Airstream Trailer

Jackson Center, Ohio | C.1931

Photo Credit: Lane Dittoe

The Airstream trailer was created by Wally Byam, a true visionary imbued with a fervent sense of adventure. He was born on Independence Day in 1896, in Baker City, a town along the Oregon Trail, when his grandparents had decided to tie up their wagon and mule on their westward search for a new life. Wally spent the early years of his upbringing working on a sheep farm, living in a wooden wagon equipped with a stove and all basic necessities—the genesis of his signature trailer.

By the late 1920s, Wally had married and was an avid camper, although his first wife was never as comfortable as he was sleeping on the ground. Always one to make things better, Wally fashioned a contraption that made it possible to place their tent atop his Model T. Though functional, it was not sufficiently weatherproof, and having to set it up anew each time wasn’t time-efficient, so he continued to tinker with the design. He switched out the tent for a covering shaped like a teardrop and, having already gone far, added a stove and ice chest, making it a proper trailer. So many passing travelers marveled at his model mini-home that Wally decided that mass-producing it might prove “a pretty good business to get into.”

After he was satisfied with his own setup, Wally published instructions for creating one’s own trailer in Popular Mechanics. Requests started pouring in to build trailers like the one parked in front of his home. By 1931, after receiving enough orders (not to mention noise complaints from neighbors), he opened Airstream’s first factory, in Culver City, California.

The Airstream trailers built there were—and still are—visually distinct, identified by its bright aluminum shell and rounded corners, lending to its silver bullet shape. The riveted aluminum panels that helped create the earliest trailers were made from material similar to what was used to build airplanes at the time.

Wally took adventure to the next level when he started shipping trailers across the ocean while acting as the principal organizer of Airstream Caravans, leading cavalcades of trailer-travelers on other continents, often in challenging terrain, for spans as long as six months.

Wally passed away in 1962 and did not witness the moon landing—or the role that his brainchild played in that historic event. Unsure of what chemicals the astronauts might be carrying home on them, NASA took every precaution: upon their return, the Apollo 11 trio were brought directly to an Airstream, which had been repurposed as a mobile quarantine unit. According to Airstream, NASA opted for the trailer based on its “aircraft-like construction, self-containment features, and high-quality living quarters that could withstand the rigors of transportation.”

The Airstream legacy lives on today in a number of ways, as Wally’s company continues innovating in his style, adding a range of enhanced models to the family. Embracing both the traditional and the alternative, adventurers have created waves of renewed demand for the vintage trailers, which owners decorate according to changing tastes.

Wally’s passion for bringing people together and igniting their enthusiasm for travel has also continued to be honored: the Wally Byam Caravan Club International, founded in the 1950s, holds rallies and continues to caravan widely. Enthusiasts wear identifying blue berets (just as Wally did) and adhere to their mis- sion to be “a diverse community of Airstream owners with a commitment to Fun, Fellowship and Adventure.”

It’s not hard to understand adherents’ fervor for this pioneer, especially when one reads the Creed and Code of Ethics left behind by the man himself. It begins:

In the heart of these words is an entire life’s dream. To those of you who find in the promise of these words your promise, I bequeath this creed…my dream belongs to you.

The code that follows helps one appreciate why Byam’s vision is timelessly appealing. Its tenets include:

• To open a whole world of new experiences…a new dimension in enjoyment where travel adventure and good fellowship are your constant companions.

• To lead caravans wherever the four winds blow… over twinkling boulevards, across trackless deserts…to the traveled and untraveled corners of the earth.

• To strive endlessly to stir the venturesome spirit that moves you to follow a rainbow to its end…and thus make your travel dreams come true.

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