Let’s face it: every Airstream RV is cool, from today’s luxury trailers and motor coaches to the vintage vehicles of yesteryear. But some are way cooler than others.
Airstream, the Beginning
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, he was a shepherd, living in a two-wheeled donkey cart outfitted with a food and water, kerosene cook stove and a sleeping bag. These early experiences no doubt contributed in large part to the direction his life would eventually take.
Wally Byam, Airstream’s founder
The first trailers were built of plywood, but he 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 Wally incorporated aircraft construction methods in order to lessen wind resistance and improve the strength-to-weight ratio of his Airstream 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. At $1200, the Clipper was expensive, especially during the Depression years, yet the company could not build them fast enough to keep up with the orders that poured in. 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 its tubular steel-framed dinette which could convert to a bed, carried its own water supply, 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.
But survival was soon threatened from without. On December , 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and leisure travel and the materials necessary to build trailers 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 and Wally Byam closed his doors.
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, California. Wally 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 a dealership network, providing even better service and responsiveness to its customers.
Then in 1962, Wally Byam passed away. Many companies would find it difficult to survive the loss of such a dynamic, visionary leader, but Wally’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. After several years of development, the first Airstream motorhomes were introduced in 1979.
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 declare them one of “99 things that, yes, Americans make best.” Airstreams are found in both the Smithsonian Institution and the Henry Ford Museum.
Over 70% of all Airstreams ever built – including some built from the original five-dollar plans – are still rolling down the highways. Airstreams have survived millions of miles across some of the roughest roads in the world and Airstreamers have enjoyed the freedom to go where others only dream of traveling. As they relax in their climate-controlled coaches, enjoying a cold drink and eating dinner prepared in a microwave oven while watching ball games by satellite TV, Airstreamers are realizing a dream made possible by the vision and dedication of Wally Byam and the adventurous spirit of those early Airstream explorers. They are living the Airstream Way of Life!
10 Iconic Airstream Trailers
Airstream, Quarantine Trailer, 1969
“When America landed a man on the moon for the first time, officials of NASA were concerned that its astronauts might possibly carry ‘moon germs’ back to earth. After all, the moon was supposed to be an airless, ‘dead’ planet- but what if it wasn’t? What if tiny microbes somehow managed to survive on its surface?
So the American space agency contacted Airstream and had it build a special trailer called a Mobile Quarantine Facility designed with special seals, so that the space crew could be comfortably quarantined upon their return to earth.”
Florida’s Airstream Ranch
“In a clear tribute to the once glorious but now-battered Cadillac Ranch, this site in Seffner, Florida boasts an octet of silver Airstream trailers are lined up nose down in the ground. You have to see the installation up close to really understand- It’s art, man!”
Grand Daddy Hotel, South Africa
“Cape Town, known as the ‘Mother City’ of South Africa, enjoys an incredible variety of attractions, but one of the coolest- there or anywhere else- is the Grand Daddy Hotel. The standard rooms are pretty nice but if you’re looking for a stay that you’ll never forget, rent one of the rooftop Airstream trailers, each one decorated with its own theme.”
Airstream ‘Teardrop Trailer’, 1930s
“When Airstream founder Wally Byam first began to produce his travel trailers in the early ’30s he designed them to be lightweight for easy towing, and with an especially aerodynamic ‘teardrop’ shape in order that they would slip through the air with the least wind resistance ‘like a stream of air’, he said. They’re rare- and extremely cool.”
The 1936 Airstream Clipper
“In 1936 Wally Byam introduced a luxurious new trailer called the Airstream Clipper, which took his philosophy of light-weight design a huge step further by being constructed of aluminum. In addition to valuable weight-savings that allowed for greater room without becoming too heavy, the new Clipper featured a slippery, aerodynamic shape with the look of the future.
Byam reportedly named it the Clipper because it looked so similar to the fabulous Pan Am Clipper ‘Flying Boats’ that had been thrilling passengers since their debut in 1931.”
The ‘Vanderbilt Commodore’
“Prior to becoming a trailer manufacturer Wally Byam worked for a newspaper owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt. Their association blossomed into a lifetime friendship and the two adventure-lovers later took many trailer trips together. In the early 1950’s Vanderbilt asked Wally to build him the ultimate trailer, an especially long unit fitted with every luxury available at the time.
Dubbed the ‘Commodore’, the unique 33-foot long trailer boasted fiberglass construction, two-way radio communication with the tow vehicle (this being decades before cellphones) a bar, television set, two bathrooms and even a library! The custom interior was created by a celebrated interior designer of the day named Charles Criqui.”
The Airstream Funeral Coach
When recreational vehicle sales dried up during the early 1980’s Airstream management decided to branch out into other markets in the hope of gaining a little ‘plus business’. One idea- the Airstream Funeral Coach, a sort of motorhome for your last ride.
This vehicle incorporated all a funeral homes motorized needs into one product. With the funereal Airstream mourners rode inside in perfect comfort. The vehicle had a side compartment for carrying the coffin, a rear hatch area for stowing the flowers. It proved unsuccessful. But it’s perfect for the ghoul in all of us!
Airstream Interstate Touring Coaches
“The Company’s main factory, which has recently been added on to, is so busy it can barely keep up with orders for its line of travel trailers. One result of that situation is that Airstream has not produced a full-size motorhome in several years, simply because it hasn’t any spare production capacity.
However, the smaller former main plant, across the street from the big modern plant, has been converted to building the lovely Airstream Interstate, a luxury motor coach built on the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van chassis. These are a perfect choice for family getaways- and for plush corporate transportation too.”
“The iconic (there’s that word again!) small Airstream trailer was introduced decades ago as the Bambi. Although the name has fallen out of use as a model designation, Bambi is still utilized as a sort of nickname for the smallest current Airstream trailers, the Sport single-axle jobs.
So what do you get in an Airstream Sport? More luxury than you probably deserve, packed in a smallish interior that somehow seems just right in the context of the era’s ‘tiny house’ movement.”
This Guy’s Airstream
Source: Airstream, Inc.
“In 1963 Airstream executive Andy Charles and his wife went on an all-Airstream ‘Around the World Caravan’ tour with a group of enthusiasts. He appeared on the cover of Trailer Topics magazine in front of the Tombs of the Seven Qutub Shahi Kings in Hyderabad, among other exotic locales.”
In Concluding Remarks, It all began with a dream: to offer a more satisfying, meaningful way to travel, without sacrificing the comforts of home. Over 85 years later, their legendary travel trailers and touring coaches, handcrafted in Jackson Center, Ohio, have created a passionate community – and a way of life.