Everything that Wally Byam got in his life was through his own hard work and perseverance. Wally graduated from Stanford in 1921, and if his family helped him pay for it, there’s no record of it. It’s believed that he paid for college by working several jobs. During the school year Wally would work in concessions for Stanford football and basketball games, and he was the house manager at his Sigma Chi fraternity. It’s believed that in the summers, he earned money working as a sailor, and that time spent on the sea fostered Wally’s love of travel and of experiencing the world, and also inspired some of Airstream’s early designs.


In 1929, Wally Byam built the world’s first Airstream trailer. It started out as a tent contraption that he built on a Model T chassis, but it wasn’t a lot of fun in the rain (and Wally’s first wife Marion wasn’t a fan). So he replaced the tent with a teardrop-shaped permanent shelter – and added a stove and ice chest, too. It was easy to tow and caught the eye of other travelers, so much so that enough people asked Wally about it for him to decide it might be “a pretty good business to get into.” Good thing he did!



Wally also worked for Stanford’s newspaper, and after he graduated he used that experience to secure a job at the Los Angeles Times. As at Stanford, he worked as an advertising manager, but after a short time he left the paper to join a new organization called the Penny Newspaper Group. That organization was founded by Cornelius “Neil” Vanderbilt, Jr., and while this would be their first meeting and first collaboration, Wally and Neil would become friends for life.

1930 Airstream


Every great legacy starts somewhere, and for Airstream it was the Torpedo Car Cruiser. The Torpedo was the first factory-produced Airstream model, and by early 1932 there were over a thousand Torpedoes on the road. Soon it was joined by the Silver Bullet and Silver Cloud, but the Torpedo was the forerunner of every Airstream trailer that you see on the road and off it today.



After the success of Wally’s Popular Mechanics guide to building a trailer, he decided that it’d be a lucrative business to get into, so when neighbors started asking him to build trailers for them like the one in his front yard, he obliged. Noise complaints quickly followed, so Wally rented a building and opened a small trailer factory in Culver City, California in 1931 – Airstream’s first factory. They soon relocated, but the Airstream dream was born.


When Wally Byam opened the first Airstream factory in California, there were fewer than 50 trailer manufacturers registered for business. In the next five years, demand for the trailer lifestyle exploded and the industry followed suit – by 1937, there were around 400 manufacturers competing for customers. Unfortunately for many of those daring entrepreneurs, the Great Depression and World War II took a toll, and today, only Airstream remains.



As World War II drew to a close, Wally Byam was working at Curtiss-Wright to help manufacture airplanes for the war effort. When the war ended, though, he saw an opportunity. They had an idle plant, and he had a trailer business to get back to. So the Curtis Wright Clipper was born – similar to the Airstream Clipper in many ways, but improved with Wally’s new manufacturing know-how. This would be Wally’s first airplane-constructed trailer, but it wouldn’t be Airstream’s last.



When the United States entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor, aluminum became hard to come by. In fact, the government ordered that travel trailers could only be made as part of the war effort, not for public recreation. Wally saw Airstreams as a mode of travel, not a substitute for a house, so he decided to close up shop. For the duration of the war, Wally and many Airstream crew members found employment in various aircraft factories in California. The experience they got from working on military planes would end up serving Airstream quite well at war’s end indeed.


In 1948, Wally went to Europe with his friend Neil Vanderbilt to tour the war-ravaged land. Neil’s goal was to film postwar Europe for lecture tours, but Wally’s was all for Airstream. They traveled the continent in an Airstream trailer, and Wally wanted to road test the trailer to find weaknesses that needed fixing, as well as improvements that could be made. This may not have been the plan at the time, but the trip would end up as a precursor to the Airstream caravans that would follow in later years. Two friends on the road together – how fun!



By 1952, Airstream had outgrown its Los Angeles plant and desperately needed to expand. Rather than staying on the West Coast, Wally traveled east to scout locations across the Midwest. He spent a summer looking in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio before finding a factory for sale in Jackson Center, Ohio. With Neil Vanderbilt on the board and Airstream’s obvious success, funding was easy to find, and soon Wally had his ideal second location locked down. And it turned out to be a great choice – more than sixty-five years later, Airstream is still making trailers in Jackson Center.



In 1951, Wally Byam decided to travel with a group of friends from Texas to Nicaragua. When a magazine picked up the story, he invited others to join in the Los Angeles Times. He expected about 35 trailers to show up; he got 63. The first caravan wasn’t the smooth ride today’s Airstreamers are used to – bad roads and bad weather led to equipment failures, and many caravanners dropped out early. Only 14 completed the trip, and Wally said he’d never do it again. Luckily for all of us, that vow lasted only a year!


When you’re constantly trying to push the envelope on the road, you need to innovate. As people took Airstream trailers to new and more challenging locales, they needed more. And Wally Byam fostered that, urging people to create what they need when it didn’t already exist. In 1954, he convinced Mark Bowen of Bowen Water Heater Co. to develop the first hot water system ever in a trailer. The 1958 Airstream International was developed as the first-ever “self-contained” travel trailer – one with full freedom from external trailer hookups, like outside sources of power. With new capabilities, Airstreams could go farther for longer than ever before.



