From the Archive: A Look Inside Airstream’s History

The origin of America’s famous home-on-wheels

by | Jan 23, 2020 | Culture

Photo Credit: Colin Beresford

From the Archive: A Look Inside Airstream’s History

The origin of America’s famous home-on-wheels

by | Jan 23, 2020 | Culture

Photo Credit: Colin Beresford

The Airstream company was created by Wally Byam, who began building trailers out of wood in his backyard in the 1920s. Byam’s first aluminum trailer was built in the 1930s, which resembled the Bowlus Road Chief at the time. A few adjustments were created to differentiate Byam’s trailer. The door was moved from the front to the side of the trailer, which improved aerodynamics. 

In 1936, William Bowlus, an engineer who helped build the plane that Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, built the first travel-trailer made of aluminum and rivets, inspired by the plane design. Soon after, Byam’s trailers, produced in his Los Angeles factory, got their iconic, riveted look. 

According to Bowlus, Byam copied their design. The Bowlus company, based in Oxnard, California, still makes aluminum, riveted Bowlus Road Chief trailers that look much like Airstreams. An Airstream spokesperson says the evidence is inconclusive.

Airstream production halted during World War II, resumed in 1947, boomed with the post-war economy, and resulted in a second factory built in Jackson Center, Ohio in 1952. 

“Thus, today’s Airstream is more airplane than trailer,” Byam wrote in a 1949 Airstream brochure. 

“It is light enough and strong enough to fly,” he said. 

Byam had a flair for promotion. During the 1950s, he organized Airstream caravan trips around the globe. 

“We didn’t know Africa was as civilized as it is,” Byam told a New York Times reporter during a 11,000 mile caravan trek from Cape Town to Cairo in 1959. 

Only after reaching the northern Belgian Congo, as it was then called, did Byam say they finally found areas that matched their stereotypes. “Up to there, we could have been in Arizona, New Mexico or Iowa,” he said.

The trip cost each Airstream owner some $25,000 — or $216,000 today. But Byam rejected suggestions of elitism. When German newspapers opined that an Airstream caravan there was for American millionaires, the Baltimore Sun reported that Byam said, “We’re not poor. Most of us are retired and in our 60s, but not one of us inherited our money. We worked for it.”

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In 1955, the Wally Byam Caravan Club International (WBCCI) was founded, and their members put large red identification numbers on their trailers. The numbers are registered in the WBCCI directory, so club members can identify other members whom they pass on the highway.

The history of the Airstream evokes nostalgia among baby boomers. The Apollo 11 astronauts were quarantined in an Airstream for three weeks after returning from the moon in 1969. In the 1960s, President Kennedy famously used one as his mobile office.

Byam died in 1962, and his legendary career earned him a marker at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. 

Years later, the company was purchased by a Chicago conglomerate. Then came the 1973 oil crisis, plunging sales, near bankruptcy, closure of the Los Angeles plant, and Airstream’s acquisition by Thor Industries in 1980. Thor also produces some of the S.O.B.’s, which include more than 15 brands — like Jayco and Starcraft — as well as Airstream. All fall under its corporate umbrella. 

Airstream remains the most popular with baby boomers who have the resources to travel beyond retirement. But younger generations are getting on board as well and are increasing the brand’s awareness on social media.. As the trend of working remotely grows, so does the Airstream following. 

 

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