The History of Airstream
The History of Airstream: An American Icon
By Lisa Renee Sherman
The Airstream travel trailer often holds nostalgic memories of yesterday for many Americans.
The image of the old family car, pulling a shiny Wanderer along Route 66 was the concept that
Wally Byam wished to relay to the public. Airstream has connected itself with the spirit of
adventure and exploration in such a way that when anyone catches a glimpse of that “mirror
finish”, their thoughts are already cruising down the road. Without a doubt, the consumers
of America bought into this emotion.
It would not be that uncommon today to find that very same shiny Wanderer being pulled
again along Route 66, only this time by the great grandchildren of the original owners.
In order to understand the significance of this American icon and how it fit into American
history, you first need to understand the man behind it.
On July 4th, 1896 the man simply known as “Mr. Trailer” was born. Wallace Merle Byam was
born into very humble surroundings, which it would appear enabled his imagination verses
hindering it. Graduating from Stanford University’s Law School in 1923, Byam opted not to
take the bar examine, and instead work as a journalist. After some time he purchased an
advertising agency and became an up and coming magazine publisher. The magazine was known
for it’s “Do-it-yourself” articles, so consequently, when one of the articles written
came under fire by readers, Byam wanted to know why.
The article pertained to the subject of how to build your own travel trailer. The readers
claimed that there were many errors in the article, and were frustrated with the instruction.
Byam, wanting to get to the bottom of the controversy, changed his backyard into a
construction site and started following the instructions from the article himself. Quickly
he discovered the same frustration of the readers and had to admit that the article was
lacking. With plywood, sketches of drawings, and pieces of aluminum scattered about his
yard, Byam had unknowingly developed the very first spark of passion for the Airstream
Soon, Byam was creating new designs in order to understand where the article went wrong.
The major change that Byam designed was the revolutionary new style of dropping the floor
between the wheels and expanding the ceiling height to where a person could stand up
easily while inside. Byam wrote an article himself about travel trailers. It was
titled; “How to build a trailer for under $100”. Popular Mechanics published the article,
and soon the love affair between America and Byam began.
In the early 30’s, Americans were still recovering from the Depression. It had left its
dark mark on society and the moral of the country was just barely picking up. In California
a new manufacturing plant opened, and almost exactly one year later the very first of Byams
travel trailers was introduced to the American public. It was the 1936 “Clipper”. It sold for
about $1200, which made it a costly item for consumers at this time, but people flocked from
all over to obtain one. The image of a black Nash, pulling a new “Clipper” represented freedom
for a generation of people that felt trapped under the financial stress of which they lived.
The only time since its beginnings that the doors of Airstream have closed, where
that of the bleak days of World War II. Supplies where a shortage, and a ban had been placed
upon the building of travel trailers. Instead of going back to the world of publishing, Byam
felt the need to support the war efforts and went to work for Lockheed and Curtis Wright. He
took with him his vast knowledge of aluminum fabrication for the aircraft industry. By the time
the war ended, the desire to reopen the doors of his fledgling company grew, and soon the doors
of that quiet California manufacturing plant swung open once again.
Over the next few decades, Byam offered a wide variety of trailers for the American that yearned
for the open road. The models ranged from the Cruisette to the Ambassador. Their lengths varied
from fifteen feet to over twenty eight feet. These are the revered trailers for many vintage
trailer enthusiasts. The brilliant business mind of Byam established the “caravan” road trips
in order to promote the Airstream trailer. They were much more than vacations for Byam.
He wanted to show the public all that they could do in their Airstream and how comfortable they
could be while doing it. Sadly, in 1962 the heart of the Airstream company passed way in a
quiet Los Angeles home from brain cancer. Not only did the business world lose a leader and
spokesman for small businesses owners, it was as if America had lost a beloved friend.
Throughout the next years Airstream was owned by several companies. Beatrice Companies wished
to leave their impact on Airstream by developing the first motor home, which was the “The Argosy”
in 1974. Thor Industries, owned by Wade Thompson and Peter Orthwein, became the new owners of
Airstream in the 80’s. They met the requests for longer and sleeker luxury Airstreams by
introducing the new “Classics” line, and with a partnership with DaimlerChrysler the Interstate
and Sprinter Westfalia touring coaches hit the market in 2004.
Truly, Airstream is the example of America at its best. Perhaps this generation, while wading
through financial hardship, can learn much from the innovative mind of Wally Byam. There were
more than three hundred trailer companies in production during the year of 1936. Only one company survived The Great Depression, and that was Airstream. Not only did Byam revolutionized the making
of trailers, he was able to connect with the people around them with a desire to help them find
happiness during times of incredibly dark days. In 2006 the history of Airstream celebrated its 75th Anniversary.
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