The following is an article in the Huffington Post profiling Airstream Inc. as it marks its 80th anniversary. To view a slide show of the iconic brand click here.
The Airstream recreational vehicle, all curves and chrome, was originally designed to evoke the open road and the aviation age. Hawley Bowlus, the man who created the brand’s toaster-over-in-a-wind-tunnel look was also the chief designer of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. His America was all about going places and the Airstream was intended to be both a way to get there and a way to stay.
Over the years, the vehicles have gone from being associated with innovation to being of a piece with thrift store Americana — what Instagram is to cameras, Airstream is to vehicles — yet, in 1932 when company founder Wally Byam was just moving beyond tinkering in his back yard, he was engaging with a very modern notion: Mobility is the ultimate luxury.
The irony, of course, is that a company catering to Americans’ travel yen has itself been nothing if not stationary. The popular vehicles are still manufactured in Jackson Center, Ohio and their names still betray these roots. Buyers can choose between Sport, Flying Cloud and Classic Limited models. There is also an International, but that seems almost antithetical to the whole endeavor.
Despite its proud middle-American sensibility and heritage, Airstreams have always been more than middle class kitsch. They helped ferry generations of children and parents to beaches and wild places. They may not have conquered the West, but they certainly made it more accessible, allowing the denizens of America’s growing suburbs to get back into the outdoors. If Airstreams now look tiny next to the rolling mansions being offered by recreational vehicle manufacturers, there is a reason: They were designed to help us get away, not to help us schlep everything along with us.
Eighty years later, an Airstream in the driveway still means one foot out the door, an American stance if ever there was one.
The types of people and where they travel on a Wally Byam Caravan, like the one that stopped in Helena, Mont., recently, are as different as the variety of styles of Airstreams they drive, but nearly all have one thing in common: they all camped in a tent once.
Times have changed for these friendly, travel-loving campers who believe that as we age, our bodies need more amenities like water and electricity, as well as some cushion under the covers, the Helena Independent Record reported.
“We were once flat on the ground, until our bones needed a pad or a blow-up,” said Phil Glassey, wagonmaster for the caravan of about 50 Airstreams on the National Landmarks Caravan, which started in Hardin, Mont., in early July and will end some 45 days later in Arcata, Calif.
Participants wear name tags that include their hometowns, making it apparent that Airstream zealots come from all over — New Jersey, North Carolina, and Ontario, Canada.
Cecil and Kathryn Childers are from Corpus Christi, Texas. Cecil retired from psychiatry two weeks before they set out on their first caravan tour. Kathryn was one of the first female agents in the U.S. Secret Service, has hosted her own television show and most recently started a publishing company.
Bob and Nancy Russell are from Diamondale, Mich. Bob is retired from the state’s highway department. The couple began Airstreaming 30 years ago and have done 25 trips.
John and Cissy Thibadeau are native Atlantans and have been married 42 years. Cissy is a retired teacher who still substitutes when she can. John is a mechanical engineer who spent four years on active duty in the Navy nuclear submarine program. He started a real estate company, development and construction company. Today, he manages investment properties and tries to work one day a week, unless a better opportunity to play golf or tennis comes along.
The group visited Montana’s capital city about 10 days into the trip and set up camp at the Lincoln Road RV Park. During their first group outing, they enjoyed a wagon-train dinner ride at the Last Chance Ranch, 9 miles south of town up Grizzly Gulch. The next morning they headed north to ride the tour boat through the Gates of the Mountains and visited the Historical Society in the afternoon.
They traveled in their Airstreams north to Great Falls and are scheduled to be in Glacier National Park this week. From there, they’ll head west to Washington, then south through Oregon and end in California.
Airstreams were first officially made under the name in 1934; each trailer was custom-made because developer Wally Byam didn’t have a production line. In 1936, Byam built a riveted aluminum shell that looks similar to modern models.
In 1942, the War Production Board ordered the manufacturing of house trailers to be halted, except when making them for government purposes. When the war was over and the ban lifted, Byam struggled to get his business going for lack of capital.
