RVwest Insider

Celebrating 80 years of Airstream

The Airstream trailer has become an icon over the last 80 years. — Photo courtesy of Airstream

Few products – the Coca-Cola contour bottle, perhaps, or the Volkswagen Beetle – are as shapely as the Airstream trailer. 

Featured in movies like Independence Day and Charlie’s Angels to TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy and The Simple Life—even Matthew McConaughey has a truly tricked out, customized model—the Airstream is a legendary icon now celebrating eight gleaming decades as the favorite home away from home, a feature story in the August/September issue of Reminisce Magazine. 

The brainchild of a charismatic businessman named Wally Byam, the Airstream’s origins stemmed from a small two-wheeled donkey cart equipped with a washbasin, a kerosene heater and a sleeping bag, which evolved into a tent erected atop a platform attached to a Ford Model T chassis. Of course this was an unlovable contraption—particularly to his first wife who refused to go camping without a basic kitchen. So Bynum replaced the tent with a teardrop-shaped cabin that included a small stove and an ice chest.

He built several more trailers, refining his design, but the credit for the distinctive shape goes to William Hawley Bowles, an aircraft designer who had served as a foreman in the shop that assembled the Spirit of St. Louis for Charles Lindbergh, penning a dramatic aircraft-inspired travel trailer made of aluminum.

Unfortunately he was a more gifted designer than a business man and his company went under after producing just 80 trailers. Wally, who had done some sales and marketing for Bowles, then picked up the pieces and became Airstream’s chief executive, traveling the country—and later the world—with a trailer in tow.

See a slideshow of the Airstream’s history.

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