Airstream: 90 years of American adventures
Airstream, the all-American adventure icon, was born 90 years ago. Founded on a wanderlust that never left, the brand has been on an incredible journey which began in 1931 with its founder Wally Byam.
Now, the silver bullet trailer is the subject of a compelling documentary titled Alumination which tells the Airstream story through amazing archive footage and interviews with generations of enthusiasts.
Airstreams have served as American ambassadors and homed astronauts. Today we see them as food trucks, hotels and offices. They’re loved by globe-trotting baby boomers and millennials alike–polished aluminum machines that break down cultural and generational barriers.
Airstream’s 90 years have been shaped by Byam’s unstoppable spirit of adventure and a “Pied Piper” personality that saw fellow travelers flock to follow him. The Airstream story is very much his story.
“A pretty good business to get into”
Wally Byam had travel in his blood. His grandparents reached Oregon on a wagon train and, as a child, he would spend time in a wooden wagon helping tend their sheep. Even after graduating from Stanford, setting up an advertising agency and settling down with his first wife Marion, Byam couldn’t resist the call of the outdoors. He loved nothing more than camping but Marion missed her home comforts, so in 1929 Byam designed his first camping trailer. It was little more than a tent atop a Model T chassis, but it did get Marion to join him.
Byam wasn’t satisfied and began anew, creating a teardrop-shaped trailer complete with a stove and an ice chest. The trailer soon began to attract attention on the couple’s camping trips and he decided that it might well be “a pretty good business to get into.”
Byam started small, selling plans for the trailer for 25 cents through adverts in Popular Mechanics, but by 1931 he was ready to begin manufacturing the first Airstream trailer at a small facility in Culver City, California.
The first silver bullet
Airstream was by no means the only firm making camping trailers in the early 1930s. Nor was Byam the only one to be inspired by an era obsessed with aerodynamics. The Bowlus Road Chief was a striking aluminum trailer that looked the part but failed to sell in significant enough numbers to keep the company afloat. Byam bought the company’s assets and set about redesigning a more practical version. The Airstream Clipper was built on a strong steel chassis with a lightweight aluminum semi-monocoque and riveted stressed aluminum skin, just like airplanes of the era. It’s a blueprint that would stay with Airstream for the next 90 years (and beyond?). The steel chassis made it tough and the aluminum made it light, meaning the Clipper would be able to traverse even the most challenge terrain.
Caravans across the world
Byam would put the Airstream’s durability to the test in a series of epic adventures alongside his loyal customers. To promote the Airstream International, the company’s first really self-contained trailer, with its own hot water supply, he embarked upon a series of “caravans”, taking scores of Airstreams to Canada, Mexico and Central America. In 1959 he led 106 owners from Cape Town in South Africa to Cairo in Egypt—a distance of 14,000 miles over some of the harshest tracks on the planet. They dragged their trailers through jungles, rivers and deserts, encountering pygmies and the living god Haile Selassie (Emperor of Ethiopia) along the way. The planned four month trip actually took seven, but Byam believed that the connections made along the way were better than any official ambassador could achieve.
Sadly, Byam died in 1962, but his legacy was honored with 1965’s “Around the World Airstream Caravan” which saw more than 100 trailers travel from Singapore to Portugal and become the subject of a documentary narrated by Vincent Price. These incredible journeys captured the public’s imagination and proved just how far an Airstream could go.
It may be strictly earth-based, but the Airstream even had a role to play in the Space Race of the 1960s. When Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins returned from the lunar surface in 1969 they were quarantined aboard the USS Hornet in a specially adapted Airstream. Airstream’s public relations machine could seemingly do no wrong, even without its founder at the helm.
Fall, rise, and rise again
Airstream barely survived the 1970s, under ownership of a huge food conglomerate, launching its first RV in the midst of the oil crisis, and having to close its original California plant and rely solely on a factory in Jackson Center, Ohio. Fortunately, rescue came in 1980 from new owners Wade Thompson and Peter Orthwein who streamlined (pun intended) the business and turned it round from making a $12M loss to a $1M profit in the space of a year. Come the 21st century, though, the Airstream was beginning to look a little dated. Architect Christopher C. Deam was hired to modernize without losing the timeless styling. “Open the door and it looked like your grandmother’s kitchen,” says Dean who kept the iconic shape, but added larger windows and modern furnishings. Today’s Airstreams can even be had fully kitted out by Pottery Barn.
Airstream the movie
Dean is just one of many Airstream employees and enthusiasts featured in Alumination, an illuminating documentary by filmmaker Eric Bricker. As luck would have it Hagerty caught up with Bricker in Utah, halfway through a family trip—by Airstream of course.
Filmed pre-pandemic Eric joined owners across 16 different states from young couples and families living full-time on the road in their Airstreams to nonagenarian nomads. During his time researching Wally Byam’s story and meeting the people who still embrace his vision today Bricker believes he now understands what makes the Airstream so special.
“I believe these Airstreams are incubators and amplifiers of the human experience. We’re a family of five and we’ve never felt closer. Life in an Airstream also brings in that whole modernist aspect, the integration of the indoors and the outdoors and feeling a part of something that’s bigger than us. And then finally, what I found in traveling and experiencing all these different groups, is that coming together around the campfire I think just stokes that ancient part of ourselves. And it’s really amazing. We’ve got such as crazy divide socio-politically right now but what’s really interesting is, you can have people on different ends of the spectrum, but when they’re coming together, and they’re sitting there sharing a campfire, they’re talking about things that they have in common. There’s an immediate connection and removal of these obstructions and people make unexpected friends.”
As a young man Wally Byam set out his ambitions. “Don’t live in the past or future,” he wrote. “Make history.” It’s safe to say he did exactly that.
Own an Airstream with Hollywood history
If you’ve been inspired by Byham’s story or Bricker’s film and fancy taking up the Airstream life then you’ll be in good company. Patrick Dempsey and Pixar’s Jay Ward both express their fondness for America’s favorite travel trailer in Alumination, while Tom Hanks had one as his home-away-from-home for almost 30 years.
Hanks’ 1992 Model 34 Limited Excella Travel Trailer will go under the hammer at Bonhams’ Quail Lodge auction in August. Hanks told Bonhams, “I got it in the days when movies moved slower. I had spent too much time in regular trailers with ugly décor and horribly uncomfortable furniture, so I decided to buy a brand-new Airstream shell with an interior made to my own request.”
The 35-foot trailer joined Hanks on the set of Sleepless in Seattle, Forrest Gump, Philadelphia, and Sully, traveling coast to coast for nearly three decades. “More than anything, an Airstream is gorgeous and cozy, which is why everyone who visited mine went away wanting one,” said Hanks.
If you want this particular one you’ll need to find an estimated $150,000 to $250,000.