*Between America's coasts is The Great Wide Open, mile upon mile of prairie land, deserts, mountains and forests, from sea to shining sea. And deep in the American spirit is that hunger for exploration, to cross the next frontier. That's why the Airstream trailer could only have come from the U.S. of A. The man behind Airstream's success was Wallace Merle Byam, born on the fourth of July (in 1896) and commonly referred to as Wally.
At various times, Byam was a lawyer, in the merchant marine, ran an advertising agency and published magazines. One of those magazines ran a feature on home-built trailers. Readers complained that the plans were wrong. So Byam set about constructing one that would work. From masonite and plywood, he made a teardrop-shaped trailer which he called the Torpedo. It was basic, but it had one particular innovation. The floor was dropped between the wheels, effectively creating more headroom and allowing occupants to stand up straight while inside. This was around 1933. In 1936 came the Clipper, a futuristic-looking trailer with aero-efficient lines and a gleaming riveted aluminum monocoque body. An icon was born. America was just coming out of the Depression, more people had cars and Byam wanted to provide a high-quality yet lightweight trailer that could be pulled by a normal family sedan. The Clipper could hold four berths, had a tubular steel-framed dinette and an enclosed galley, carried its own water supply, had ventilation and insulation, and even used dry ice for a form of air conditioning. Although an expensive item at $1,200, it sold well. More than 300 trailer-making companies existed in the U.S. in the '30s. The only one to survive was Airstream.
And then came the Second World War. Airstream shut down its operations as every sheet of aluminum and each rivet went into making military aircraft. But the post-war years saw another boom time for a revitalized Airstream. Construction expanded from California to Ohio in 1952 and the model range grew. A community of enthusiasts has developed around the Airstream. These people are called Airstreamers and there are several parks in the United States specifically for them. It all started when Byam, showing a remarkable sophistication when it came to marketing, took owners on organized trips to various places throughout the world, getting his products photographed at famous tourist spots. He wrote that he created the Airstream "to place the great wide world at your doorstep for you who yearn to travel with all the comforts of home." The first-ever caravan left for Central America in 1951. The Wally Byam Caravan Club International was formed in 1955, the same year that the American military used an Airstream during A-bomb tests. In '59, Byam even ran a caravan the length of the African continent, from Cape Town to Cairo. Plans are afoot to recreate this event in 2009. When Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins returned from their historic Apollo 11 moonshot, they were quarantined in a specially modified, airtight Airstream trailer. JFK used one as his mobile presidential office. Others have been converted into guest houses, offices, art studios, even a movie theater. Byam never went for planned obsolescence. His approach was: "Let's not make any changes-let's make only improvements." Hence, over 60 percent of Airstreams ever made are still on the road. Indeed, they're considered to be heirlooms; one Overlander model has taken four generations of the same family on their summer vacations. The company now makes the Safari, DWR (Design Within Reach), International and Classic Limited, with sizes ranging from 16 to 34 feet, selling around 2,000 trailers and motorhomes a year. Modern examples have an independent torsion axle for greater control. They're still at the pricey end of the market. A Safari Sport goes for about $31,000 and bigger models can cost nearer to $70,000. But factoring in their longevity, the 20 percent saving on fuel over a typical box-type trailer and strong residual values, ownership costs might still be considered reasonable. There's also the joy of having one. The design still works-simultaneously part of its environment while looking like an Art Deco spacecraft. When describing the Airstream's reflective silvery skin, the corporate website says: "At the beach you get the blue; in the woods you get the green."