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What the Airstream Clipper WASN’T

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An Airstream Clipper and a Lincoln Zephyr in a 1930s-era photo. Photography from the estate of Helen Byam Schwamborn, courtesy Dale Schwamborn.

Recently in writing a profile of Airstream founder Wally Byam (see “Automotive Pioneers,” Hemmings Classic Car #160, January 2018), we made the acquaintance of Joe Peplinski, the historian for both the Vintage Airstream Club and its parent club, the Wally Byam Caravan Club International. Joe helped fact-check that story and put us in contact with Dale Schwamborn, who is Wally Byam’s cousin once removed.

Dale was on many early Airstream caravans with Wally and was an advance scout on the famed African Caravan expedition. Dale’s mother, Helen Byam Schwamborn, worked at Airstream and formed the Wally Byam Caravan Club. Dale provided the images used in the Byam story and, along with Joe, clued us in on a couple of the bigger misconceptions in Airstream history.

An early Airstream constructed of Masonite, towed by a 1932 Ford Fordor.

Because aluminum weathers considerably better than Masonite, especially when similarly neglected, survival rates of Airstream’s prewar Masonite campers are quite low. This has led many to the impression that the Airstream Clipper, introduced in 1936, was the company’s main product before World War II. This ties in well, it seems, with the company’s exclusive use of aluminum after the war. In fact, though, it appears this isn’t true.

Setting aside the intriguing, but rarely seen, Masonite Airstreams of the 1930s, the Clipper is the epicenter of another myth—primarily that the Clipper was a copy of the Bowlus Road Chief but with the door moved from over the tongue to the side.

The Bowlus was the brainchild of Hawley Bowlus, an aircraft engineer who had helped to build Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis back in the 1920s. He conceived the Road Chief as an expeditious means to transport flight and ground crews to distant landing strips and maintain them there in comfort. Rather than utilize the common building materials of the era—wood, steel, and Masonite—Bowlus instead looked to airplane building materials and techniques. The result was a streamlined monocoque trailer of riveted aluminum construction.

Period images tend to show big, expensive cars like this Cadillac pulling the Clipper, while V-8 Fords seem to be the car of choice for the Masonite rigs.

Bowlus began producing his trailer in 1934, and it is possible, though unconfirmed, that Byam may have retailed the Bowlus Road Chief alongside his own products circa 1935. It’s certain, however, that Byam was aware of Bowlus’s trailers and admired them. One story, as recounted in John Long’s book Bowlus Trailers – The Origin of the Species, suggests that Byam approached Bowlus about riffing on the Road Chief design and that Bowlus said he couldn’t stop him. Regardless of the business relationship between the men, it is true that by 1936 Airstream Clippers were selling in competition with the Bowlus Road Chief.

In 1937, Bowlus went into liquidation, and Hawley Bowlus himself returned to the aviation field where he is well remembered as an innovator in glider technology. In addition to the continued success of the Masonite trailers, a big factor in Airstream’s success where Bowlus had failed was likely Byam’s refusal to produce Clippers on spec. Bowlus produced Road Chiefs regardless of demand, whereas Airstream only produced Clippers to order. Not only did that avoid wasted materials, it also permitted Byam to tailor each Clipper to the customer’s preferences.

“There were never blueprints,” Dale explains, “The Airstream Clippers varied in shapes and looks from the beginning and went through design evolutions. Wally was the engineer, designer, and draftsman in a very simple manner. He rolled out a long length of butcher’s paper. He then asked the customer ‘how long do you want trailer?’ With templates, he imprinted the front and end caps at the appropriate length.

“Then he asked the customer about window and door locations, sleeping area, cooking area, [and] commode area. When [he] finished filling in the locations, the full scale pattern could be used as the print for manufacturing the trailer.”

The 85-hp V-8 in this 1938 Ford Deluxe Fordor was plenty to pull the streamlined Masonite Airstreams.

Additionally, Joe points out that Byam’s construction technique for the Clipper was considerably different from Bowlus’s Road Chief.

“There were some significant differences in the design of the Road Chief versus the Clipper: The Road Chief used a full monocoque construction with the door on the tongue, while the Clipper used a semi-monocoque construction with the door on the side.” Joe also says that Bowlus’s bankruptcy likely resulted from the high prices of the Road Chief. Something Dale backs up.

“Airstream’s [Masonite] Airlites and Silver Clouds sold for $500 to $600. The new Clippers…in the neighborhood of $3,500. Since each one was custom, prices varied from a base price to cost-plus. I have…a bill of material for a Clipper. It itemizes the material line by line as used for manufacturing, plus the labor that was used for the installation.

“For many years, due for financial problems, materials were purchased only as required to continue the trailer’s production. Due to the Depression, very few people were able to afford a luxury trailer. I doubt more than 50 Clippers were built, and the total is probably closer to 35.”

Clippers were all essentially custom-built to the buyer’s specifications.

Today, both the Airstream Clipper and the Bowlus Road Chief are extremely collectible. When Airstream production resumed after World War II, Byam elected not to reintroduce the Masonite lines and chose to replace the made-to-order Clipper with a more standardized model called the Liner, which wears the now-classic Airstream breadloaf design.

As an interesting aside, Geneva Long, daughter of Bowlus historian John Long, has spearheaded reintroduction of the Bowlus Road Chief out in Nevada. The revived Road Chief retails for $137,000 to $147,000; comparably sized modern Airstream models start around $64,000.