August 28, 2014

Wally Byam’s Portrait

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In 1956, Airstream moved from their Main Street location in downtown Los Angeles to Norwalk, which was later annexed by the city of Santa Fe Springs.

At that time, Wally Byam was leading the European Caravan. By the time he returned home, his company was already manufacturing in their new facilities.

The main office and lobby had a small store and a receptionist. On the wall was a striking painting: a portrait of Wally Byam. It was painted by an Airstream employee named Marius Hansen and was based on a photograph that had been taken of Wally years before. It showed a man with a strong, chiseled face. The painting was completed in time to be displayed at the new plant before Wally returned from Europe.

Marius Hansen was more than just an Airstream employee. He was Wally’s friend and neighbor, as well as Airstream’s Fiberglass Department supervisor. In 1952, the company toyed with the idea of manufacturing fiberglass Airstreams. They developed a prototype, but the project was shelved soon thereafter.

For Airstream owners with vintage Airstreams, various fiberglass items like interior end caps, shower stalls, and rear bathrooms came from his shop. In the early 1960’s,  also produced the “Wally Bee,” a small Airstream made with top and bottom fiberglass shells. Marius traveled with the “Wally Bee” as far as Managua, Nicaragua on a trial trip. Unfortunately, only one unit was produced before Airstream gave up on the project.

Wally and Stella Byam lived on a street in Los Angeles called Roseview Avenue on a hill overlooking the city. Another street, just a stone’s throw away, Marius and Helga Hansen had their home.

In 1953, while visiting Wally and Stella, I recall going to the Hansens’ home for a few hours. Marius had previously traveled through North Africa. He brought out a box with photographs from his trip and gave me several. When I returned home and resumed my high school classes, I wrote a paper about the Airstream Caravan from Morocco to the Suez Canal and north through the Middle East nations into Europe.

I had only dreamed of a North African Airstream Caravan. But in 1959, my dream became a reality.

I have no doubt that Marius had talked to his dear friend Wally about Africa and the possibility of an Airstream Caravan venturing there.

Years later, when I returned to work at Airstream’s California factory, I was charged with assisting Marius in checking the various fiberglass items being constructed. At that time, the portrait of Wally was still in the lobby for all customers and employees to see. It was a poignant reminder to all that Wally had died, too early, two years before.

When the factory moved to Cerritos, the portrait was taken down, never to appear on the wall in the new factory. One day, I asked the new President of Airstream, Art Costello, if I could have the painting. He gave it to me.

That painting graced my home for twenty years, from Southern to Northern California. In 2011, the Baker Heritage Museum in Wally’s hometown opened a display honoring him.

It was appropriate that this wonderful painting of Wally found a home in the display. Today, Marius’s portrait of Wally graces the wall at the Baker Heritage Museum.

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