Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Constructing the Airstream

      The earliest designs of the Clipper from the 1930s already boast of the most advanced heat insulation and ventilation systems. In addition to electric lights, Airstreams even came with their own dry-ice air conditioning system. 

      The current Clipper design uses two aluminum shells with a layer of insulation sandwiched in between. The layer of insulation consists of a 2-inch temperature resistant mattress of aerocore fiberglass that's impervious to flame, vermin, water, and settling. This allows for cool temperatures in the summer, and warmer temperatures in the winter. 

Structural member of the trailer body being wired

                                                          Fitting the insulation into the walls

      The central door of the Clipper has a part that can be opened to turn the door into a screen for added ventilation. Instead of nails and screws which might dislodge overtime from excessive road wear, each Clipper is constructed with thousands of rivets. Each rivet alone requires two skilled mechanics to drive into the Clipper's body. One can only imagine how much time and effort was required for the completion of each trailer. 

In essence, every square inch of the Airstream Clipper was designed for a functional purpose.

"Let's not make any changes - let's make only improvements"

Over the years, Wally Byam adopted this phrase as the motto for his Airstream Company. As demonstrated by the iconic silver aluminum of the Clipper's exterior shell, Wally made changes to his designs only when he found it absolutely beneficial to the function of the trailer. Consequently, the aesthetics of the trailer underwent minimal changes over the course of its lifetime. Five major body changes later, the aluminum shell of the first 1936 Clipper is still on the roads.

Just as Wally Byam wished, the company made nothing but improvements. Wally's experience in aircraft during the war led to the development of the dura-torque axle running gear. Its installation in the trailer eliminated 148 extraneous parts, absorbed bumps, and reduced slipping and side-sway. Additionally, it increased ground clearance by 8 inches and minimized the need to lubricate the axle assembly. Before 1957, the Clipper had 13 metal sections on either ends. In more recent designs, the sections were widened, reducing their number to just 7. By flattening the underside of the belly, Wally also reduced the Clipper's wind resistance. He also installed an 18 by 40 inch window at the back of the trailer in case the side door was jammed.

                                                      1957 Airstream Clipper with the rear-window

Throughout his career, Wally Byam scoured the world for new inventions and innovations that would improve the functionality and livability of the Airstream Clipper. Things as small as door hinges and as large as toilets, hot water heaters, and porcelain sinks were all on Wally's agenda. If Wally were still alive, much of his time would undoubtedly be spent in the aisles of Home Depot, searching for any small piece that might improve the Airstream. After a visit to Europe, Wally Byam found a heating system that provided radiant heat without taking up much space. He borrowed the idea to create his own heating system, which he later renamed the Byam Burner. In France, he found a compact refrigerator which replaced the inefficient ice-boxes that were once found in the early Clippers. Hot water systems and steam-pressured flush toilets are just a few of the other things that Wally brought to the Airstream over the years.

"Let's not make any changes -  let's make only improvements."

Airstream Axonometric

Airstream Clipper Side Elevation

Airstream Clipper Front Elevation

Airstream Clipper Interior Plan

Airstream Clipper Frame Plan

Airstream Clipper Interior Section

Tidbit #3

      The Airstream's aluminum exterior and design of its shape is based on the airplane fuselage and the rounded corners increases gas mileage and cuts drag by 20 percent compared to the standard square trailers.

"Fast Facts." Airstream, Inc. Airstream, Inc., n.d. Web. 14 Nov 2012. <http://www.airstream.com/comp

Tidbit #2

Airstream Production

      It takes roughly 280 man hours to build an average Airstream and the trailers today are still being manufactured by hand much like the original process.

"Fast Facts." Airstream, Inc. Airstream, Inc., n.d. Web. 14 Nov 2012. <http://www.airstream.com/comp

Tidbit #1

Wally Byam wearing his blue beret

During the Caravan trips Wally's choice of headgear had been a blue beret which he had acquired from France.  This was quickly adopted by many other caravan members and became a way of recognizing each other in crowds.

