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AIRSTREAM TRAILERS are iconic elements of transportation design. More than several years ago, I attended a gathering of Airstream and other travel trailers in Newport Beach, California. This photographic gallery is based on that gathering, which got me interested in learning more, which in turn added yet another book to my collection.
In 1927, Wally Byam set a tent on a Ford Model T chassis. It was a failure. His next attempt was a slab-sided teardrop shape (a “canned-ham” among trailer enthusiasts). This time, he published a magazine article, How to Build a Trailer for One Hundred Dollars, and expanded the article into a set of instructions sold for $1 apiece.
Byam earned more than $15,000 from this and, in 1931, he formed the Airstream Trailer Company in Los Angeles, California.
Meanwhile, in 1927, a fledgling San Diego aircraft manufacturer, Ryan Airlines, was commissioned by Charles A. Lindbergh to build an airplane for a solo Atlantic flight. The superintendent of construction for the NYP (as in “New York to Paris”) Monoplane was a fellow named Hawley Bowlus.
Gliders were Hawley’s real love. In fact, he taught soaring to Charles and Anne Lindbergh, was destined to hold several records in the sport and earned induction into the Soaring Hall of Fame in 1954.
Back in the early 1930s, though, Bowlus applied his aircraft fabrication knowledge to travel trailers. Unlike the wood-framed canned-hams, his were semi-monocoque structures of aluminum. They were also expensive to build—and it was the Great Depression.
Reenter Wally Byam, who, in 1936, introduced the Airstream Clipper. The Clipper name was cribbed from the newly inaugurated Pan American China Clipper seaplane service. The trailer differed from the Bowlus design in many subtle features, but primarily in its door location, on the side, not the front.
Any travel trailer business was hardly Great Depression-proof, and World War II knocked them off completely. By 1948, however, Wally was back in business, first in California, then expanding to Jackson Center, Ohio. The last California production wasn’t until 1979.
Byam loved to caravan with Airstream owners, out of which evolved the Wally Byam Caravan Club International. Indeed, it’s the WBCCI that issues the numbers often sported on the front of Airstreams, lower numbers having obvious cachet.
On returning from a European caravan in 1958, Byam built an ultra-short Airstream, quickly dubbed Der Kleine Prinz. The Little Prince is an only-child, this one-off the pride of an Airstream enthusiast who, paradoxically, is 6’ 3” tall. The trailer, its box 6 ft. wide by 10 ft. in length, is equipped with a 3-burner stove, fridge, bed, heater, toilet and shower.
Over the years, Airstream has added motorhomes to its product line. NASA, for instance, uses several of these to transport astronauts. And, in fact, when the Apollo 11, 12 and 14 crews returned from the moon, they spent 21-day quarantines within specially modified airtight Airstream trailers.
Wally Byam set a high standard for his Airstreams: “My lovely old grandmother might tow to the middle of the Gobi Desert, there to live in gracious metropolitan luxury without reloading, refueling, recharging or regretting.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013
Actually Hawley Bowlus did not sell his company to Wally Byam. Hawley started manufacturing riveted aluminum travel trailers in 1934 and continued until September 1936. According to Ruth Bowlus ( Hawley’s wife) Wally Byam was a salesperson for Bowlus trailers during 1935. In late 1935 Wally Byam developed his first aluminum trailer – the Airstream Clipper whose shape resembled the Bowlus Road Chief. Airstream launched in January 1936, as a direct competitor to Bowlus during most of 1936. Byam closed Airstream in December 1937 and sold off his equipment at a sale advertised in the LA Times. Interestingly, Hawley built about 80 trailers while it is estimated Airstream produced about 25 aluminum trailers in the pre-war period.
Thanks, John, for your clarification. Learning more about the original Bowlus design, I see as well that its door was in the front, not the rear as I originally had. I have corrected this as well.
Other readers are encouraged to learn about your company’s latter-day Bowlus Road Chief travel trailer; see http://www.bowlusroadchief.com.
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