Airstream Trailer Co. 1936-1941 Los Angeles, California - 1948-1950s - Van Nuys, California 1950s-1970s-Sante Fe Springs, California - 1952-present Jackson Center, Ohio
Airstream manufactured a Custom Funeral Coach from 1982-1988 in Jackson Center, Ohio
Wallace Merle Byam, Airstream’s founder, was practically born a traveler. As a young child he traveled extensively with his grandfather, who led a mule train in Baker, Oregon. Later, as an adolescent, he was a shepherd, living in a two-wheeled donkey cart outfitted with a kerosene cookstove, a sleeping bag, and wash pail. These early experiences undoubtedly contributed to the direction his life would eventually take.
As a young man, Wally signed on with the merchant marines, graduated Stanford University’s Law School in 1923, owned an advertising agency, and became a magazine publisher. A do-it-yourself magazine he published featured an article describing how to build a travel trailer. When readers began complaining about the plans, Wally tried them out for himself. Indeed, the plans turned out to be flawed.
Wally’s innovative spirit drove him to build his own model. While he considered it primitive, his design forever changed the history of travel trailers. By dropping the floor down between the wheels and raising the ceiling height, the revolutionary design made it possible for campers to stand up straight when inside the trailer. Wally wrote an article describing how to build his trailer for under $100 — this time drawing an enthusiastic response from his readers.
During the late 1920’s, Americans were beginning to take to the roads in greater and greater numbers. Wally’s new trailer was a perfect match for the new mobile lifestyle. Wally began making a living selling sets of plans for five dollars each, complete trailer kits, and finished trailers he built in his Los Angeles backyard. The fledgling business survived the crash of 1929, and by 1930 he had abandoned law, advertising, and publishing to become a full-time builder of travel trailers.
During the mid 1930’s, Wally perfected his skill of fusing form and functionality. By incorporating aircraft construction methods to lessen wind resistance and improving the trailer’s strength-to-weight ratio, his designs began taking on a more aerodynamic and contemporary look. On January 17, 1936, the Airstream Trailer Co. introduced the “Clipper,” and an American legend was born.
The Clipper was truly revolutionary. With its monocoque, riveted aluminum body, it had more in common with the aircraft of its day than with its predecessors. It could sleep four, thanks to its tubular steel-framed dinette which could convert to a bed, carried its own water supply, had an enclosed galley, and was fitted with electric lights throughout. The Clipper boasted of its advanced insulation and ventilation system, and even offered "air conditioning" that used dry ice.
At $1200, the Clipper was expensive, especially during the Depression years, yet the company could not build them fast enough to keep up with the orders that poured in. And Wally Byam's meticulous attention to quality would prove crucial.
Of more than 300 trailer builders operating in 1936, Airstream was the only one to emerge from the Depression years. However, with the onset of World War II, leisure travel and the materials necessary to build trailers both became luxuries the country could not afford. Airstream Trailer Co. closed its doors. Wally decided that the best way to help the war effort was to use his experience with aluminum fabricating in the aircraft industry — taking positions at Lockheed and Curtis Wright for the duration of the war.
When World War II ended, the economy boomed and people’s attention once again turned towards the open road. By 1948 the demand for Airstream trailers seemed to know no bounds, and like the Coca-Cola™ bottle and Zippo™ lighter, Airstreams became one of the most recognizable products in the world.
During the next 15 years, the company continued to prosper. More and more people discovered that their Airstream travel trailer offered more than a stylish form of transportation — it gave them new lifestyle possibilities. Enthusiastic Airstreamers regularly participated in local and regional rallies, and for many, these events are still the highlights of their social calendars. Wally even led some of the most adventurous Airstreamers on caravans around the globe.
It was soon obvious that Airstream had become a nationally known product. In July 1952, the lease was signed for a facility in Jackson Center, Ohio, to serve the eastern market. By August the first Ohio-made Airstream rolled off the production line, and the California factory was moved to larger facilities in Santa Fe Springs.
Wally Byam passed away on July 22nd 1962 aged 66. By this time Airstream was permanently woven into the American fabric.
Many companies would find it difficult to survive the loss of such a dynamic leader, but Wally’s successors were successful in absorbing his technical and organizational skills, and the company continued to flourish. Wally also left behind what is now know as the Wally Byam Creed — an indelible tribute to the Airstreamer lifestyle he helped create.
Airstream was purchased totally by Beatrice Foods in December 1967 ushering in a new Airstream era.
Airstream has never stopped building “the better trailer. In the 1970’s, Airstream introduced the Classic — its first motorhome. The Classic featured riveted aluminum construction and a monocoque body like the travel trailer, and brought a new level of aerodynamic superiority unavailable in any other motorhome. In the 1980's, Airstream rolled out the Argosy fifth wheel trailer, Airstream triple axel trailer, and the Land Yacht Motorhome. The Land Yacht motorhome featured laminated fiberglass construction and had front and rear end caps so innovative that a patent was granted for them.