There were two Airstream factories in 1952, one in Van Nuys, Calif., and another in Jackson Center, Ohio, where the corporate office is today.
During the following 10 years, the company grew. Byam and his wife, Stella, led every caravan between the winter if 1951 and the spring of 1960.
The Wally Byam Caravan Club is now one of the largest clubs in trailering. There are currently 19 planned caravan tours listed on its website.
It’s not a requirement to be retired, but because the trips are sometimes months long, it helps.
The only person not at or nearing retirement age on the caravan is 11-year-old Michaela Heese, of Arkansas, who was spending time with her grandparents, Florene and Selwyn Heese.
The trip appealed to the soon to be seventh-grader because, she said with a giggle, it got her away from her three brothers.
Michaela didn’t seem to mind not having access to video games, a cell phone or online chatting with friends. She was happy enough to test her creativity by taking pictures using a red Vivitar.
“I loved going to Yellowstone because I saw stuff I haven’t seen before,” she said.
Kathryn Childers says part of the charm of the caravan is the pets that accompany the group.
“Everyone brings their animals,” she said.
When entering the Childers’ 25-foot Airstream with pink flamingos painted on the side and chili pepper lights strung outside, Ellie, the happy cocker spaniel, greets you at the door. When it’s time to travel to the next stop along the way, Ellie is even buckled in a seat belt before they push off.
Kathryn says traveling the country was a “bucket list” item.
“I wanted to get it done before I’m not able,” the vivacious author said.
Visiting new places with an Airstream was more appealing than traveling by plane, staying in hotels and renting cars, she said.
“It’s like every night you go home,” Kathryn said.
Many say it’s nice to have the trip organized by someone else.
Glassey, an outdoor enthusiast and mountain climber from Olympia, Wash., is just that person on this particular trip. He’s been Airstreaming for the past decade, and started leading caravans in 2008. It’s his job to organize and plan the entire trip, not to mention be the “go to” guy for everything.
An Airstream caravan will likely become an annual tradition for Bernie and Doris Goldstein and Tom and Nancy Harrington, who have been close friends since 1965, when they were neighbors in Bakersfield, Calif.
Today the Harringtons reside in Sunlakes, Ariz., and the Goldsteins in Ventura, Calif., but they’ve managed to plan a trip together nearly every year since they first met. They can’t remember ever having an argument.
“We just stay together long enough not to get in an argument,” Nancy said.
The Goldsteins got their Airstream first, but it wasn’t long before the Harrington’s got the bug and joined them.
Nancy says that when she thinks about the Airstream caravan, the word “hospitality” comes into her mind, followed by “fun, fellowship and adventure.”
Oregon consistently ranks among the top five states for sales of Airstream travel trailers, the aluminum “spaceship on wheels” that launched America’s love affair with the open road 80 years ago. And it’s done so without a metro-area dealer, according to OregonLive.com.
That’s changed with the recent arrival of the region’s first authorized seller, and comes amid a thawing economy and an industry in resurgence. Nationally, RV shipments are projected to jump 39% year, to 215,900, from 2009.
“We have about all the business we can handle,” says Parker Johnstone, co-owner of Airstream Adventures Northwest, which opened recently in Milwaukie. “It speaks to the quality and reputation of Airstream.”
It also speaks to the culture of the Portland area, said Airstream chief executive Bob Wheeler, in town this week to tour the dealership. “You love outdoor adventure, and you appreciate design and sustainability,” he said. “The stars are perfectly aligned.”
The recreational vehicle industry was hit hard during the recession, and Airstream was no exception. From mid-2007 to mid-2009, sales plunged as dealers sold off inventory and didn’t reorder, Wheeler said.
But with the economy picking up, consumers are coming back.
“There’s a lot of pent-up demand,” Wheeler said. As the economy tanked, people postponed buying, “But they never gave up on the lifestyle.”
