February is a magical time in Palm Springs. Glorious weather, the McCormick vintage and collector car auction, and Modernism Week. For those of you unfamiliar with the last, Modernism Week is a ten-day celebration of all things retro and mid-century, part of which is the Vintage Travel Trailer Show. Which brings us to the subject of this article: the estimable Wally Byam, founder of Airstream.
While the first three names up there in the title are familiar to most automotive enthusiasts and historians, it’s less likely they’ve heard of Wally Byam; however, his contributions to a specific facet of highway travel are as significant as his beloved Grand Canyon is vast.
Wally Byam’s legacy is the quintessentially American Airstream travel trailer, an instantly recognizable riveted aluminum tube that epitomizes advanced design and construction. As the inventor of the Airstream, Byam brought an unlikely and wide-ranging variety of life experiences to his role.
Born on July 4, 1876, in Baker City, Oregon, Byam wore many hats–some quite unlikely–throughout his life. As a teenager, he worked as a shepherd for his grandfather. The job necessitated that he stay at the pasture alone for long periods of time surrounded by hard, rough terrain and brutal physical elements. He lived out of a two-wheeled, cloth-covered wagon towed by a donkey. The primitive wagon contained a bed-mat, kerosene stove, a pail and water, books and provisions—in other words, just about everything a shepherd boy needed! As an adult, Byam was known to say that that wagon was responsible for sparking his interest in motorhomes and travel trailers.
Byam went on to attend prestigious Stanford University, graduating with a law degree (he never did practice), then promptly went to work as an advertising copywriter. Impatient with the job, he quit to publish his own magazine for do-it-yourselfers. After the magazine featured an article on how to build a travel trailer, Byam was inundated with complaints from readers who told him in no uncertain terms that the plans were no good. Finally, Byam tried them out for himself and found that the readers were right.
Intrigued, he set out to build a travel trailer of his own design. That first effort, while admittedly crude, set the trajectory for virtually all future motorhome construction. In Byam’s design, the floor was dropped down between the wheels and the roof raised, thus allowing occupants to stand fully upright when inside the trailer—something unprecedented at the time. Byam wanted to publish his plans in his own magazine, but found he couldn’t afford the space; instead, he sold the plans and an accompanying article to Popular Mechanics magazine, which published them.
The article attracted widespread attention, and soon Byam found himself selling plan sets to aspiring trailer-builders. There was also plenty of interest from the less handy, so Byam began building made-to-order trailers for them in his Los Angeles backyard. Customers were welcome to come over and pitch in if they wanted to do so. The trailer above was built by a Dr. Holman in 1935 from Byam’s plans, and is the oldest Airstream in the world.
Byam ran his backyard factory for several years. At some times, it supported his writing and publishing pursuits; at others, they supported it. By 1930, he’d abandoned publishing and advertising to become a full-time builder of squared-off Masonite travel trailers; the Airstream Company was formally incorporated in 1931. In 1936, Byam began producing an aluminum-skin trailer based on a design by the aircraft wizard Hawley Bowlus. With its semimonocoque, riveted aluminum body (between 9,000 and 11,000 rivets are used for each trailer, depending on size), it had more in common with contemporary aircraft than with other travel trailers.
It could sleep four, thanks to its tubular steel-framed dinette which converted into a bed. It had its own onboard water supply, an enclosed galley, and electric lights throughout. The Clipper boasted advanced insulation and a ventilation system, and even offered “air conditioning” that used dry ice.
The Second World War brought Airstream production to a standstill; Government restrictions on aluminum usage caused Airstream to shut down operations from 1942-1948. After the war ended, Byam found himself fighting another battle in order to resume production: a painful lack of capital. Desperate for cash, he entered into an ill-advised partnership with a much larger trailer company whose facilities dwarfed his own, turning over the rights to his plans and the Airstream name in the process. The deal was at first mutually beneficial; Byam got his expanded production capacity and the company got the fruits of his design and production expertise. It didn’t take long for the relationship to sour, though, and Byam scrounged for enough cash to buy his way out of the deal.
Under the terms of the buyout, rights to the Airstream reverted to Byam, as did those to his basic design parameters. Setting up shop in a small facility near the Van Nyus, CA airport, Byam announced that he was back in business. There weren’t exactly many company perks: For instance, after Byam hired a bright young Cornell graduate named Art Costello to take charge of purchasing and accounting, he proceeded to set Costello up behind a “desk” of a long wooden plank supported by two orange crates.
A little luckier was Andy Charles, whom Byam had known when they both worked at an aircraft plan many decades earlier. Byam managed to persuade Charles to come aboard and become Airstream’s head of production. In 1952, Charles was handed a $5,000 check with instructions to go find a larger permanent production facility. Ultimately, Charles leased a former bazooka factory in Jackson Center, Ohio, where Airstream production remains today.
Wally Byam was the harshest critic of his own product. No detail escaped his scrutiny. Factory presidents commonly received middle-of-the-night calls from wherever Byam was at the time, receiving a dressing-down about a faulty hinge or vibrating air vent. Byam traveled the world sourcing better and more efficient components on the world market. If nothing suited him, he would persuade some factory to produce what he wanted. If that failed, he simply ordered Airstream to produce it in-house.
Byam himself led several Airstream caravans over the years, most notably an 18,000-mile African trek from Capetown to Cairo.
Wally’s personal tow rig of choice for the more grueling treks to Africa, South America and other remote locations was this International A-120 double-cab four-wheel drive pickup.
Today, the Wally Byam Caravan Club is among the largest active trailering clubs, sponsoring a continuing series of domestic and international rallies and activities.
Wally Byam died, of cancer, in 1962. His legacy is perhaps best summed up in his answer to a caravanner who asked him what they were supposed to do while he was in the hospital:
“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.”
There were, not surprisingly, several Curbside Classics in the show parking lot. I’ll write up a couple of the more interesting specimens in a future post. Meanwhile, check out this all-Airstream “motel”— owned and operated by Kate Pierson of the B-52s, no less!