Like baseball, hot dogs and apple pie, Airstream is part of the American lexicon and has been for almost 100 years. This iconic camper that started from humble beginnings is now one of the most recognizable trailers on American roads. With its bullet shape and shiny aluminum skin, it’s hard to mistake an Airstream trailer for anything else. Here’s a look at how this all-American brand got its start, and how it has continued to evolve over generations.
As with many inventions, Airstream got its start out of necessity. Wally Byam of Baker City, Oregon, grew up in the early 1900s traveling and experiencing the great outdoors with his grandfather. After putting himself through Stanford, he started an advertising agency with his wife Marion. Byam enjoyed camping but his wife did not, so he built a tent/camper on the chassis of a Ford Model T to be towed, but it was not terribly weatherproof and ultimately Marion was not a fan. Wally then set out to build something more substantial.
In 1929 Byam built a teardrop-shaped permanent shelter on the Model T platform, complete with stove and ice chest. This new trailer was easy to tow and attracted a lot of attention. Byam’s instructions on building a trailer were published in Popular Mechanics and soon he had neighbors and friends asking him to build them campers. There was too much demand to keep building trailers in his yard, so in 1931 he rented a building in Culver City, California, and opened a small trailer operation — ultimately becoming Airstream’s first factory.
The first trailer produced by the new Airstream company was the Torpedo Car Cruiser. Customers could purchase the trailer complete, or the parts and instructions to construct it themselves. By 1932 there were more than 1,000 Torpedoes on the road. The Torpedo was built from plywood and had a number of innovations, including a lowered floor that provided more headroom. This also freed up space for a table, sink, stove and icebox.
The camping trailer market grew to become extremely popular in the 1930s. When Airstream opened its first factory there were more than 50 trailer manufacturers in business. By 1937 there were 400 trailer companies, but the Great Depression and then World War II made it difficult for many to stay in business, and of those 400 only Airstream remains today.
While many believe that Airstream was the first to build an aluminum camper trailer, it was in fact the Bowlus Teller company that introduced the aluminum-bodied Road Chief in 1934. This streamlined aluminum trailer caught the eye of Wally Byam, but he felt he could make it better and decided to design his own aluminum travel trailer. While it was similar to the Road Chief, Byam made a number of changes to the design while taking inspiration from airliners of the time. One of the most noticeable alterations was to move the door to the side — the Road Chief opened at the front. In 1936, the first Airstream was introduced, inspired by the Road Chief — the Airstream Clipper. Priced at $1,200, the Clipper slept four and featured electric lights and a water tank. It even had an air-conditioning system that used dry ice. More importantly, the Clipper introduced the now iconic aluminum skin and bullet shape.
World War II
With the United States embroiled in World War II, the government ordered that travel trailers could only be made for the war effort, not for recreation, since aluminum was in high demand for building warplanes. Airstream temporarily closed its doors, and Byam went off to work at Lockheed Aircraft. During his wartime employment, he came up with many new ideas that originated from building airplanes, and when Airstream reopened in 1947 Byam was ready to create a broad range of innovative travel trailers.
Move to Ohio
When the war ended there was pent-up demand for lifestyle items such as travel trailers, and business boomed for Airstream. The company quickly outgrew its manufacturing facilities in California, so in 1952 Byam headed to the Midwest to find a new location to build his popular travel trailers. A factory for sale in Jackson Center, Ohio, was exactly what he was looking for, and so the company made the move east. More than 65 years later Airstream is still producing trailers in Jackson Center.
As customers began taking their Airstream trailers to farther and more difficult locales, the company continued to innovate to keep up with demands. In 1954 Byam worked with Bowen Water Heater company to create the first hot-water system for a travel trailer. In 1958 the Airstream International was introduced as the first-ever completely self-contained travel trailer. With onboard water and power, its owners could venture farther from civilization for longer periods of time.
By 1962 the Airstream lineup had grown, ranging from the 16-foot Bambi to the 30-foot Sovereign. The Bambi was as a small, lightweight option pulled by smaller vehicles. The Bambi name stuck — Airstream refers to any single-axle traditional-style Airstream as a Bambi.
End of an Era
On July 22, 1962, Wally Byam lost his battle with cancer and passed away. After a bit of infighting at the company, Art Costello was named Airstream president and business continued to grow.