Airstream traces back to 1929, when founder Wally Byam began building trailers in his backyard in Los Angeles. Byam loved traveling since childhood, when he used to accompany his grandfather, a mule train leader, on trips to Oregon.
He purchased a bankrupt trailer manufacturer and, in 1936, introduced the Airstream Clipper, the first of the now iconic round-shouldered aluminum trailers. He was a master promoter, often organizing caravans of trailers in exotic locales. In one highly publicized event in 1959, he led a group of 41 Airstreams on a 14,000-mile voyage from Capetown, South Africa, to Cairo, Egypt.
His legacy stands: Of the more than 400 travel trailer builders operating during the Depression, Airstream is the sole survivor.
Wheeler notes that 70% of the Airstreams ever sold are still registered. Their longevity might be tied to how little they’ve changed over the years.
“We don’t tinker,” he says. “It’s harder than it sounds.”
The strategy appears to be a selling point. Johnstone notes that his customers generally fall into three camps: those who’ve always been curious about Airstreams, those whose parents or other relatives owned one and former Airstream owners.
“It’s the only product I know of that’s futuristic and retro at the same time,” he said of its appeal.
Airstreams are 15 feet to 34 feet long and can run from $35,000 to $110,000. There are four basic styles, all equipped with a kitchen, a bathroom, beds and a flat-screen television, and come with varying add-ons.
The Jackson Center, Ohio-based company, now owned by Thor Industries Inc., is not alone in seeing an upswing.
“We’re seeing a huge resurgence of interest in RVs,” said Shannon Nill, president of the Oregon Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association. “We’re having a fantastic year.”
To Nill, owner of Guaranty RV Centers in Junction City, the appeal of RV travel is easy to explain.
“It’s less expensive than air travel, you don’t have to go through airport screening, you can sleep in your own bed and there’s no waiting in line.”
Even the state’s hard-hit RV manufacturing business, focused in Lane County, is starting to see signs of life in the aftermath of bankruptcy filings by Monaco Coach Corp. and Country Coach LLC in 2009. Employment in the sector — as high as 4,796 in 2006 — plunged to 1,924 in January 2009 before climbing to 2,315 in December, according to the Oregon Employment Department.
Monaco got a new lease on life as part of a large multinational corporation, Navistar International Corp. And Nill said Northwood Manufacturing Inc. in La Grande is making a comeback with Nash and other brands.
Wheeler says Airstream is excited about the new dealership; the only other one in the state is in Eugene.
“We think they will do well,” he said. “They get it. They have a twinkle in their eyes.”
The writings of Wally Byam, founder of Airstream and legendary RV traveler who died in 1962, are being revived in this, the centennial year of the RV industry.
Rich Luhr, publisher of Airstream Life, has combined the popular works of Byam, “Fifth Avenue on Wheels” and “Trailer Travel Here and Abroad” in a single reprint titled “The Byam Books.”
The book can be obtained only through the Airstream Life online store at present: www.airstreamlife.com/store.
Dale “Pee Wee” Schwamborn, Byam’s cousin and frequent traveling companion, was invited to write the forward to the reprinted work.
Schwamborn, now 71 and living in Dewey, Ariz., told RV Business.com, “For too many years the writings of Wally Byam have been out of print. Wally conducted worldwide Caravans for Airstream owners. (Canada, Mexico, Central America, Cuba and Africa.) Airstream has become a legend, an icon, and the most recognized RV/trailer on the highways and byways of the world.”
His forward to the reprinted book follows (the photographs are from various archival collections of Byam memorabilia):
“To Pee Wee, who accompanied me on my First and Last Caravan. Wally Byam”
Wally wrote this in my first edition of “Trailer Travel Here and Abroad.”
In 1951, Wally gave me the nickname, “Pee Wee.” He also invited me to travel with him on his first Caravan to Mexico and Central America. Wally’s last Caravan was to Africa in 1959. The trek went from Cape Town, South Africa, to Alexandria, Egypt. I assisted Wally as the Advance Scout on this final Caravan. My nickname has endured since 1951, and is my personal synonym for Airstream, the Wally Byam Caravan Club, and having fun.
