There’s masses of information online about the history of Airstreams, and therefore little point us regurgitating that here, so think of this as more of a bluffer’s guide to help you sound knowledgeable about Airstreams! All you really need to remember though is the name “Wally Byam” – the “father” of Airstreams.
It all started in the late 1920s, when Wally Byam made a travel trailer for himself and his wife to go camping. Several modifications later, he decided to start marketing this commercially in the form of a DIY trailer kit, while at the same time working as a salesman for trailer designer William Hawley Bowlus. When Bowlus went bankrupt in 1935, Byam bought the company at auction, and in 1936 launched the Airstream Clipper – so-named because he thought it moved down the road like a “stream of air”, and also closely resembled the fuselage of the Pan Am Clipper aeroplane.
In 1948, Airstream Trailers Incorporated was declared open for business in a small factory near Van Nuys airport in California, followed by expansion to the East Coast with a larger production facility in Jackson Center, Ohio, where production still continues today. Over the years the designs have changed, but continue to be based on the original concept of an interior and exterior skins of aluminium stretched over a lightweight aluminium frame, to provide exceptional rigidity; between the two skins is a layer of insulation to ensure the trailers stay warm in winter, and cool in summer.
Most of the changes that have been made reflect improvements to production methods, using techniques that were not possible when the original Airstreams were produced. The most noticeable of these is in what can be done with the shaping of aluminium – in the early days, it wasn’t possible to curve aluminium in two dimensions, so to create the curved streamlined Airstream shape, it was necessary to rivet together several panels so that the curve was formed at the joints. It’s actually very interesting to see how the Airstream designs map the improvements in manufacturing techniques over time – up to the late 1950s, the curved front and rear roof sections comprised 13 essentially flat panels, in 1959 these were replaced by 7 slightly curved panels, then by the mid 1960s it had become possible to bend / mould aluminium in all sorts of dimensions, so it was only necessary to use 3 or 4 sections.
With peoples’ current love of all things ‘retro’ though, the original 13-panel Airstreams are viewed by many to be the most desirable, and to some extent everything has now come full circle, as the original Bowlus Chief has been reincarnated in the form of the Bowlus Road Chief shown here:-