For over thirty years I have been interested in Airstream travel trailers. After being a "non-traveling" citizen for around 15 years, I decided to reawaken my interest in RVing in general and Airstreams in particular. In 1995, I began to search for information on the history of the company and the trailers by writing Airstream President Larry Huttle with many questions about the Airstream Company. He responded with a very polite letter and a one-page information sheet on the Airstream. Because of the great detail of my questions, the short information sheet only touched on the things I wanted to find out. When I called the company to get some more information, no one to whom I spoke knew very much about the history of the product or the company. So, I went "on-line" to the world-wide-web and began to ask questions. There were so many people who were willing to share information about Airstreams.
The following is gathered from many different Airstream owners. This first appeared on Usenet in 1996 and later on this web page. I will continue to add to this as I receive new information. Many of these comments are from the e-mails I received and are in the writers' original words with only slight editing. I have filled in the gaps and tried to make it more readable. Thanks to all who contributed invaluable information. Thanks especially to Dan Dureiko, an expert of vintage cars, vintage trains and vintage Airstreams. And a special thanks goes to Rutherford (Bud) Cooper, founder of the Vintage Airstream Club. Thanks also to Charlie Burke, long-time Airstream dealer and repairman and to Raul Blacksten for information on Bowlus. Special thanks to Fred Coldwell, the Historian for the Vintage Airstream Club for more recent information and corrections.
...was the Great Depression. The stock-market was down. Many people were struggling just to keep food on the table. In the early 1930s, A young college graduate named Wally Byam went to work for a magazine publisher. An article they published was an instruction guide for building a camping trailer. After the article was published, people began using the plans to build their own trailers. However it wasn't long before letters began coming in from the readers complaining about errors in the plans.
Determined to discover the problem, Wally Byam began building trailers in his own back yard. While working but before he would finish a trailer, someone would would see it and want to buy his "project." With each new attempt, Wally would experiment and change, improving the original idea. It soon became a full-time occupation for him. He called his new trailer company AIRSTREAM. The trailers were fairly standard looking for the era with asome influences from the European styles of design.
Around 1935, he became associated with William Hawley Bowlus who was a pioneer in airplane design and builder of the historic airplane, "The Spirit of St. Louis" At the time, Bowlus was building a trailer of stressed alluminum. He wanted Wally Byam for his sales and marketing expertise. Due to some financial troubles, Bowlus declared bankruptcy in 1936. Although Wally Byam was not at the auction, he bought some of the Bowlus equipment and re-employ a few of his workers. (Remember, this was during the Great Depression) In early 1936, the aluminum trailers were sold with the Bolus nameplate. After the bankruptcy sale and before the end of 1936, a trailer with the AIRSTREAM nameplate was on the market which was virtually identical to the Bowlus products.
In November, 1996, I received some information from Raul Blacksten who is the Vintage Sailplane Association Archivist. He mentioned that Wally Byam had worked for Bowlus-Teller Mfg....
"...selling the Bowlus 'Road Chief' and 'Papoose' trailers. When Bowlus-Teller went belly up, Byam asked Hawley Bowlus if he minded if he, Byam, kept on. Bowlus said he neither minded, nor was there anything he could do about it."
"The result was that the 1936 Airstream looks very much like the 1935 Bowlus Road Chief. The major exterior difference is that the Bowlus door is over the tongue and the Airstream door is on the side."
I have heard conflicting stories regarding the reason for moving the door. Some have said this was because of the frame design. The first thing Byam did was to redesign the frame so that the door COULD be moved to the side! However, others have told me that the only reason Bowlus had the door over the tongue was for aerodymanics and that it had nothing to do with the frame design.
The photos above and to the right were taken by Raul Blacksten of his Bowlus.
These photos are from a recent Tin Can Tourist Rally.
Notice the similar "torpedo" shape.
Where is Buck Rogers when we need him?!?