In 1969, the Airstream trailer had its first major redesign in over 30 years, with an internal facelift as well as exterior and structural changes. The end result was an Airstream with rounder edges and more streamlined shape, a more luxurious and comfortable interior, and a more distinct “bullet” shape. It even added a foot of length and four inches of width. It was a big step on the path from Wally’s first trailer to the one you see on the road today.



After battling cancer with his trademark tenacity, Wally Byam passed away on July 22, 1962. He left behind an Airstream company at its peak, working to meet the demand that Wally’s dreams and hard work had created for travel, adventure, and experiencing the world first-hand. After some competition between Wally’s lieutenants Art Costello and Andy Charles, Costello was voted Airstream’s new president a year later.


When humans first visited the moon in 1969, it was feared that the astronauts who walked on its surface might bring back disease or other maladies with them. NASA took every precaution, and it was decided that the Apollo 11 trio would be quarantined upon their safe return. Airstream was tasked with constructing a “mobile quarantine unit” that could be taken to the USS Hornet, which would greet Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. There’s even a famous photo of President Richard Nixon speaking to the trio from outside!



As a recession and the Middle East gas crisis hit American drivers hard in the late 1970s, it did the same to Airstream. With the expansion of the Jackson Center facility and a need to consolidate, Airstream finally made the move east complete. The California plant was closed in 1978, and all manufacturing and executive operations would move to the Ohio complex – where they remain today.



In the late 1950s, Airstream had purchased four acres in Jackson Center, Ohio, near our Midwest factory. In 1971 a seed was planted there, and from it grew the world’s most modern trailer manufacturing facility. The new, massive plant – 150,000 square feet – is still operating today, churning out trailer after trailer just as it did when it first opened.



For the first four decades or so of Airstream’s life, we were exclusively a travel trailer company – Wally Byam had thought several times about diversifying and producing a motorhome, but each time decided against it. In 1974 that all changed. With leadership wanting to avoid being entirely dependent on one product for revenue, the Argosy motorhome debuted. Sales were modest, and the Argosy line would be discontinued in 1979. But the will to innovate would live on in later models like the Land Yacht motorhome and the Interstate touring coach.



The Wally Byam Caravan Club International has been around since the 1950s, just a few years after Wally’s first caravan, but in the 1970s and 80s they collaborated with Airstream itself to hold numerous rallies and caravans around the world – even some places many Americans weren’t as keen on visiting at the time. Only about a decade after President Richard Nixon famously went to China, in 1985 an Airstream caravan followed him there for the first time.



Airstream leadership had been in flux for years after the passing of Wally Byam, with control of the company changing hands several times in the next few decades. In 1980, stability came once again. Wade Thompson and Peter Orthwein, owners of Hi-Lo Trailers, saw the market starting to pick up and moved to form a new company, Thor Industries, and acquire Airstream. And that association continues to this day, over thirty years later.


The design and beauty of the Airstream trailer have gained it many admirers, and after decades of touring the roads and campsites of America (and the world), it’s gone from being an oddity to a true American icon. One example? In 1987, Money magazine chose the Airstream travel trailer as one of “99 things that, yes, Americans make best” alongside titans of American industry like Coca-Cola and Heinz ketchup. That’s not bad company, is it?



In addition to honoring Airstream’s rich history, the 1990s saw a rededication to newer generations of travelers. To attract younger buyers, the Safari was introduced. With a cost 20 percent less than its contemporaries, it was easier to afford while maintaining the quality Airstream demands. And with a weight 20 percent lighter than a traditional trailer, it could be towed by lighter vehicles. It was a hit, and quickly about half the Airstreams being sold were Safaris.



With the quality and longevity of Airstream and our trailers, often an individual trailer can still find great use for decades or even longer. In the late 80s and early 1990s, interest in older Airstreams began to grow, including restoring them to original glory and renovating them to mix vintage and modern. To meet this demand, in 1993 a new chapter within the Wally Byam Caravan Club International was formed, appropriately named the Vintage Airstream Club. To join, owners have to have a trailer that’s at least 25 years old.


As for the new trailers rolling off the line, it had been since 1969 that any major design change had been made.  In 1994, the first redesign in almost 30 years was made, adding about five-and-a-half inches in width in addition to a total interior change. Along with changes to profile and structure and shape, these alterations made a bigger, more comfortable trailer while maintaining performance – and the Airstream that you see on the road today.



The next year, Airstream itself had its 75th birthday. The silver bullet design has stood the test of time, and so has the riveted-aluminum construction. The company’s longevity is reflected in the individual trailers we build – in 2006, 65% of the Airstreams that had been built since Wally Byam’s first trailer were still on the road. In fact, some of those aged warriors included some of the ones built from the five-dollar plans Wally sold before the first factory was even open.



In 2005, the Wally Byam Caravan Club International celebrated its 50th anniversary. From the first Central American caravan Wally led to his adventures across Europe with Neil Vanderbilt, from tours of the United States to trips to Africa and China, the WBCCI has spent half a century helping Airstreamers meet each other, form lasting bonds and memories, and travel the world safely and enjoyably.


The 2000s saw a major expansion in the things Airstream could offer prospective trailerites. From the Base Camp trailer to the returning Classic motorhome to the Interstate touring coach, there has never been more variety available under the Airstream name. Some models come and go, but quality and commitment to innovation never will – it’s part of what makes Airstream what it is.

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