What do a bullet and a marshmallow have in common?
If you answered that these were terms that have been used to describe the appearance of a collectable classic travel trailer, put down you pencils and paper; you just scored an “A” on the class.
One of these collectable campers, the venerable Airstream, its simple, classic design basically unchanged since its conception in the 1930’s, still causes heads to turn and eyes to follow as it makes its way along the roadways of America. And many of these sedan-drivers who stretch their necks to turn and watch the aluminum-blanketed campers, wistfully yearn to be able to experience the freedom of the open road and the opportunity to pull into a quiet roadside trailer park and sleep under a big willow tree, while listening to the gentle trickle of a creek running by your open window.
Does that produce some daydreams? Airstreams have probably been responsible for almost as many daydreams as baseball and recess. Not bad, huh, for a seventy-year-old “legend” that started from a mistake.
In the 1920’s publisher Wally Byam ran an article from a writer describing how to build a do-it-yourself camper. As a result of this article, the magazine received heavy amounts of mail concerning the camper—complaining that the plans didn’t work. Byam tried the plans out and found that the readers were correct; the plans were indeed flawed. Motivated by this mistake, Byam developed an improved set of plans that allowed someone to build a camper for $100.00.
Byam considered his plans “primitive”, yet he made changes that revolutionized travel trailers. One of the most important changes was that he dropped the floor below the wheels, thereby allowing people to be able to stand up inside the trailer. As a result of his changes readers responded; he sold plans for his new camper design in droves.
The building materials Byam’s initially used on the “Torpedo” consisted of canvas and masonite. Enter William Hawley Bowlus to fit the last piece of the Airstream puzzle into place. Bowlus gained experience as the chief engineer on the “Spirit of St. Louis” project and he used this experience to develop a travel trailer that was closely related to the aircraft industry. In fact, the exterior of Bowlus’s trailer was shaped more like an aircraft fuselage than an automobile.
Using the aircraft design and techniques, Bowlus developed the Bowlus Road Chief. A major component of the 1930’s Road Chief involved the concept of using lightweight aluminum for the “skin” of the camper shell, a concept that allowed the Road Chief to have an ultramodern design and sleek “one-piece-look” finish. But Bowlus, possibly making an engineering blunder, placed the entrance door to the Road Chief above the hitch attachment, close to where the family sedan would be. This meant that, with the camper hitched to the car, the owner would be forced to climb over and around the bumper to get into the trailer.
The Bowlus Road Chief suffered from poor sales. Perhaps this was caused by the poor door placement, or maybe the lack of advertising acumen by Bowlus, or possibly other factors. What the poor sales did accomplish, however, was to help bring in Byam to save the day.
Byam took over the Bowlus inventory, relocated the door on the side, and took advantage of his marketing skills and experience to introduce the Airstream Clipper in 1936. The timing was right; Americans were taking to the roads in greater numbers and the Clipper was ready to take the family camping. The lightweight Clipper was virtually a “house on wheels”. Not only was the family able to take their own sleeping quarters on vacation, the Clipper also carried its own water supply, had a completely furnished galley, and was fitted with electric lights throughout.
Being lightweight was a key concept. To prove how lightweight the Clipper towed the marketing genius Byam had an ad photographed showing him pulling an Airstream–on a bicycle!
But these were still the depression years and operating a fledgling business was no easy task. As a matter of fact, of 300 trailer builders operating in 1936, only one survived—and that company was Airstream.
During World War II the Airstream Company closed its doors while Byam applied his aluminum fabricating expertise for the war effort. The post-war years saw the economy booming, people were traveling even more, and the Airstream grew in popularity.
The sleek silver campers have always been recognized as an American icon of travel trailers, and many believe the Airstream represents a level of quality not often achieved in the present day build-use-and-toss-away society that we have grown to become. Considering the Airstream’s reputation, it’s not hard to figure out why. Of all the Airstreams ever built, including the early kit-built campers, sixty percent are still around.
Not bad for a marshmallow or a bullet.