Today Airstream trailers are incredibly popular, easily recognizable, and well known for their incredible quality and luxurious craftsmanship. They are also one of the oldest camper trailer manufacturers in the country, with a rich and fascinating history!
1920’s – The Beginning
Wally Byam, born July 4th 1896, was the original Airstreamer. His grandparents had travelled west in mule drawn wagon along the Oregan Trail until they stopped in a boom town that would later would become Wallys birthplace, Baker City.
Wally grew up working on a sheep farm, and much like his grandparents, he lived in a wooden wagon towed by a donkey. This would later inspire his first travel trailer.
In 1921 Wally graduated from Stanford college and was working in journalism, advertising and publishing. He would camp with his first wife Marion and her dislike of sleeping on the hard ground of a tent pushed him to build his first contraption on top of a Model T Chassis. It was terrible to put together and leaked in the rain, so in 1929 Wally reengineered his previous design into a teardrop shaped permanent trailer, complete with a stove and an ice chest!
This new design caught the eye of many travelers and it was not long before his neighbor’s began to ask Wally if he could build them a trailer to go camping with. Wally began building trailers from home, but noise complaints quickly followed. In 1931, Wally rented a small building and opened Airstream’s first small trailer factory in Culver City, California!
1940’s – World War II
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, aluminum became very difficult to find. The government ordered that travel trailers could only be made as part of the war effort and Wally had to stop Airstream production for the duration of the war. Airstream crew members found employment in various aircraft factories across California during this time, and the experience of working with military planes inspired and improved the engineering of future Airstream design.
In 1947 after the war had come to a close, Wally travelled to Europe to tour the war ravaged land inside of an Airstream. Wally used this trip to road test the trailer for weaknesses and possible improvements, and used the information he found to redesign and improve future Airstreams.
1950’s and 1960’s
In 1951 Wally Byam and a group of friends decided to travel from Texas to Nicaragua. The Los Angeles Times picked up this story, and encouraged other Airstreamers to join. 63 adventurous campers showed with their caravans on the day of departure, but the old fashioned caravans were no match for the trek. Many travelers dropped out early, and only 14 completed the trip. Wally stated that he would never do it again.
In 1952 Airstream had outgrown its Los Angeles plant and needed to expand. Wally traveled east and spent the summer scouting locations across the Midwest before finding a factory in Jackson Center, Ohio. Over 65 years later Airstream is still manufacturing trailers in the Jackson Center.
In 1954, Wally convinced Mark Bowen of Bowen Water Heater Co. to develop the first hot water system ever inside a trailer. The 1958 Airstream International was developed as the first ever “self contained” travel trailer, and with new capabilities Airstreams could go even further than before.
July 22, 1962, the legendary Wally Byam lost his battle with cancer, and left behind an Airstream company at its peak. Art Costello became Airstreams new president, with Andy Charles as Chairman of Airstreams board.
In 1969 the Airstream was given its first major redesign. The end result was a trailer with rounder edges that gave it todays popular “silver bullet” shape!
Another major milestone in 1969 was of course, mans first visit to the moon! NASA was fearful of whatever unknown diseases and maladies the astronauts would bring back from space, so they decided the Apollo 11 trio would be quarantined on return.
Airstream was tasked with constructing the “mobile quarantine facility” that was taken to the USS Hornet once it landed to greet Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins.
Up until the 70’s, Airstream exclusively manufactured travel trailers only. However, leadership wanted to avoid being entirely dependent on one product, and so the Argosy motorhome was born in 1974. The line was discontinued by 1979, but the Argosy was the first step that later lead to the design of the Classic motorhome, the Land Yacht, and the Interstate touring coach!
In 1980 Wade Thompson and Peter Orthwein formed Thor Industries, and acquired Airstream. The association continues to this day, over 30 years later.
By 1987 the Airstream trailer had become a true American icon. The Money magazine even chose Airstream as one of “99 Things That, Yes, Americans Make The Best” alongside other American famous brands such as Coca-Cola and Heinz ketchup.
The 2000’s and 2010’s
The launch of the Interstate Touring Coach in 2004 was a huge milestone for Airstream motorhomes. The Class B RV’s built on a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van chassis had the capacity to seat several people and still feel like a motorhome with a full bath and kitchen.
Airstream celebrated its 75th birthday in 2006. The company’s longevity is clearly reflected in its products, because in 2006 65% of the Airstreams that had been built since Wally Byam’s first trailer were still on the road!
As RVing and camping continued to grow in popularity, so did the number of people searching for all the comforts of home without requiring an expensive, powerful tow vehicle. To accommodate travelers needs Airstream added two small and nimble travel trailers to their travel trailer family – The Basecamp and the Nest.
In 2018 Airstream introduced Smart Control Technology, a system that pairs with an app to allow users to monitor and adjust many features inside and outside of the trailer!
2018 was also the year they built the new 750,000 square foot headquarters in Ohio. These new headquarters gave Airstream more space, more tools, and more storage so they can prioritize the quality and craftsmanship they are known for!
All information and picture credit to Airstream.
Functional, flexible, and filled with modern comfort and convenience, Airsteams new Rangeline Class B touring coach is ready to hit the road and make the most of todays travel reality.