With the help of an extremely dedicated and loyal Airstreamer community, Airstream continues to innovate and flourish. Airstream is currently undergoing a renaissance — with more new products being developed than at any other time in the company’s history. Motorhomes with Skydecks™ and ultra-stylish CCD travel trailers are just some of Airstream's originative products currently creating waves throughout the RV industry.
As a testament to Airstream’s long tradition of design and manufacturing excellence, Airstreams can be found in both the Smithsonian Institution and Henry Ford Museum. NASA selected an Airstream trailer to house the first astronauts back from the moon and still uses Airstream motorhomes as an integral part of the space shuttle program. As another example, John F. Kennedy chose an Airstream as his mobile presidential office.
Today, Airstreams can be found in the lobby of MTV, on movie sets, and on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Airstream’s appeal is as strong as ever. The Wally Byam Caravan Club International (WBCCI) is 10,000 member-strong and holds nearly 1,500 rallies annually. Airstreams are regularly seen in movies and on television. They can be found at Airstream-only campgrounds, used as traveling medical facilities, and of course, cruising into the sunset.
Over 60% of all Airstreams ever built — including some built from the original five-dollar plans — are still rolling down the highways. Airstreams have survived millions of miles across some of the roughest roads in the world and Airstreamers have enjoyed the freedom to go where others only dream of traveling.
Airstreams are truly an American legend.
2001 was the 70th anniversary of Airstream. Wally Byam began making trailer of wood but in 1937 he introduced the "Clipper". This trailer was built using the same principles used for constructing airplanes. The body was a riveted aluminum monocoque construction. Prior to 1952, all Airstreams were built in southern California. The Jackson Center plant opened in July, 1952 and the first Ohio built Airstream rolled off the production line the following month. Currently, all Airstreams are manufactured in Jackson Center, Ohio. Airstream produced its first motorhome in 1979 and produced a fifth-wheel trailer for about 3 years in the mid 1990's. In 1989, Airstream produced its first fiberglass bodied motorhome. (All trailers built during the past 50+ years with the exception of the short lived fifth-wheel are aluminum bodied.) Today motorhomes are a significant part of the Airstream production mix. Money magazine named Airstream as "one of the 99 things that Americans make best." As a testimony to their construction, over 60% of the Airstreams ever built are still in use.
Airstream began with a single man and a most singular dream. The man was Wally Byam: his dream, to build the perfect travel trailer. One that would move like a stream of air. One that would be light enough to be towed by a standard automobile. One that would provide first-class living accommodations anywhere in the world. Thus, over 70 years ago was born the first Airstream trailer. And with it was born yet another dream, a dream of new freedom, new places, new experiences, and new friendships. It was a dream so powerful, so enduring it did far more than create a new way of travel; it created a new way of life shared by thousands upon thousands of families.
The Airstream philosophy has always been and will always be, “ Let’s not make any changes — let’s make only improvements!” Every inch of an Airstream has a functional purpose. There is no planned obsolescence. This is as true todays models as it was of the first Airstream to see the light of the open road. The classic Airstream of the thirties is no museum piece. Still in use today, it is as sturdy and modern in appearance as the first day it swung into traffic. As a result, an Airstream is always “in style’ — conceived and constructed as a lifetime investment in happiness.
Today, the Airstream is the most thoroughly tested Airstream in trailer history. It is years ahead in engineering — the culmination of over 70 years of experience in trailer making, millions of miles of Caravan travel throughout the world; plus millions of miles more, run up by happy Airstream owners! More than ever, the Airstream remains a testimonial to the practical vision, the tenacity and know-how of one dedicated man — Wally Byam, and his team who made your travel dreams come true.
Airstream trailers trace their history back to mule trains
By the Out West staff
They look a bit like slender silver marshmallows rolling down the highway. And even though the RV industry has changed dramatically in the last half century, the now legendary Airstream looks a lot like it did way back in the olden days, when it set the standard for luxury camping.
Wally Byam, Airstream's founder, was practically born a traveler. As a young child he traveled extensively with his grandfather, who led a mule train in Baker, Oregon. Later, as an adolescent, Wally was a shepherd, living in a two-wheeled donkey cart outfitted with a kerosene cook stove, food and water, a sleeping bag and wash pail. These early experiences no doubt contributed in large part to the direction his life would eventually take.
After finishing high school, Byam signed on with the merchant marine, serving three years and working his way up from cabin boy to ship's mate. Upon returning to the United States, he entered Stanford University, working his way through school and, in 1923, earning a law degree.
Wally Byam never practiced law; perhaps he would never be happy in such a constrained profession. Instead, he found work in the rapidly growing advertising business, first as a copywriter for the Los Angeles Times and then as the owner of his own agency. He apparently did well in advertising, but soon switched to the opposite side of the street and became a publisher of magazines.
