Back when I was a kid, about 100 years ago, my best friend’s parents had a wonderful old Airstream trailer which they permanently installed behind their house. It was the place we kids gathered after school - a place to do our homework, a place to just hang out. I loved the way it looked on the outside and I loved the way it felt on the inside. It was stylish. I didn’t ever use that word or think about its meaning until that Airstream. And I sort of just got then what I feel emphatically now - an integral part of good design incorporates humor, fun, and whimsy. Look at a couple of Frank Gehry’s works, for example. The Bilbao Museum in Spain and The Disney Hall in California. I think it’s entirely possible that Mr. Gehry spent some time in an Airstream.
So when Genevieve came to me with an idea to do an article on the Airstream, I jumped at the chance. I hope you enjoy this as much as she did writing it and I did revisiting my ancient childhood.
Enjoy! Doug at Swank
Like a silver bullet on a straight shot of highway, the Airstream has been gracing our interstates and backroads since the 1930s. Synonymous with luxury, adventure, and even camp (pun intended), this iconic RV has a colorful history which only adds to its exotic nature and appeal.
Hawley Bowlus, the designer of Charles Lindburg’s “Spirit of St. Louis” airplane, designed the first aluminum RV. He may have had the genius to create a sleek-looking RV, but he lacked the business sense needed to launch it into its eventual cult status. When Bowlus’ business was failing, it was taken over by Wally Byam. A non-practicing lawyer who built kit RVs for a hobby, Byam reworked the design, making it even more wind-resistant, which in turn made it more gas efficient (it was just as important back then as it was today)! The Airstream operation outlived 400 similiar production facilities of its kind, being the only RV company to survive the Great Depression. Though it was temporarily shut down due to a supply shortage during WWII (as scrap aluminum was barely available), it came back big time after the war and continues to be the “land yacht” of choice for travelers everywhere.
There is an undeniable mystique that comes with an Airstream… as if there are magical magnetic powers behind that reflective aluminum shell. This mystique is due largely to Wally Byam himself, who took every opportunity to photograph the Airstream in front of great world landmarks, building the reputation of an RV that could survive any environment and travel to all four corners of the world. The Wally Byam Caravan Club International (WBCCI) remains active and strong today, with a website that is updated frequently to keep all “Airstreamers” up to speed on future trips and events. It allows them to gather and share their common love and devotion to these metallic beauties.
Check out these photographs showing Airstreams amidst their adventures. It’s as if they had paparazzi following them along their asphalt “red carpets”. I even found a video clip from the first WBCCI caravan trip “Capetown to Cairo” from 1959-1960. I find it particularly interesting because you can really see how cult-like these gatherings became… watch it, you’ll see what I’m talking about!!
The Airstream is still as beautiful today as it was back then. Though its possible to buy a vintage Airstream, renovations can be quite expensive. Of course, its hard to put a price tag on something you truly enjoy and love doing. If you are interested in buying vintage, this site showcases pictures of virtually every model made, and classified ads abound on Ebay and the internet. Since there are decades worth of options, I recommend starting out choosing a favorite model, and go from there.
If you want to learn even more about Airstream history, Amazon carries a great book entitled “Airstream: The History of the Land Yacht” by Bryan Burkhart and David Hunt. I merely scratched the surface, trust me!
Are you lucky enough to own or know someone who owns an Airstream? We’d love to see your photos and hear your story, which we will share in a futureAirstream posting. Coming up… see how the Airstream is revered by a new generation of owners, chic new interior conversions, and AWESOME RV parks devoted to Airstreams around the globe.
Update: thanks to Leo Garvey of the Metropolitan New York Unit of WBCCI for providing us with these additional two sites for our readers to enjoy.