"Fast Facts." Airstream, Inc. Airstream, Inc., n.d. Web. 14 Nov 2012. <http://www.airstream.com/comp

Wally Byam's Travel Philosophy

"Adventure is where you find it, any place, every place, except at home in the rocking chair"                        - Wally Byam                                                                                                                              

      Wally Byam believed in adventure. He believed that the trailer should be used as a mode of transportation and travel rather than a stationary home. He believed that everyone - even those who hated to leave home - should tap into their sense of adventure and go out onto the highway in search of new experiences. His dream for the Airstream Company was to create a lifestyle in which people could do so without leaving the comforts of their home. In fact, he didn't think that anyone should ever stop traveling, so long as they were physically capable of it. Wally believed that there was something to be found and to be seen anywhere in the world, even in places that weren't too far from home at all. When asked by one of the caravanners what they should do while he's in the hospital, he said:

"Don't stop. Keep right on going. Hitch up your trailer and go to Canada or down to Old Mexico. Head for Europe, if you can afford it, or go to the Mardi Gras. Go someplace you've heard about, where you can fish or hunt or collect rocks or just look up at the sky. Find out what's at the end of some country road. Go see what's over the next hill, and the one after that, and the one after that."

To Wally, trailer travel provided their owners with freedom - four freedoms, to be exact, that he laid out in Trailer Travel. 

  1. Freedom from arrangements - reservations, schedules, taxis, tips. "You don't have to worry about reservations in the next town or where you are going to sleep that night. You have all your accommodations right there with you. Home is where you stop."
  2. Freedom from the problems of age - "For some, checkers, clubs, gardening, and grandchildren is not enough. Out of this boredom, ailments are born."
  3. Freedom to know - "You meet people on a train or a plane and the next day you separate. When you travel in a trailer, you meet people in their homes and they meet you in theirs."
  4. Freedom for fun - "To relax and lose yourself mentally."
                                                                                                    (Airstream, p.42)

"To place the great wild world at your doorstep, for you who yearn to travel with all the comforts of home"

                                                                                                           - Wally Byam

Burkhart, Bryan, and David Hunt. Airstream: The History of the Land Yacht. San Francisco: Chronicle, 2000. Print.

The Trailer Checklist

In case anyone is interested in going on a road trip...

The Trailer as a Permanent Address

      Over the years, Wally’s idealistic vision of the Airstream as a traveling home has been buried under the negative views portrayed by popular culture. Today, the term ‘trailer’ conjures up a variety of images, none of which are – unfortunately – related to the iconic Clipper or any of Wally Byam’s Airstream legacies. All of these connotations were initiated by the idea of transforming one’s mobile home into a primary home – in other words, a permanent address. As the movement continued to grow, the picture of freedom and mobility that once surrounded the Airstream was steadily replaced by a string of stereotypes that branded trailer-dwellers as ‘rootless hobos’ and ‘homeless gypsies’.

“Small men, most of them, mousetrap makers startled by the customers banging at their doors, they have no exalted ideas about converting homeowners to nomadism…They want the trailer to be a vehicle, not a permanent address”
-        Fortune Magazine [about Wally Byam]

      Wally had never intended for his trailers to become permanent addresses. In fact, despite the potential he saw for sales amongst people like cotton pickers, wheat harvesters, mechanics and factory workers who migrated from job to job, he highly discouraged the notion of ‘living’ in a trailer. Nevertheless, many war-time couples who wed during the war turned to Airstream Clippers for temporary housing. Moreover, a surplus of university students was housed in the Clippers when no other residences could be found to accommodate them. It seemed that Wally’s voice in the issue was quickly overcome by the demand for affordable and mobile housing.

      Most trailers in the 1930s provided all that was necessary in a home – a small toilet, a kitchen, a bed, etc. However, people still needed a place to stop and rest at the end of the day. Consequently, gas station owners would wait for tired trailer owners and charge them 25 cents a day to plug into their electricity and have access to tap water. In this way, the first informal trailer parks were born. Some people simply never got back on the road. For others, not having a permanent address was a clever way of evading tax collectors and landlords. Most impressively, living in a trailer cost only $65 a month. Public opinion quickly turned against these trailer parks; many people were distrustful of them and believed that they would cause a great menace within the justice system with all the new laws that would have to be created for their regulation.  

