Photos courtesy of Airstream, Inc.
By far the most iconic travel trailer on American (and international) roads, the Airstream brand has been with us since the company’s first models were built by Wally Byam in 1931. Released in time for the brand’s 85th anniversary, Pat Foster’s latest book, Airstream: America’s World Traveler, tells the story of the company’s founder, its growth, its survival through gas crises and economic downturns, and its recent resurgence in popularity with an entirely new generation of campers.
An Airstream trailer, circa 1933. Though not identified in the photo, the man appears to be Wally Byam.
Though the shape of the Airstream trailer has been a central point of its design since 1936, early models used a teardrop profile with a rounded front end to minimize drag. It was the Airstream Clipper, based upon the Bowlus-Teller Road Chief, which introduced both the familiar style and polished aluminum construction embraced by the majority of Airstream’s products since the prewar years. Though Bowlus-Teller, acquired by Airstream in 1935, innovated the design, it was Airstream that proved successful in bringing it to market.
On the road in Africa, 1959. The armed guards are to protect against wildlife.
Much of the credit for Airstream’s success belongs to Byam himself. Part entrepreneur, part showman, part force of nature, Byam promoted his products by leading caravans of Airstream trailers on sojourns to exotic destinations, including an ambitious 1959 trek that crossed Africa from south to north, beginning in Capetown, South Africa and finishing in Cairo, Egypt. He established a creed for the Airstream Company, still followed today, which read in part:
- To place the great wide world at your doorstep for you who yearn to travel with all the comforts of home.
- To open a whole world of new experiences… a new dimension in enjoyment where travel adventure and good fellowship are your constant companions.
- To play some part in promoting international goodwill and understanding among the peoples of the world through person-to-person contact.
- To refine and perfect our product by continuous travel-testing over the highways and byways of the world.
An Airstream on the road in Montenegro, looking at Sveti Stefan island.
The company enjoyed impressive growth from 1960 to 1973, though Byam, then retired, died of cancer in July of 1962. Looking to its future, Airstream gradually expanded its product offerings, marketing hospital trailers, DWI testing vans, quarantine vehicles for NASA’s astronauts, funeral coaches and more conventionally, Class A motorhomes. Its product offerings would eventually include aluminum-skinned delivery vans and even monorails, but it was the classic travel trailer that proved to be the mainstay of Airstream’s business.
An Airstream Funeral Coach, circa 1982. One vehicle could provide transportation for the casket, mourners and flowers, but the idea failed to catch on.
For anyone with a passion for RVs and travel trailers, Foster’s 192-page book, illustrated throughout with 158 color and 114 black and white photos (including rare material from the company’s archives), will prove a fascinating read. Hardbound, measuring 9.25 inches by 10.875 inches, Airstream: America’s World Traveler is now available from Motorbooks, and can be purchased directly from QuartoKnows.com.