, a sleeping bag and wash pail.  These early experiences no doubt contributed in large part to the direction his life would eventually take.

After finishing high school, Byam signed on with the merchant marine, serving three years and working his way up from cabin boy to ship's mate. Upon returning to the United States, he entered Stanford University, working his way through school and, in 1923, earning a law degree.

Wally Byam never practiced law; perhaps he would never be happy in such a constrained profession. Instead, he found work in the rapidly growing advertising business, first as a copywriter for the Los Angeles Times and then as the owner of his own agency.  He apparently did well in advertising, but soon switched to the opposite side of the street and became a publisher of magazines.

One of them published an article that described plans for the construction of a travel trailer.  When readers began complaining about the plans, Wally tried them out and found himself agreeing with his readers -- they didn't work  Thereupon, he set out to build his own model. And while he considered the finished product primitive, it was widely admired and sold immediately.

An article in his magazine describing how to build this improved trailer for less than $100 drew an enthusiastic response, and Byam began selling sets of plans for five dollars.  Soon, in response to demand, he was building improved versions of his trailer in his backyard in Los Angeles.
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Sales were good. Wally's great innovation was to drop the floor down between the wheels, allowing him to raise the ceiling, making it possible for the campers to stand up straight when inside the trailer.  Americans were beginning to take to the roads in greater and greater numbers, and Wally's new trailer was a hit.  The fledgling business survived the crash of 1929, and by 1930 Byam had abandoned law, advertising and publishing to become a full-time trailer manufacturer.

Those first trailers were built of plywood, but Byam soon switched to masonite and began adding amenities like chemical toilets, ice boxes, gasoline stoves and water pumps.

The trailers began to take on a more "aerodynamic" look as Byam incorporated aircraft construction methods in order to lessen wind resistance and improve the strength-to-weight ratio of his trailers.

In 1934, Wally Byam introduced the name "Airstream" because his improved trailers cruised down the road "like a stream of air."

On January 17, 1936, the Airstream Trailer Co. introduced the "Clipper", and an American legend was born.

The Clipper was truly revolutionary.  With its monocoque, riveted aluminum body, it had more in common with the aircraft of its day than with its predecessors. It could sleep four, thanks to a tubular steel-framed dinette which could c
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onvert to a bed, carried its own water supply. It had an enclosed galley, and was fitted with electric lights throughout.  The Clipper boasted of its advanced insulation and ventilation system, and even offered "air conditioning" that used dry ice.

At $1,200, the Clipper was expensive, especially during the Depression years, yet the company could't build them fast enough to keep up the demand.  And Wally Byam's meticulous attention to quality would prove crucial.  Of more than 300 trailer builders operating in 1936, only one, Airstream, would survive.

But survival was soon threatened. On December , 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and leisure travel and the materials necessary to build trailers both became luxuries the country could not afford.  Structural aluminum was classified as a critical war material, available only for the building of vital aircraft.  Tires and gasoline became scarce.

Wally Byam closed his doors and took his experience with aluminum fabricating first to Lockheed, the Curtis Wright, for the duration of the war.  But he remained determined to return to trailers as soon as possible.

With the war's end, the economy boomed and consumers began demanding more of the goods they had been deprived of.  By 1948, Airstream Trailers, Inc., was helping to satisfy that demand at its new facility in Van Nuys, Calif.  Byam
An old Airstream serves as an espresso cafe in Cortez, Colorado
had learned much about aluminum fabrication and design in the aircraft industry, and he was ready to begin applying that knowledge to his trailer concepts.

The demand for Airstream trailers seemed to know no bounds, and it was soon obvious that Airstream had become a nationally known product.  In July 1952, the lease was signed for a facility in Jackson Center, Ohio, to serve the eastern market.  By August the first Ohio-made Airstream rolled off the production line, and the California factory was moved to larger facilities in Santa Fe Springs.

For the next ten years, Wally continued to improve and refine his products, and the company continued to prosper and grow.  During this period, the company made the transition from direct, factory sales to adealership network, providing even better service and responsiveness to its customers.

Byam died in 1962.  Many companies would find it difficult to survive the loss of such a dynamic, visionary leader, but Byam's technical and organizational skills had been absorbed by his successors, and the company continued to flourish.

By the early seventies, the popularity of motorhomes had grown by leaps and bounds.  In 1979, after several years of development, Airstream introduced its first motorhome.

The original Classic motorhome featured riveted aluminum construction and a monocoque body like the trailer, and brought a new level of aerodynamic superiority unavailable in any other motorhome.

In 1989, Airstream rolled out the all-new Land Yacht motorhome.  In contrast to the Classic, this motorhome featured laminated fiberglass construction and had front and rear end caps so innovative that a patent was granted for them.  The Land Yacht was an immediate success and is still the best-selling Airstream motorhome.

Airstream's long tradition of design and manufacturing excellence led Money magazine to the trailer as one of "99 things that, yes, Americans make best." 

Airstream are found in both the Smithsonian Institution and the Henry Ford Museum.  An Airstream trailer was selected by NASA to house the first astronauts back from the moon.  Airstream motorhomes continue today to be an integral part of the space shuttle program.  Airstream have truly become an American Legend.

More than 60 percent of all Airstreams ever built -- including some built from the original five-dollar plans -- are still rolling down the highways.

The Wally Byam Caravan Club International, with 21,000 trailers registered in North America today, holds nearly 1,500 rallies annually.

2001 by Out West Newspaper


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