Airstream Trailer – Historical Sketches – Bill Vance

Those majestic, silver, zeppelin-shaped land yachts that are towed from campsites coast to coast, sandy beaches to the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains to forested solitude, could be called the “Monarchs of the Highway.” They are part of a great footloose adventure.

Trailer travellers are like carefree modern versions of the nineteenth century Gypsies, also called Romani, nomadic people, who roamed Europe as tinkers, entertainers or whatever they could do to eke out a living. They lived in horse-drawn caravans and even developed their own sturdy breed of draught horse called the Gypsy Vanner to pull their homes on wheels.

With the rising popularity of automobiles in the twentieth century, house trailers were soon being towed by cars. Enthusiasm for camping grew and dedicated organizations formed. One of the earliest was the Tin Can Tourists club established in 1919 for leisure travellers who used trailers, motorhomes and even tents. Through tours and rallies they fostered a special camaraderie among enthusiastic members.

Trailering caught the interest of a young Californian named Wally Byam in the1920s. After a stint in the merchant marine he graduated in law from Stanford University but never practiced. He was attracted to advertising, formed his own agency and did some publishing. One of his magazines carried a freelance article on how to build your own travel trailer.

The feature brought so many reader complaints it prompted Wally to test the plans by building a trailer himself. Sure enough he found the criticisms valid, prompting him to draft his own plans and use them to build another trailer. It was so successful that Wally soon got offers to buy it.

He sold it and built another, and began offering his design to the public. By the late 1920s he was selling many sets of plans and building more and more trailers behind his Los Angeles home. When business outgrew his facilities Byam moved to a dedicated building and established the Airstream Trailer Co. in 1931.

His trailers were well built but still followed the conventional tear-drop profile, not the characteristic streamlined shaped for which the Airstream would become famous.

In the 1930s Byam became associated with an aircraft constructor and mechanic named Hawley Bowlus. Among other projects, Bowlus had designed the Spirit of St. Louis, the single engine airplane in which Charles Lindbergh flew the first solo trans-oceanic flight from Long Island, New York to Paris in 1927.

Bowles began manufacturing rounded aluminum travel trailers using aircraft principles to create a light-weight, stressed-skin monocoque body. When Bowlus’ company suffered financial difficulties Byam took it over. In 1936 he introduced the Airstream Clipper travel trailer based on the Bowlus design with the door moved from the front to the side.

The trailer became popular and Byam’s Airstream Company was one of the few that survived the Depression. During the Second World War a shortage of aluminum for civilian use stopped Byam’s trailer production so he transferred his aluminum skills to the aircraft industry.

When Byam resumed building his trailers in 1948 there was a strong demand for any kind of temporary living accommodation for returning service personnel and their newly forming families. Trailers often filled this need, allowing time for mass builders like Bill Levitt to construct sub-divisions in places like Levittown, New York.

There was also a boom in leisure travel that was made to order for Byam’s Airstream trailers. In addition to his California operation, he expanded to a new plant in Jackson Centre, Ohio in the early 1950s; the location would eventually become the sole Airstream factory.

The burgeoning Airstream popularity elevated patron Wally Byam’s reputation to honourary “Saint of Airstreamers.” They formed the Wally Byam Caravan Club International, popularly called the “Wally Club.” Many Airstream Parks were established and Byam revelled in his fame. He reinforced it by organizing major Airstream events in various parts of the world. Airstreams displayed member numbers so fellow members could identify each other.

A 1956 trip through Cuba allowed this modern “Pied Piper of Trailering” to meet pre-Castro president Fulgencio Batista. A trans-Africa trek from Capetown, South Africa to Cairo, Egypt led by pith-helmeted Wally included a meeting with Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. It all polished Wally’s lustrous image.

Airstreams continually improved with better insulation and more luxurious interior equipment and appointments. They come in a variety of models from the little Bambi to huge International and Sovereign series.

Wally Byam died in 1966 at age 62 but this oldest company in the industry, was able to continue without its founder. It was acquired in 1967 by a diversifying Beatrice Foods company. Airstream was hard hit by the energy crises of the 1970s, and in 1980 Airstream became part of Thor Industries of Jackson Center, Ohio, its current owner.