      Wally Byam was aware of the buzz that surrounded his beloved creation. He once said, “We are determined to improve our public image, as the boys on Madison Avenue say, so that people change their absurd notion that we are homeless gypsies.” Unfortunately, the negative associations with trailers have only worsened since his death. Wally’s picture-perfect vision of a traveling home never returned to the popularity it experienced when the Clipper was first introduced. 

Easterling, Keller. Organization Space: Landscapes, Highways, and Houses in America. Cambridge, MA:MIT, 1999. 

Monday, 10 December 2012

An ad for the 1936 Airstream Clipper

An ad for the Airstream Clipper c. 1952

Hawley Bowlus

      William Hawley Bowlus, born 8 May, 1896, was a designer, engineer and builder of aircraft and recreational vehicles in the 1930s and '40s. Prior to his work on travel trailers, he was the Superintendent of Construction on Charles Lindbergh's aircraft, the Spirit of St. Louis. He also designed and constructed the innovative but unsuccessful XCG-16A experimental military glider ordered by the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1943.

Charles Lindbergh in front of his plane, Spirit of St. Louis

"Fathers of Aircraft Maintenance." Amtausa. http://www.amtausa.com/fam.html (accessed December 10, 2012).

"History." Airstream, Inc. Airstream, Inc., n.d. Web. 14 Nov 2012. <http://www.airstream.com/company

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Airstream Purists

      To many Airstream enthusiasts, the Clipper is known as 'Granddad'. Contrary to what one might assume, this name was coined out of respect and adoration for the vehicle, rather than ridicule and mockery over its age. After all, the Airstream has only undergone five major body changes since 1936, and none of these alterations had any affect on the iconic aluminum shell of the Airstream trailer. Over the years, the Airstream designs have been changed to accommodate larger interior spaces and improve ease of towability, but the reputable aluminum casing that surrounds the Airstream's exterior is just as lustrous and round now as its first model. It's no wonder, then, that people have developed a particular fondness for the iconic Airstream look. In fact, any models that deviate from these aesthetics are heavily condemned by the purist community.

Airstream Clipper '36

      In 1989, an Airstream Land Yacht was released in a beige colour with a sawed-off, square-ish front. Not surprisingly, the trailer was quickly dubbed the 'Squarestream', which -- unlike the 'Granddad' -- was not at all endearing. To say the least, it wasn't one of their most popular products.

                                                                     The 'SquareStream'

      Later on, Airstream released a trailer named 'Integrity' with a fifth wheel attached to an additional axel. Anyone who was unfortunate enough to be seen traveling in this trailer was dubbed the 'Tupperware Trailer'.

Integrity, a.k.a. 'Tupperware Trailer'

Burkhart, Bryan, and David Hunt. Airstream: The History of the Land Yacht. San Francisco: Chronicle, 2000. Print.

The 1936 Airstream Clipper

 Streamlined Car

      The streamline style of the 1930s was a result of the Art Deco style that originated in Paris in the 20s.  This sleek, simple modern look was used widely in the designs of cars, furniture, and of course the iconic Airstream Clipper trailer.  William Hawley Bowlus was one of the first builders of the streamlined trailers.  He was the first to produced the aluminum Road Chief trailer that was shaped like an airplane fuselage.  

Road Chief 

      After Bowlus' company went bankrupt in 1936 Byam purchased some of his equipment and hired a number of his employees and redesigned Bowlus' trailer into the Airstream Clipper.  Byam installed roll-up windows and moved the door of the trailer to the side which allowed for the front edges to disappear.  He also moved the chassis between the wheels and raised the covers for a larger interior.  Today only a handful of Clippers remain but the look and feel of past and current Airstreams all originated from the original design.

Airstream Clipper

Lopez Cotelo, B. "Airstream Clipper." Tectonica Blog, 21 January 2010. Web. 5 Nov 2012. <http://tectonicablog
Strongman, Tom. "1936 Airstream Clipper." Tom Strongman's Auto Ink, 17 September 2012. Web. 9 Dec. 2012. 