Over the next twenty years, the new, silver Airstream was constantly refined and gained a reputation as the best on the road. These early Airstream models had names which corresponded to the size. During the 1950s, the Airstream design evolved into a standard bodystyle which was consistant until the late 1960s. The next major bodystyle change was in '68 for the 1969 model year. That body lasted until the '94 models.
When I first began writing this paper, Dan Dureiko gave me a very complete list of corresponding names and sizes. Published in a recent issue of the Vintage Airstream Club Newsletter was an almost identical list from Bud Cooper, founder of the Vintage Airstream Club. Below I have simply combined the two lists. Please understand that this is a general overview and not a comprehensive list.
|1940's and 1950's||Size||1960's to 1968||Size||From 1969 (new body)||Size|
The International Package included small options and water filter. The Caravelle name came back for a couple of years in the early '80's on a small 21-23" Airstream. The year models were not as clearly identified as in the auto industry. That resulted in many variations in the lengths, names and trim-levels of trailers within the same year.
An Airstreamer added,
"I believe that the Excella 500 package was an upgrade from the Excella package in later 70's model years. The first upgrade packages were just only available on 31' models and were called Excella's. They were distinguished by having a solid blue band about 6" wide painted the entire length of the trailer. The non-Excella model Airstreams had one or two blue stripes painted along the sides. The Excella 500 package was a real luxury package with things like built in central vacs and special clocks, if memory serves!"
The name/size relationship ended around '82 or '83, when all sizes could be had in several series, Sovreign, Excella, and Limited. Also, sizes and names etc were not consistant and changed every few years. The first year for 34' Triple axle size was 1983.
Here is some information about the Argosy line of trailers and motorhomes. Charlie Burk said,
"Argosy began possibly around '71 thru late '70s early 80's. The Argosy motorhome started in 1975 and production stopped in 1979. They were built in a separate facility in Versailles, OH. In 1979 there were three models of motorhomes built. The Argosy, a painted Airstream (truly an Argosy with Airstream logos and different paint scheme) and the first silver bullet Airstream motorhome."
The Argosy trailers were also built at the Versailles, Ohio plant. Charlie continued,
"You could not actually strip and Argosy and find an Airstream. The Argosy motorhome (and the '79 painted Airstream) were built differently. The upper rear segment was a one piece steel segement. True Airstream motorhomes used 5 aluminum segments instead. The motorhome and trailer underwent a significant structural design change in mid 1982. It is not readily apparent except in the trailer lower segments."
The Argosy trailers have the one-piece steel segment in the front instead of the 5 aluminum segments. The Argosy trailers also had slightly different interior appointments, supposedly not as "nice." Personally, I liked them both, Argosy and Airstream.
One Airstream feature over the years has been tambour doors on cabinets. They were lightweight and looked good. Charlie had this info about them,
"The tambour doors were used extensively by Airstream starting in 1970. They are still used in small applications today. From 70-73 the tambour used was paper backed with a 3/8" strip face. Starting in 74 the tambour was canvas backed and had 1/2" wide strip face."
Also in the late seventies, all the company operations were moved to Jackson Center, Ohio and the complete Argosy line and name were dropped. The Airstream motorhome continued to be made in the classic silver.
Thor came into being when Wade Thompson and Peter Orthwein acquired Airstream Trailers from Beatrice Foods in 1980. Beatrice was only too glad to unload the troubled Airstream, which had lost $12 million in 1979 - a year when gasoline shortages and high financing rates had plunged the recreational wehicle industry into a severe depression. Unlike Beatrice's executives however, Thompson, a former merger and acquisitions specialist, and Orthwein, an exinvestment banker, correctly prophesied a looiming recovery. "Beatrice didn't monitor industry sales closely enough", says Thompson, who had learned the trade by running Hi-Lo Trailer, a minuscule trailer maker that he and Orthwein bought in 1977. "We knew that demand was about to pick up". In fiscal 1981, Airstream posted a $1million profit.One of the big changes Beatrice instituted was a reduction of the frame size from 4" or 5" to only 3" including in the 30' or 31' trailers. That design change was, according to some owners, the worst of their design changes and resulted in major frame sagging in the rear.
