From its humble beginnings, Airstream, manufacturer of the iconic “silver bullet” travel trailer, has become an American icon. But, how did this successful company come about?
The history of Airstream is intertwined with the journey of the man who made it all possible—Wally Byam.
A self-made man, Byam was born on July 4, 1896. His love of traveling was deeply engraved upon him throughout extensive travels with his grandfather. During this time, Byam also worked as a shepherd and lived in a two-wheeled shepherd’s cart.
His humble beginnings were by no means a reflection of the successful future that lay ahead, as well as the attention his designs would garner from not only the North American and European public, but also celebrities that include Hollywood star Matthew McConaughey.
Byam decided to step foot into the world of motorhomes because he felt inspired to build his own travel trailer. His first endeavor consisted of writing an article, including plans on how to build a travel trailer for under $100, a mode of new transport, which received considerable attention.
Another factor in Byam’s success was developments in the U.S. during the 1920s. Americans were developing an interest in traveling on the improved road system. With this boom in holiday travel, Byam seized the opportunity by selling his sets of plans for five dollars each. He also started building trailers in his back yard in Los Angeles.
Surviving the big crash of 1926, a year later Byam had abandoned his previous career of advertising and publishing to concentrate on being a full-time builder of Masonite travel trailers and the Airstream Company was subsequently incorporated in 1931.
It was five years later, on 17 January 1936, that the Airstream Trailer Co. released the Clipper and the brand, Airstream, was placed onto the map. The Clipper was of similar design to the Road Chief, a trailer previously designed by former aircraft designer, Hawley Bowlus. However, the Clipper had one distinct difference—the door was positioned on the side.
Able to sleep four comfortably, the Clipper boasted an advanced insulation and ventilation system—unheard of at the time—and sold for $1,200. Despite being of premium price, people bought the Clipper in droves and the subsequent deluge of orders proved to be somewhat problematic.
However, owing to the popularity of the Clipper, Airstream managed to survive the effect of the Great Depression and flourished, whereas the additional 400 plus travel trailer manufacturers became doomed.
Upon America’s involvement in World War II, the price of materials required for travel trailers skyrocketed and leisure travel waned. Airstream closed its doors temporarily and Byam concentrated his efforts on aluminum fabricating in the aircraft industry.
In 1948, following the end of the war, the economy bounced back, as did recreational travel. Byam reopened Airstream and business began to boom. Four years later, the company set up a production facility in Ohio to cater for the eastern market and the Californian factory previously set up was moved to larger facilities to cope with greater demand.
In 1956, Byam traveled to Europe in a Gold Anodized trailer, towed by a Cadillac. It was a successful publicity stunt that saw people take note of the Airstream. Sadly, however, Byam developed a brain tumor six years later and died. The Airstream brand, however, has not.
The luxury recreational vehicle, now owned by Thor Industries, flourishes today with renewed vigor. Due to the increasing popularity of the “silver bullet” trailers numerous Airstream-only RV parks have developed over the years for WBCCI (Wally Byam Caravan Club International) rallies and other Airstream enthusiasts. Scattered throughout the U.S. from Texas to Minnesota (Minnesota Airstream Park), Washington to Florida, and Pennsylvania to Georgia, Airstream owners are welcomed with attractive camping rates.
It’s not just those of us who appreciate the Airstream mystique that have benefited, though. In 1969, following their return from the Moon, the crew of Apollo 11 were quarantined in an airtight Airstream trailer for fear they had also brought back lunar pathogens with them. NASA still incorporates the Airstream into the running of their facilities today and has aptly dubbed the model they use, the Airstream Excella, the Astrovan.
The next time an Airstream zooms by, spare a thought for Wally Byam, the man who started it all. Then head to your nearest Airstream dealer to check out the latest iconic “silver bullet” trailers and the top selling Class B motorhome, the Airstream Interstate.
I saw a peanut stand, heard a rubber band,
I saw a needle that winked its eye.
But I think I will have seen everything
When I see an Airstream fly.
—music and lyrics by Oliver Wallace and Ned Washington, in Dumbo