First Major Redesign
Airstream made its first major changes to the trailer design in 1969, giving it a face-lift as well as making structural changes. The new model was more luxurious inside, and with rounder edges featured a more streamlined look.
For the Astronauts
That same year marked the first visit to the moon. There was concern that the astronauts might return with some sort of space germ or other illness, so NASA worked with Airstream to build a Mobile Quarantine Facility where the Apollo 11 astronauts could rest comfortably until it was determined they could safely return to society. This special trailer featured living and sleeping quarters as well as a kitchen and bathroom. Astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins stayed in the MQF for 88 hours while it was flown back to Johnson Space Center in Houston.
In the early 1970s, Airstream decided to expand with a line of trailers that would carry many of the features associated with the iconic trailer but be available at a lower cost. The company established a separate assembly line with its own management and production teams and introduced the new Argosy line. Although Argosy trailers employed the same aluminum structure, they were made with a lower grade aluminum which was then painted.
Throughout his tenure at Airstream, Wally Byam had at various times considered building a motorhome but had never made the move. In 1974, Airstream decided it needed to expand its offerings from just trailers and introduced a motorhome on the Argosy line. Sales were never very high, and with the looming fuel crisis the entire Argosy line was shut down in 1979.
In 1980 the owners of Hi-Lo Trailers saw the growth in the trailer market and moved to take advantage of it. They started a new company called Thor Industries which in turn acquired Airstream. Airstream is still part of Thor Industries today.
Class A Motorhomes
After Airstream stopped producing models under the Argosy name, the brand introduced the Airstream Excella and International Class A Motorhomes in the same style as the aluminum trailers. Airstream would continue to build large RVs until the mid-2000s, when it would phase out the large purpose-built motorhomes in favor of van-based models.
In 1989 Airstream went a bit larger with the introduction of its first Fifth-Wheel design. At 35 feet long, this hefty travel trailer was only sold for that one year in rather small numbers, making it rather rare today.
In 1997 Airstream brought back the Safari — it had been discontinued after the 1970s. The Safari was less expensive than competitive models and lighter weight for easier towing. By the end of the 1990s about half of all Airstream trailers sold were Safaris.
Airstream celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2006, and in a testament to the longevity of the brand’s product, the company publicized that 65 percent of all Airstreams built were still on the road. This even included a few of the original models based on Wally Byam’s published plans before the factory even opened.
Around the time of its 75th anniversary, Airstream shifted away from the large RVs and began building Class B motorhomes based on the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van. The Interstate motorhome series continues to be produced today.
Small and Light
One of Airstream’s newest models is the entry-level Basecamp. Inspired by Wally Byam’s Torpedo from the 1930s, the Basecamp is compact, light and easy to tow while maintaining that signature Airstream quality. The original Basecamp was developed with Nissan Design America in 2007 — it was ideal for those with active lifestyles, but didn’t have a lot of amenities that typical travel trailer customers want, so only 200 were sold during its brief initial run.
Introduced in 2016, this small but versatile unit has a different look than the typical Airstream and, given its lower price compared to other offerings from the Ohio-based company, it was designed to bring a new clientele into the brand. Reflecting Airstream’s classic aluminum structure and skin, the Basecamp has high-quality materials and features throughout. The Basecamp can seat up to five people, but at the end of the day most guests will have to leave — the Basecamp sleeps two.
Early in 2018 Airstream introduced an all-new trailer — the Nest. A departure from the classic aluminum-skinned models on which Airstream built its reputation, the Nest is the company’s first modern-day fiberglass camper, although it is worth noting that Wally Byam built a few fiberglass protypes in the 1950s when the material was still relatively new. The small, lightweight Nest is designed for a younger crowd. “There’s really nothing else like it,” said Airstream President & CEO Bob Wheeler. “Nest acknowledges Airstream’s lasting legacy, while anticipating a new potential for outdoor adventure.”
It has been more than 80 years since Wally Byam created his first travel trailer on a Model T chassis, and Airstream is still going strong. Customers can choose from a range of trailers starting at the small Basecamp and topping out at the elegant 33-foot Classic. All still looking shiny in their iconic aluminum skin (except for the new Nest, of course). Or for those who prefer a motorhome, Airstream offers a full line of Interstate touring coaches, including the newest model — the entry-level Interstate Nineteen. Whatever adventure awaits, Airstream customers continue to depend on the iconic brand to innovate and create high-quality, enduring products for folks to get into the great outdoors.