Trucks & Heavy Equipment | 12 May 2016The Birth of the Classic Airstream Share article facebook twitter google pinterest Airstream trailers are icons of American freedom. The romance of traveling the country’s roads and forests, either alone or with family, has beckoned countless free spirits out of their homes, thanks greatly to the innovation and dogged determination of Wallace “Wally” Byman. The airstream trailer as we know it today, with its sleek, aerodynamic design was born in 1937 out of innovation and eyes focused on the future, and remains the guiding light for the company even today. In Airstream: America’s World Traveler Patrick Foster tells the tail of Byman’s life and the company he built starting from when it was just the dream of a man who loved to be outdoors. Here we see how the design for the classic airstream came to be, and how the whole world knew very quickly that the future could be hitched to their rear bumper. With the purchase of the Bowlus-Teller design and equipment, the look and feel of what was to become the iconic “silver slipstream” Airstream trailer began to take shape. Wally hired some of the Bowlus-Teller employees, primarily those experienced in the special construction techniques for building the advanced trailers, and set to work redesigning the Road Chief to incorporate his own ideas. His first goal was to address design problems. For one thing, the Road Chief’s entry door was situated at the very front of the trailer, making ingress and egress difficult. A person had to step over the trailer hitch, which could be challenging, even dangerous, in the dark. In addition, the front-end door didn’t allow for what Wally felt was the best floor plan inside. As his first step in refining Bowlus’s design, Wally moved the entry door to the side of the vehicle, the same placement he’d always used on his own designs. This change required a minor redesign of the frame underneath. Always innovative, Wally also installed lightweight Seapak insulation into the dead space between the interior and exterior walls, creating a better insulated, much quieter interior, one that stayed warmer in cool weather and cooler in hot weather, all without a significant increase in trailer weight. This addition was a material improvement over the Road Chief trailer and made the new Airstream more comfortable in all kinds of weather. This was an innovation that made the trailer more likely to be used regularly by its owner than another brand of trailer. As a trailer enthusiast himself, that was one of the most important things to Wally—he designed his trailers for people to use as they traveled the country, not admiring their trailer safely parked in the driveway. In those years, a new Ford two-door sedan could be purchased for as little as $520. The redesigned, reengineered Road Chief trailer, priced at a lofty $1,200, was introduced to the market in 1936 as the Airstream Clipper, borrowing the name of the world-famous Pan Am Clipper luxury flying boats. These large luxury airplanes were designed to travel anywhere and land even where there were no runways. The mighty Pan Am Clippers were one of the wonders of their day, and associating Airstream with them was a clever marketing move. The Bowlus-Teller Road Chief had been a highend product, and Wally decided to keep it that way by building as much luxury into the Airstream Clipper as possible. The new Clipper featured a steel-framed dinette that converted into a bed and fancy electric lights placed throughout the cabin. The Clipper also boasted elegant, cedar-lined closets, an enclosed galley, and full ventilation along with one of Wally’s better ideas—dry-ice air conditioning. The Clipper even carried its own water supply, unusual for the time. Like the Road Chief, the Airstream Clipper was constructed of aluminum alloy sheets riveted to a tubular framework. Although using rivets was more costly and difficult than nails and screws, the latter tended to loosen up and cause rattles and wind noise. To create a larger, more inviting interior, the Clipper had asymmetrical ends with a smoothly rounded front and an aerodynamically sloped rear. The Clipper was large and roomy, with a pleasant interior boasting a row of windows on the side that provided natural light inside while also giving it the look of a modern airliner sans wings. All in all, Wally’s Clipper was a significant improvement over the Road Chief. Its price was certainly an eye opener, but Wally was aiming his latest Airstream at the premium end of the market. Unlike Bowlus, however, Wally had a full line of lower-priced trailers with which to maintain the basic production volume he needed to cover his overhead, so he was able to sell the Clipper at a nice profit and didn’t have to try selling them in unrealistically high numbers. His Clipper was a logical addition to the Airstream line, giving people a more expensive model to aspire to and to trade up for. Wally’s new Airstream Clipper created a sensation wherever it went and, despite its premium price tag, he soon found himself with a tidy backlog of orders on hand. As his own advertisements boasted, the new Airstream Clipper was “sleek, dashing-svelte daringly new, modern in the extreme. It is the ultimate picturization of the streamlined age, so perfect that at speeds above fifty miles an hour the car that tows it uses no more gasoline than it does without the trailer.” Even Wally must have been surprised, however, when the president of Mexico, Señor Lazaro Cardenas, ordered a specially built 22-foot Clipper in 1936. Deciding to personally handle the delivery of the special trailer, Wally and Marion towed it from the factory in Los Angeles to El Paso, Texas, where Mexican government representatives met the couple and took possession of the new trailer. Apparently President Cardenas was very pleased with his purchase; when Wally and Marion visited Mexico City some time later, he made sure that they were entertained royally. A large part of the new Airstream’s undying appeal was the sheer, ultramodern appearance of the thing. Here was the very latest in exterior design, airplane construction, and aircraft aesthetics wrapped around the most luxurious of interiors, all ready to travel the open road at a moment’s notice. So sleek, so modern was the Airstream Clipper that it still looks great today. In fact, the family resemblance to today’s modern Airstream is so strong that a 1937 Airstream could easily be mistaken for a 2016 Airstream. That’s a level of continuity in design rarely seen in a product created for the road. But it’s at the heart of Airstream’s enduring beauty and attraction. Buy from an Online Retailer US: UK: Iconic, aluminum-bodied Airstream trailers have been around for 85 years–get the full story in this photo-rich book. Airstream is America’s best and oldest manufacturer of travel trailers, and those retro silver coaches are iconic on America’s highways. Representative of the age-old desire to explore, these trailers are unmistakable in design with distinctive aerodynamic rounded lines and an aluminum outer skin. Airstream: America’s World Traveler celebrates the eight decades since the first Airstream graced America’s highways. Airstream chronicles the fascinating history of Airstream trailers through a detailed history, stories, and beautiful photography. Although its roots stretch back to 1926, the first Airstream-brand trailers were introduced in 1936, just as America was emerging from the dark days of the Great Depression. Of the 400 travel-trailer manufacturers of that era, only Airstream survived. Dubbed the “Airstream Clipper” after the first trans-Atlantic seaplane, the 1936 Airstream featured a unique lightweight aluminum body that cut down on wind resistance, improved fuel efficiency, and made for easier towing. It slept four, carried its own water supply, was fitted with electric lights, and cost $1,200. The Airstream provided travelers with a way to see the world at their leisure and in solid comfort. It was the perfect vehicle for a country emerging from a long struggle. In the eight decades since that first Airstream, the company has produced some of the finest trailers in the world and gained a worldwide reputation as the Rolls-Royce of travel trailers. The Airstream story is one of travel, adventure, and memories that last a lifetime. Share article facebook twitter google pinterest If you have any comments on this article please contact us or get in touch via social media.