How the Airstream Hit the Open Road

This space-age sensation kicked the American road trip into high gear

acrylic painting captures the glistening promise of a 1960s Airstream
This 2014 acrylic painting by Taralee Guild captures the glistening promise of a 1960s Airstream at Pismo Beach, California. Taralee Guild

In the late 1920s, an ambitious young Stanford grad named Wally Byam found himself in booming Los Angeles, far from the rural Oregon of his youth, where he and his family had been happy, and frequent, campers. Byam, a magazine publisher, couldn’t wait to ditch his suit and tie to go camping on days off, but his wife proved less enthusiastic about sleeping on the dewy ground. He devised a compromise, elevating their tent on a wooden platform that sat atop the chassis from an old Ford Model T; the Byams’ own car then towed the tent-laden contraption. “I guess we looked like an itinerant patent-medicine show,” he’d later tell a reporter. “But it worked.”

So Byam kept tinkering, building a teardrop-shaped trailer out of plywood as a sturdier substitute for the tent, with room for an icebox and a kerosene cooking stove. When the couple began pulling this trailer with their Dodge, the setup continued to draw considerable attention on the road—and Byam, ever the entrepreneur, saw an opportunity amid all that gawking. Familiar with the power of print, he took out magazine ads that sold blueprints for do-it-yourself trailers. The timing worked out well, as his own publishing business began drying up after the 1929 stock market crash, and when a neighbor asked Byam to build him a camper, the inventor went one step further, ditching backyard tinkering to open a small factory in Culver City, California, in 1931. The result was a triumph of design and marketing, and it helped create the very idea of the modern road trip.

Byam gave his trailers the name Airstream, boasting they rode as smoothly as “a stream of air” and sold more than 1,000 by the spring of 1932. In early 1936, after further experimentation and inspired by the lightweight aluminum Road Chief trailers developed by engineer Hawley Bowlus, he pivoted from plywood to selling the aluminum-clad Airstream Clipper. Starting at $1,200—a bit under $27,000 in today’s money, and more than twice the price of its predecessors—it was a luxury trailer with room for four people to sleep and dine. It even boasted onboard water tanks that paired well with the Clipper’s futuristic metallic sheen, riveted aluminum shell and streamlined, aerodynamic shape with gentler curves than previous models. The design cannily evoked the glamour of aviation—as did the name, nodding to Pan American World Airways’ celebrated new China Clipper plane. Soon, Byam’s advertisements were trading on the same association: “An airplane without wings,” a 1937 newspaper ad proclaimed the Clipper. “Luxurious in the extreme.”

The company soon had 75 employees working 18 hours per day to meet demand, touting sales to Hollywood stars and even the president of Mexico. Production came to a halt during World War II, when aluminum restrictions led Byam to close his shop and begin working at a plant making actual aircraft for the war effort. But in the postwar boom, Airstream saw its true heyday, as middle-class Americans took to the road, many directly inspired by Byam and his creation.

“Your home is wherever your wheels come to a stop,” wrote Byam in Fifth Avenue on Wheels, a 1953 road-trip guide that emphasized the Manhattan-worthy luxury that Airstream offered, including such pacifying comforts as shock absorbers and modern stoves, which Byam cheerfully extolled throughout the volume.

Byam remained a tireless tinkerer, user and promoter of his own product, even leading a series of Airstream caravans around the world. These began with a 1951 drive south from the U.S.-Mexico border to Managua, Nicaragua, where they were heartily greeted by the country’s president. The more globe-trotting caravaners arranged to load their Airstreams onto cargo ships and crossed the ocean for Europe and beyond, sometimes posing the trailers near the Pyramids of Giza and near Moscow’s Red Square. The groups had a tradition of camping in concentric circles—a cross between an Old West wagon formation and a suburban subdivision, often complete with pink plastic lawn flamingos—and wore matching blue berets that suggested a rolling fraternal lodge. From a 1956 trip that saw travelers ditch trailers for gondolas in Venice to a Byam-led voyage that arrived in Cairo in 1960, stories with vivid photo spreads of gleaming, American-made Airstreams alongside ancient wonders appeared in magazines like Life and National Geographic.

airstream campers lined up in front of a Pyramid at Giza near Cairo in 1960
A group of American Airstream enthusiasts make camp at the Pyramids at Giza near Cairo in 1960. Alamy

Byam died in 1962, but Airstreams sold steadily throughout the 1960s, as improvements in such features as trailer toilets—designed by avid Airstream traveler (and future Porta Potti inventor) Frank Sargent—allowed travelers to explore the growing interstate highway system and to skip motels without sacrificing hygiene. A modified Airstream even served as temporary home to the Apollo 11 astronauts upon their return from the moon, keeping them comfortable—and quarantined—until certified free from potential lunar germs.

But in the 1970s and ’80s, rising gas prices and growing air travel put a major damper on sales. The company tried to diversify with mixed success, introducing lower-priced trailers and even, in 1981, an Airstream funeral coach. (The idea was for mourners to ride together alongside the casket, in lieu of a multi-car funeral procession.) Still, the caravans kept rolling, flamboyantly so: Sargent organized one headline-grabbing trip to China in 1985. And the optimistic 1990s saw an Airstream resurgence, as nostalgia—and a larger middle class than at any previous time in U.S. history—drew buyers to vintage Airstreams, and to newer models that still shared the signature Aviation Age aesthetic, evoking the optimism of an era when the road trip itself was still new.

Today, as remote work makes domestic travel more accessible than ever, the Airstream represents the future that Byam predicted. The comforts of the 21st century are new, but the draw of the road has not diminished.

Editors note, May 21, 2024: This article was updated to mention the aluminum Bowlus Road Chief trailer that provided inspiration for the Airstream.

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This article is a selection from the June 2024 issue of Smithsonian magazine

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