Classic RVs: The History of the Airstream

Team OutdoorsyOctober 22, 2020

Classic RVs: The History of the Airstream

Exploring the great outdoors is the ultimate American pastime. For decades, folks of all ages have headed outside to take in the sounds, sights, and smells of the country’s mountains, forests, deserts, and beaches. The car culture, cross-country highways, and vast national park system make the United States the ideal location for setting out in a recreational vehicle. Today, over half a million Americans own RVs, and hundreds of thousands more rent them for their camping excursions and cross-country road trips.

There are several well-known names when it comes to RVs, but none are quite as iconic as Airstream. In the video above, you can hear YouTuber All About RVs talk about what, exactly, sets Airstreams apart. Between its distinct aluminum exterior and parts built to last, the RV manufacturer has made a name for itself since it started in 1931. Here’s how the Airstream rose to fame and became the RV we all know and love today.

Early Airstream History: The Outdoors Meets the Model T

Wally Byam is the man behind the Airstream company name, but before he was a CEO, he was a kid who loved fishing, sailing, and camping. In 1929, he built what many consider to be the very first official recreational vehicle by combining a tent and the chassis of a Model T Ford.

The tent had its flaws. It was hard to put together and didn’t offer any protection against the elements. So Byam went back to the drawing board, creating a permanent structure with a tear-drop shape. Improvements to the original design included a waterproof covering and basic interior appliances.

The original trailer designs were inspired by the sailboats that Byam had loved in his youth. His inspiration would set a trend that would shape future RV development all over the world.

Wally Byam vintage airstream
Wally in a promo photo sitting next to one of the earliest Airstream trailers.

Airstream Early Models

After generating interest from neighbors and friends who wanted him to build them their own travel trailer, Byam opened the first Airstream factory in Culver City, California in 1931.

The first Airstream models didn’t include that distinct silver bullet-style. The first camper was actually the Torpedo Car Cruiser, a small and very portable camper that any car could tow. Though Airstream would move on from this design, it served as an important place to springboard from. Today, aficionados of vintage RVs seek out this sleek, compact style. These early designs have also inspired similar modern models looking towards environmental sustainability.

When America entered World War II, an aluminum shortage combined with government orders caused recreational vehicle manufacturers to close. Many of the Airstream employees, including Wally Byam himself, went to work for aircraft factories. Their experiences there would eventually impact the design of the Airstream once they returned.

After the war, it wasn’t long before Airstream started manufacturing the silver bullet-style models like the Clipper. The bigger trailer could accommodate the first long haul caravan trips, many of which were led by Wally Byam himself. The medium size of the Clipper made it more ideal for families, groups, and longer voyages.

the airstream torpedo car cruiser
Wally and the Torpedo Car Cruiser.

Leading Innovation

All along the way, Airstream fostered innovation in RV manufacturing. For example, in 1954, Airstream worked with the Bowen Water Heater Co. to create the first hot water system in a trailer. Later, in 1958, Airstream developed the first “self-contained” travel trailer, paving the way for boondockers who truly wanted to explore off-grid. The next few decades saw growth and expansion.

The Airstream’s ability to push the envelope helped it land itself on lists like Money magazine’s “99 Things That, Yes, Americans Make Best” in the 1980s.

Michael Vallons Airstream
Nomad Mobile Motor Lodge Airstream for rent on Outdoorsy. Follow Nomad Mobile Motor Lodge on FB!

Airstream History Today

New models offer features that Wally would have only dreamed of back in the 1930s. Top of the line innovation like Smart Control Technology give campers a futuristic outdoor experience. The larger models offer all the luxury and accommodations that you’d want in a full-time living space, while small models are more nimble than ever before.

Vintage Airstream models are also highly sought after, and not just by collectors and restoration experts. There’s something about the original shiny chrome that speaks to people who love the open road. (Speaking of, you need to see Michael Vallen‘s incredible and ever-growing fleet of vintage trailers.)

The Airstream history has affected the conception of the RV lifestyle itself, polishing it into a trendy, even glamorous pursuit. It’s amazing to think that it all began with a car, a tent, and an ambitious dream.

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