One of them published an article that described plans for the construction of a travel trailer. When readers began complaining about the plans, Wally tried them out and found himself agreeing with his readers -- they didn't work Thereupon, he set out to build his own model. And while he considered the finished product primitive, it was widely admired and sold immediately.
An article in his magazine describing how to build this improved trailer for less than $100 drew an enthusiastic response, and Byam began selling sets of plans for five dollars. Soon, in response to demand, he was building improved versions of his trailer in his backyard in Los Angeles.
Sales were good. Wally's great innovation was to drop the floor down between the wheels, allowing him to raise the ceiling, making it possible for the campers to stand up straight when inside the trailer. Americans were beginning to take to the roads in greater and greater numbers, and Wally's new trailer was a hit. The fledgling business survived the crash of 1929, and by 1930 Byam had abandoned law, advertising and publishing to become a full-time trailer manufacturer.
Those first trailers were built of plywood, but Byam soon switched to masonite and began adding amenities like chemical toilets, ice boxes, gasoline stoves and water pumps.
The trailers began to take on a more "aerodynamic" look as Byam incorporated aircraft construction methods in order to lessen wind resistance and improve the strength-to-weight ratio of his trailers.
In 1934, Wally Byam introduced the name "Airstream" because his improved trailers cruised down the road "like a stream of air."
On January 17, 1936, the Airstream Trailer Co. introduced the "Clipper", and an American legend was born.
The Clipper was truly revolutionary. With its monocoque, riveted aluminum body, it had more in common with the aircraft of its day than with its predecessors. It could sleep four, thanks to a tubular steel-framed dinette which could convert to a bed, carried its own water supply. It had an enclosed galley, and was fitted with electric lights throughout. The Clipper boasted of its advanced insulation and ventilation system, and even offered "air conditioning" that used dry ice.
At $1,200, the Clipper was expensive, especially during the Depression years, yet the company could't build them fast enough to keep up the demand. And Wally Byam's meticulous attention to quality would prove crucial. Of more than 300 trailer builders operating in 1936, only one, Airstream, would survive.
But survival was soon threatened. On December , 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and leisure travel and the materials necessary to build trailers both became luxuries the country could not afford. Structural aluminum was classified as a critical war material, available only for the building of vital aircraft. Tires and gasoline became scarce.
Wally Byam closed his doors and took his experience with aluminum fabricating first to Lockheed, the Curtis Wright, for the duration of the war. But he remained determined to return to trailers as soon as possible.
With the war's end, the economy boomed and consumers began demanding more of the goods they had been deprived of. By 1948, Airstream Trailers, Inc., was helping to satisfy that demand at its new facility in Van Nuys, Calif. Byamhad learned much about aluminum fabrication and design in the aircraft industry, and he was ready to begin applying that knowledge to his trailer concepts.
The demand for Airstream trailers seemed to know no bounds, and it was soon obvious that Airstream had become a nationally known product. In July 1952, the lease was signed for a facility in Jackson Center, Ohio, to serve the eastern market. By August the first Ohio-made Airstream rolled off the production line, and the California factory was moved to larger facilities in Santa Fe Springs.
For the next ten years, Wally continued to improve and refine his products, and the company continued to prosper and grow. During this period, the company made the transition from direct, factory sales to a dealership network, providing even better service and responsiveness to its customers.
Byam died in 1962. Many companies would find it difficult to survive the loss of such a dynamic, visionary leader, but Byam's technical and organizational skills had been absorbed by his successors, and the company continued to flourish.
By the early seventies, the popularity of motorhomes had grown by leaps and bounds. In 1979, after several years of development, Airstream introduced its first motorhome.
The original Classic motorhome featured riveted aluminum construction and a monocoque body like the trailer, and brought a new level of aerodynamic superiority unavailable in any other motorhome.
In 1989, Airstream rolled out the all-new Land Yacht motorhome. In contrast to the Classic, this motorhome featured laminated fiberglass construction and had front and rear end caps so innovative that a patent was granted for them. The Land Yacht was an immediate success and is still the best-selling Airstream motorhome.
Airstream's long tradition of design and manufacturing excellence led Money magazine to the trailer as one of "99 things that, yes, Americans make best."
Airstream are found in both the Smithsonian Institution and the Henry Ford Museum. An Airstream trailer was selected by NASA to house the first astronauts back from the moon. Airstream motorhomes continue today to be an integral part of the space shuttle program. Airstream have truly become an American Legend.
More than 60 percent of all Airstreams ever built -- including some built from the original five-dollar plans -- are still rolling down the highways.
The Wally Byam Caravan Club International, with 21,000 trailers registered in North America today, holds nearly 1,500 rallies annually.
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