How It's Made

Modern Airstream Production

How It's Made 1980s Airstream Excella

Excella Travel Trailer Production

Airstream Lifestyle

Airstream Trailer Park

      When buyers purchase an Airstream they're not just buying a vehicle they're buying into a lifestyle.  More than just a trailer, Wally Byam created the entire culture of trailer travel.  "Airstream fans always have one foot reaching for the open road."  The trailer was marketed as a way for buyers to travel all around America and the world while taking their own accommodation with them.  After over seventy years that fact haven't changed but today it has also become about owning a piece of American history and nostalgia.  In many Airstream trailer parks one would often find many of the 50-year-old vintage Airstream models that are still used today parked right along side the brand new 2012 editions. Airstreamer enthusiasts often spends most days from Spring to Fall on the road, going from place to place and meeting up with fellow Airstreamers to form their own little temporary communities.  "There's no point in owning one of the campers and not being part of the community."

Schleis, Paula. "Airstream - and its fans - going strong at 80." Cape Cod Times. Cape Cod Times, August 17, 2012.
      Web. 7 Dec 2012. <http://http://www.capecodonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20120817/LIFE/208170309>

The Interstate's Impact on the Clipper

      The booming popularity of the Airstream Clipper following WWII can easily be attributed to the creation of the Interstate Highway System in the United States. The Airstream Clipper had been popular since its conception in 1936, but it wasn’t until 1948 that the demand for the trailer shot up tremendously. The Airstream Company was forced to relocate their facilities to a larger factory in Jackson Center, Ohio in order to meet their customers’ needs.

      With a total length of 75 932 km, the Interstate is truly an impressive work of engineering that spans across and connects all of the United States. Before this expansive network existed, the most preferred method of travelling across the country was the transcontinental railway. Not only did the introduction of the Interstate shift the American population from the railway to the road, but it also revolutionized the idea of travelling. Now that the entire country was connected by this network of roads, traveling destinations were no longer limited to the urban areas around train stations. You could essentially travel wherever you wanted (provided it was accessible by the 75 932 km highway system), and you could do all of this within the comfort of your own (second and temporary) home.

      Airstreams were very much designed to travel on the highway. They were never intended to remain stationary in any one place. Rather, just as Wally had intended when he designed the trailer in 1936, the Airstream was meant to be a traveling home for the adventurous highway driver.

After all:

“Why the name ‘Airstream’? Because it rode along the highway, ‘like a stream of air’”
                                                                                                                                       - Bryan Burkhart and David Hunt (Airstream, p. 34)

Burkhart, Bryan, and David Hunt. Airstream: The History of the Land Yacht. San Francisco: Chronicle, 2000. Print.
"The Economic Impact of the Interstate Highway System." Interstate 50 Years. Ed. Andrew C. Lemer. N.P., 2006. Web.
      9 Dec. 2012
"History." Airstream, Inc. Airstream, Inc., n.d. Web. 14 Nov 2012. <http://www.airstream.com/company/history/>

Airstream: an Evolution

Approximately 1934, the first of the Airstream line

Starting in 1935 as the Bowlus Road Chief, it is the first aluminum travel trailer of its kind.

Following the Airstream's purchase of the Bowlus Company, the door was relocated to the side and the trailer was re-branded. The Clipper was born. (1937)

In 1948, the line grew to include 4 sizes of trailer.

 Over time, the Clipper grew, the interior having many different options, the exterior changing very little. Other models were introduced, and by the 50s, the Airstream fleet ranged across all sizes of trailer.

By 1963, the fleet had grown expansively, and continues to grow today


Today, Airstreams are more than just a mobile home, many people have taken to restoring and retrofitting them to their own individual needs.

A restored 1953 Clipper

Restored interior

Some Airstreams repurposed as food trucks

Burkhart, Bryan, and David Hunt. Airstream: The History of the Land Yacht. San Francisco: Chronicle, 2000. Print.
"History." Airstream, Inc. Airstream, Inc., n.d. Web. 14 Nov 2012. <http://www.airstream.com/company/history/>

"Historical Airstream: Building Dreams is our Business"

Timeline of Events