One Airstreamer said this,
"We own a '77 31' Airstream, and my research says about 25% of models made around that time were rear bath models. Unfortunately, in the 70's two things happened: Airstream attempted to redesign the body / frame for lighter weight and better mileage, and also, AIrstream was purchased by Beatrice Foods. Our '77 model is typical of rear bath models of that vintage in that there has been significant frame warp around the wheels, which, if left untreated, will cause the body to warp and bulge badly. We had the frame reinforced and had the rear end tied back to the frame where it had separated. This is a fairly common job on rear bath models at Airstream dealers, and it cost us about $1700 to restore our Airstream in this way."
"I would suspect that Airstream saw what was happening after only a few years and discontinued the rear bath models due to frame problems."
Charlie Burk is an Airstream-trained RV technician. He added this about the drooping tail and adding black water tanks to an older Airstream,
"...When Airstream added the grey tank in 1973 they didn't take it into consideration either and had problems with "tail droop". Keeping the tanks forward is a good idea, Airstream figured it out in the early '70's. The original idea for rear bath was to offset the weight of the front mounted water tank. A principle goal way back when was to balance the load and reduce tongue weight. Thus the brag you could tow an Airstream with a bicycle. (And you could) Centering the fresh water tanks over the wheel wells sounds good. You might consider plumbing them with a common feed line at the bottom so you can use a single input to fill, a single output to the pump and a low point drain."
The rear bath came back again around '89 or '90 in the 30 ft. for two years. Not many were made.
The smaller Airstreams made in the 80's (23',25',and 27') were all rear bath models. The approximate Gross Vehicle Weight Rating for them was 5800 to 6200 lbs.
Most of the weight in the newer models is from the Oak cabinets and corian countertops. When people stopped using cars and went to suburbans and club wagons, why worry about weight? They are about 1,000lbs heavier after '84 or so.
In the seventies, Beatrice Foods had become the owner. Unfortunately, Beatrice Foods was a FOOD company and NOT a travel trailer company. With no experience in this industry for guidance, several management decisions were made which sacrificed the quality of Wally Byam's legendary trailer. Shoddy construction resulting from new corporate management nearly finished off the Airstream company in the late 1970s. It is sad when the image of a first-class, hand-built product like the Airstream trailer can be tarnished by people who have no clue about the industry or the customers to whom they are producing this rather specialized product! Thankfully, Thor Industries rescued Airstream from the clutches of the cup-cake maker and gave it a needed shot of integrity. It's treasured reputation was on the road to recovery.
In 1986 Airsream made a squarish, bonded (glued) aluminum trailer, painted it beige and called it an Argosy, They also made a very few 5th wheels. That 2nd generation Argosy only lasted three years, 1986 through 1988. Then they decided to leave the natural alluminum with a clearcoat or painted silver and renamed it the Airstream Land Yacht. The Airstream Land Yacht was produced from 1989 through 1991. Airstreamers still call it a SQUARESTREAM. It didn't sell...perhaps because at that time only "classic styled" Airstreams were allowed in the club. Airstreamers "WERE NOT AMUSED." However, I think MY Argosy pictured to the right is a GREAT product!
This Argosy is also the home of Airstream FM - Beautiful Music Radio on the Internet. So beautiful music really does come from the Airstream! The link for the station is at the bottom of the page.
Another reason sales for the square Argosy and Airstream fell was a constantly rising price. When it was originally introduced in 1986, it was priced well below the classic Airstream. As time went by, the price rose with every year. In 1991, the price for a silver Airstream Land Yacht had matched that of the classic alluminum Airstream. If a buyer wants "an Airstream," he is reluctant to pay the same price for a square "non-Airstream." Sadly, 1991 was the last year for the square, bonded-alluminum trailer pictured here...another good American product killed by the "high price" of questionable marketing!