Wally Byam surrounded himself with affirmations. He did not just talk the talk, he truly walked the walk. When he was 21 years old (in 1917), he wrote this defining, prophetic statement:
“I am a man of extremes — either I will be a big boss, a rousing success, or a blank failure. In my heart I know I’ll be a great big glorious success, and that my name will go down in history.”
Wally Byam understood his personal power to achieve. He found his niche in the manufacturing of the Airstream trailer, the development of Caravans traveling the highways and byways of the world, and his 100% support of the Airstream owner’s club, the Wally Byam Caravan Club.
“Remember — if you want a thing bad enough you’ll get it, if you work hard enough.”
Wally’s path through his life was never easy. He did advertising work with his friend Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr. and the Los Angeles Times. When the radio was in its heyday, he published a trade publication glorifying the radio, and its manufacturers.
When our nation was in the Great Depression, Wally did the unimaginable: he formed a recreational vehicle company to manufacture travel trailers. Our Airstream trailers began in dire times. But Wally was a true Renaissance man, equal to the challenge. He was an entrepreneur, engineer, production line worker, salesman, lecturer, owner, supervisor, accountant, purchasing agent, friend, dancing partner, sailor, teacher, conservationist, historian, leader and husband.
No one ever worked harder to serve his employees, owners, and friends.
“I just hate the idea of being a business man or running a big mill or anything like that. I do not know whether to make myself like that kind of life or become a beachcomber, as in the play. One way gives me success, renown and prestige, and the other gives me happiness. Which shall I choose?”
Wally Byam became a manufacturing beachcomber. He made a product from his love for travel and camping. It allowed him to go when and where he wanted by giving him the freedom of a beachcomber. He willed this spirit to his Airstream owners. He did it through firsthand experience with many Wally Byam Caravans, and with the publications of “Fifth Avenue on Wheels” and “Trailer Travel Here and Abroad.”
At age 23, Wally wrote, “There is no use of me trying to be a world-beater for the simple reason that I don’t want to be a world-beater. Success is so futile, one strives for mountains and mountains of money and power, which, when attained makes the possessor no happier than before he began, except from the pleasure of doing his work. I do not get pleasure out of purely making money. So what’s the use of trying.”
Wally was never after a bank account. He wanted several things from his endeavors: financial freedom, the best product that could be made, good friends, steady employment for his workers, to be a good husband and, at the end of the day, to know that his work had contributed to these endeavors. Money was only a tool to accomplish his goals, not to create an empire.
Wally Byam had a knack of picking leaders for Airstream. In California, he selected Arthur (Art) Costello to first manage and then become Airstream’s President on the west coast. A good friend from his workdays at Lockheed during the Second World War, was Andrew (Andy) Charles. In 1952, Wally gave Andy the opportunity to go to Jackson Center, Ohio to start up a new Airstream Plant. Wally’s choices made Airstream the company we know today. Andy and Art were sterling leaders, not only for Airstream, but for the entire industry.
In 1955 Wally again had to make a decision. He and Stel (his wife) were going to Europe to scout the 1956 Wally Byam Caravan to Europe. Who could he tap to take over the Caravan to Eastern Canada? He selected his first cousin, Helen Byam Schwamborn, who was my mother. In 1953, Wally had sent Helen a post card. He told her that he would be taking care of her “itchy foot.”
Well, he did. Not only was she selected to lead the 1955 Eastern Canada Caravan, she was asked to work with the Airstream owners in forming a Club. The Airstreamers put together a Constitution, and a club was formed in Kentville, Nova Scotia, Canada in August 1955. She went home to Bakersfield California and opened the WBCC (later WBCCI) Headquarters in our home
Helen later wrote: “He was a man with an amazing understanding of people, their problems, their abilities, and, I might add, their endurance.
