1979 Airstream International Sovereign trailer
1979 Airstream International Sovereign trailer; photo by Bill Vance. Click image to enlarge

By Bill Vance

Airstream trailers could be called Monarchs of the Highway, majestic silver, zeppelin-shaped land yachts that trek from coast to coast or to camps on sandy beaches, the Great Plains or the Rocky Mountains.

With the rising popularity of motor vehicles in the twentieth century, house trailers were soon being towed behind cars and trucks. As enthusiasm for camping grew, dedicated organisations formed, one of the earliest being the Tin Can Tourists club established in 1919 for leisure travellers who used trailers, motor homes and even tents. These fostered a special camaraderie among their enthusiastic members by organizing tours and rallies.

In the 1920s trailoring caught the interest of a young Californian named Wally Byam. After a stint in the merchant marine he had graduated from Stanford University in law but never practiced. Instead, he was attracted to advertising, formed his own agency and did some publishing. In the 1920s one of his magazines carried a submitted article on how to build your own travel trailer.
This led to many reader complaints, so Wally built a trailer himself using the plans. Sure enough, he found the criticisms valid, so he developed his own plans and built a trailer. This was such a success that Wally was soon getting offers to buy it. He sold it and built another one, and also offered his design to the public. By the late 1920s he was selling many sets of plans and building more and more trailers behind his Los Angeles home. When business outgrew this arrangement Byam moved the operation to its own building.

Wally established the Airstream Trailer Co. in 1931. His trailers were well built, but still followed the conventional tear-drop profile, not the characteristic streamlined shaped for which the Airstream would later become famous.

In the 1930s, Byam became associated with aircraft constructor and mechanic Hawley Bowlus. Among other things Bowlus had designed the Spirit of St. Louis, the single engine airplane that Charles Lindbergh flew the first solo trans-oceanic flight that went from Long Island, New York to Paris. Bowlus was now manufacturing rounded aluminum travel trailers using aircraft principles to create a light-weight stressed-skin monocoque type body. When Bowlus’s company suffered financial difficulties Byam took it over. In 1936 he introduced the Airstream Clipper travel trailer based on the Bowlus design, but with the door moved from the front to the side.

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