Vintage Airstream Trailers
Vintage Airstream: Unique Features of Each Era
By: Lisa Renee Sherman
Right away, people that are new to the Airstream community wonder what the difference is between a new Airstream and a Vintage Airstream. Traditionally, a vintage Airstream is considered any travel trailer or motor home that was produced prior to 1980. The rich history of the Airstream brand illustrates the changes sought to perfect and streamline a quality product for the consumer.
Prior to World War II, Byam had introduced the “Clipper” to the world in 1936. This model was produced in both 1936 and 1937. They sported a metal galley, stained wood interior walls and basic furnishings. During this time they sold for about $1200, which made it an extremely costly item. Traditionally, vintage Clipper models from this time had lengths of 20’.
In 1947 the 22’ Liner was unveiled. The very following year Airstream ushered out the 16’ Wee Wind, the 19’ Trailwind, 28’ Whirlwind, and continued the 20’ Liner. This was a highly productive time for Airstream. The standard body style had changed to a semi-circular look. There were thirteen riveted segments, and front and end caps that sported a curved oval window. Structurally, these were built on pipe frames.
The interior had some modifications also. The once all metal galley was replaced with an aluminum galley, and the walls were painted instead of wood stained. Typically the furnishings changed to Birch wood, and 120v lights were installed.
Carrying over most of the modifications to the structure and interior, Airstream readily produced the 16’ Wee Wind, 19’ Trailwind, 22’Liner, 28’ Whirlwind, and introduced the 24’ Limited in 1949. Airstream was growing as a company and was eager to meet the demands of the growing following. Byam, masterfully tapped into connected the desire for freedom to the Airstream name, thus theoretically marketed a dream versus a product.
The ‘50’s era offered several different changes for Airstream travel trailers. Structurally they still consisted on pipe frames, but the new ladder frames started to be introduced. The aluminum galley was altered to a wooden galley with Masonite countertops. Closets were added, and all interior lights were used with 120v. The models continued to average between 15’ to 32’.
Around 1951 the use of ladder frames became standard on most new Airstreams. The noted new models were that of the 22’ Byam Traveler, and the 22’ Byam Holiday. Around this time is when Byam started the brilliant marketing concept of caravan tours. Not only were the caravans used to show the public all that could be done with their new Airstream trailer, but he personally used them to test the product. Detailed notes were taken and sent promptly back to the Airstream headquarters.
By the mid-fifties the structure had been altered to a vertical front and sloped rear cap. At this time is also when the start of the 9 segment “Whale tail” segments. The interiors were also changed to wood galleys with Formica countertops. A standard trailer model during this time would be the ‘16 Bubble, or the 22’ Caravaner. Many of the established models from prior years were continued to be produced.
Restoration historians document that during the late Fifties and early Sixties the standard structural style was 7 segment front and rear end caps on the ladder frame. At sometime in here the introduction of the Axles on leaf springs occurred. The interior really felt no major altercations other than that the fact that both 12v and 120 v was used. The major significant model addition during these years was the 33’ Custom. This would be the longest travel trailer offered by Airstream up to this point.
During the years of 1961-63 the only significant change was that Airstream modified the leaf spring Axles and replaced it with the dura-torque Axle. There were no new models introduced during this time period. Main production focused on existing models and lengths.
The end of the 60’s offered five segment end caps, and corning glass frameless windows. The interior sported the new look of vinyl clad walls. At last the long painted aluminum interior walls were gone! The cabinets also changes drastically. The lower cabinets were wood with metal trim, and the upper cabinets were vinyl wrapped with metal trim. By this time almost all of the lights, fans and water pumps were on exclusively on 12v.
By the time that the ‘70’s came to light, most of the modifications were established. The only real change with structure was that gray water tanks were introduced in 1973. Interior wise the coveted Tambour doors and plastic laminate cabinetry became standard.
The end of the era for vintage Airstream trailers and motorhomes had changed significantly from their basic beginnings in 1936. Without a doubt, there is a style out there for everyone. The hardest part is finding it!
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