“He could throw out challenges faster than they could be picked up. He kept all of those associated with him working beyond their known capacity and accomplishing what they knew full well to be impossible. He had an uncanny way of giving confidence; when he said you could do it, you didn’t question him, you did it. He was an embodiment of the pioneer spirit which gave America its tough fiber.
“I have never worked so hard in my life as I have with Airstream. If I had had any idea of all that was entailed I would never have even dared to try my present job. But Wally said I was the one for the job and I didn’t question him. I guess I was completely brain-washed.
“Whatever happened, I have never had a job so rewarding in so many ways.”
Helen’s congeniality, work ethics, enthusiasm for travel, love for Airstream owners, writing skills, organizational talent, have been not lost to time either. Today her baby, the Wally Byam Caravan Club International, is 55 years old. She assisted Wally in the dream, their dream and yours.
The Wally Byam Creed
“In the heart of these words is an entire life’s dream. To those of you who find in the promise of these words your promise, I bequeath this creed… my dream belongs to you.”
“To place the great wide world at your doorstep for you who yearn to travel with all the comforts of home.
To provide a more satisfying, meaningful way of travel that offers complete travel independence, wherever and whenever you choose to go or stay.
To keep alive and make real an enduring promise of high adventure and faraway lands… of rediscovering old places and new interests.
To open a whole world of new experiences… a new dimension in enjoyment where travel adventure and good fellowship are your constant companions.
To encourage clubs and rallies that provide an endless source of friendships, travel fun and personal expressions.
To lead caravans wherever the four winds blow… over twinkling boulevards, across trackless deserts… to the traveled and untraveled corners of the earth.
To play some part in promoting international goodwill and understanding among the peoples of the world through person-to-person contact.
To refine and perfect our product by continuous travel-testing over the highways and byways of the world.
To strive endlessly to stir the venturesome spirit that moves you to follow a rainbow to its end… and thus make your travel dreams come true.”
Dale “Pee-Wee” Schwamborn was a 20-year-old college student when he led the way as an advance scout during the 1959 Airstream caravan from Cape Town, South Africa, to Cairo, Egypt, a trip that took about six months to complete.
Fifty years later, Schwamborn, a California native, was again at the front of the pack as a caravan of Airstreams made their way across the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge on Friday (Sept. 11) on their way in a tribute to the original trip, according to the Southeast Missourian, Cape Girardeau, Mo.
This time they were going from Cape Girardeau to Cairo, Ill., a 68-mile trek that falls considerably short of the more than 4,000 miles of the original journey, and there were only 17 recreational vehicles in the caravan compared to the 41 that made the Africa trip.
Still, the trip was special, Schwamborn said.
”I can’t think it went anything but great,” said Steve Burrows, an Airstream trailer owner and aficionado who planned and led the caravan.
Burrows got the idea to recreate the trip as a celebration of the 50th anniversary when he met Schwamborn at an Airstream event in Texas.
“I thought it was a really fun idea,” Schwamborn said.
Schwamborn’s mother, Helen Byam Schwamborn, founded the international Airstream club WBCCI. Her first cousin, Wally Byam, who died in 1962, founded Airstream.
Though Burrows said Friday’s caravan was “smooth sailing,” and credited Cape Girardeau and Cairo police with their assistance in making sure there were no problems, the Africa trip was not without obstacles.
Schwamborn recalls helping to dig caravans out of deep sand as they crossed the desert of the Sudan, and everyone lending a hand as they crossed quagmires in Ethiopia.
During Friday’s trip to and from Illinois, the caravan did earn some curious looks from passers-by, Burrows said.
Tina and Mike Nelson of St. Louis, new Airstream owners, made it to Cape Girardeau RV Park for Saturday’s two-hour open house,” an opportunity to meet other Airstream owners and talk.
The Nelsons purchased their first Airstream two months ago. Since then, they’ve been surprised by how helpful and close-knit the Airstream community is, Mike Nelson said.
“They’re just willing to share what they know,” Tina Nelson said.