This Camping Trailer Changed the Way Americans Saw the Open Road

January 17, 1936

The Airstream Trailer Company introduced a highly innovative and influential travel trailer. The new vehicle was called the Airstream Clipper, and the major force behind its creation was Wally Byam. He had been born in 1896 in Baker City, Oregon, and spent a great deal of his adolescence working on a sheep farm. During his time in that job, Byam lived in a two-wheel cart that was towed around by a donkey. The inside of the cart was outfitted with a kerosene cook stove, wash pail, and sleeping bag. A strong case has been made that Byam’s time with that cart and its amenities helped set the stage for his consequential career in the motorized travel trailer industry.

Along with developing a strong work ethic at a young age, Byam also possessed a burning desire to constantly pursue bigger and better things in his life. It was this motivation that led him, at around the time he was 20, to write down a series of positive sayings that would guide him through the remainder of his life. One of these sayings was “Make history.”

Wally Byam

After graduating from Stanford University in 1921, Byam found work in advertising, journalism, and publishing. It wasn’t until towards the end of the decade, though, that he truly started translating into reality his aspiration to make history. An avid camper, Byam came up with a tent contraption that he placed on top of a Model T chassis (pulled along by a truck) for one of those trips in the great outdoors.  This contraption was difficult to assemble, however, and it also did not hold up well in rainy weather. Byam subsequently replaced that cloth covering with a permanent and more durable type of shelter. For good measure, he installed an ice chest and kerosene stove inside the new teardrop-shaped shelter.

An ever-increasing number of fellow campers soon asked Byam to build similar travel trailers for them, and he happily obliged. He also sold plans and kits for people who preferred to build the travel trailers on their own. Byam eventually set aside other career pursuits so that he could devote his talents and energy full-time to the construction of vehicles for leisure travel. By the early 1930s, he formally established his own business in this regard in the Los Angeles area. The business was named the Airstream Trailer Company to evoke the image of those vehicles making their way down various roads like a stream of air.

Byam painstakingly sought to further improve upon the form and function of his company’s travel trailers, with a focus on both the enhancement of their strength-to-weight ratio and the application of aircraft construction methods to reduce wind resistance. A key result of these efforts was the debut of the Airstream Clipper in 1936. This large silver aluminum vehicle contained a range of then-novel features, which included extensive electric lighting; a water tank; a tubular steel-framed dinette; and sleeping room for up to four people. In addition, the Clipper came equipped with state-of-the-art ventilation and insulation. The vehicle also had air conditioning that relied on dry ice.

While more expensive than just about any other travel trailer during that time, the Airstream Clipper and its onboard conveniences quickly became popular among those who embraced camping trips and other recreational getaways as a way of life. Airstream Clippers were likewise a highly sought-after means of mobility for itinerant workers covering long distances in search of job opportunities. With its trendsetting furnishings and capabilities, the Airstream Clipper prominently stood out among hundreds of competing travel trailers.

The production of the Airstream Clipper and Byam’s other offerings came to a halt during World War II due to a significant aluminum shortage and a sharp drop in leisure travel. After the war ended, however, the company resumed production of those vehicles for a public again willing and able to hit the road for fun-filled treks.

The Airstream Clipper continued to be in great demand and, with his flair for showmanship, Byam went well beyond the borders of the United States to promote his most famous creation. He even visited Egypt, camping near the pyramids with several Airstream Clippers that had been transported there via barges on the Nile. By the time Byam died in 1962 at the age of 66, the Airstream Clipper had achieved iconic stature throughout the world.

For more information on the Airstream Clipper, please check out https://www.msn.com/en-ca/autos/enthusiasts/silver-bullets-history-of-airstream/ss-BBOeuLz#image=6.

Additional information on Wally Byam is available at https://www.airstream.com/blog/make-history-wally-byam-design-pioneer/.

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