(I am reminded of the 1987 Merkur XR4Ti I bought off the showroom floor in Memphis. I owned it for 7 years. It was a wonderful sports car, a precision engineered, turbo-charged, German sports coupe. But it was marketed by LINCOLN-MERCURY DEALERS!!! What does a Lincoln dealer know about selling a German sports car??? Again...bad marketing. If they called it a Ford, they could have sold thousands of them!)In 1996 I saw a couple of square Argosys and one square Airstream Land Yacht and thought they were as nice as any "non-Airstream" on the market. After doing more research and re-examining my needs in an RV, I decided to look for an Airstream Argosy as my first full-timing RV home. After three years of searching and researching (and changing my mind almost daily), I found a 1986 Argosy 32' (pictured above) in Memphis, Tennessee, my old stomping grounds. As of this writing, I have moved my entire life into this wonderful 1986 Argosy and have begun my full-timing journey. My original plan was to go "on the road" in the Spring of 1998, working, teaching, performing and traveling around this beautiful country of ours. My plans have been delayed for a time, but I will eventually do it. For the time being, I wouldn't trade full-timing with my Argosy "Squarestream" for anything!
In my humble but most accurate opinion, Airstream should produce this trailer again...with a better marketing plan. It would be a winner. The quality is Airstream Excellent! There's no reason it should not be a hit if the price is held down.
For a short time Airstream produced a standard looking 5th wheel, Integrity by Airstream (kind of like Cimmeron by Cadillac) it's not REALLY an Airstream. Some Airstreamers call it a Tupperware trailer.
It seems that Airstreams now comprise a much smaller share of the market. "Thor" gave the word to Airstream management that people simply wanted more space. Fifth wheels and slid-out models are becoming the biggest sellers. The Airstream company has been forced to expand the model line to include "non-classic" type Airstream models so we purists can continue to enjoy the classic Airstream. The WBCCI has also changed the rules to include any product produced in any of the Airstream facilities.
For the 1996 model year, all Airstreams became widebodys, adding 6 inchs to the width. There were still a few quality standard problems but, I understand they were all rectified. By 2011, the decision was made to call the single axel trailers "Bambi" no matter the length.
After WWII, Airstream production boomed and sales went up and up. As the years passed, the tastes of the classic Airstream market changed and so did the product. Now, the children of the WWII crowd, the baby boomers, are looking for a lighterweight Airstream, like the earlier ones which could be pulled by a Ford or Chevy, an Airstream which does not need a $35,000 Surburban for towing and does not cost the price of a small house. That is why many others like me are opting for the older Airstream products.
Early on, Wally Byam realized that people were buying travel trailers and letting them set in the front yard. In 1951, he gathered a group of people together for the first of many "caravans." From this little beginning grew the "Wally Byam Caravan Club International," the largest owners group in RV history. Open to everyone at first, the caravans were so popular that Wally eventually had to limit the participation to Airstream owners. The Wally Byam Caravan Club was charted in 1956. The club led tours to Canada, Central America and Cuba. In 1959, Wally Byam led a group of 41 Airstreams from "Capetown To Cairo." On this trip, he began writing the book, "Trailer Travel - Here And Abroad," his second book about the RV lifestyle. Byam was 63 and in good health but, in the final months of the African caravan, his eyesight began to fail him.
Back in the United States, he went to see an opthamologist, who sent him to a neurologist. The diagnosis was a brain tumor. He underwent several unsuccessful opperations and then was confined to a hospital bed in his Los Angeles home. In July 22, 1962, Mr. Trailer, the man who once said "life begins at sixty," died at the age of sixty-five. The club kept growing over the years and is still leading caravans mostly around North America and Central America.
Airstream is now producing a 25' lightweight classic trailer that can be towed by a car or SUV. It is called the Airstream Safari. It is of the same classic design with "regular RV windows" and lighter weight cabinets and materials on the inside. It is about 25% to "one-third" less weight and in cost.
Since the Safari has been such a big hit, Airstream has plans to drop the "classic" 25' Airstream. They have also just introduced the Bambi nameplate on a 22 foot "Safari" type trailer. It is essentially the same product they were producing 20 to 25 years ago but with a MUCH larger price! These new smaller, lighter models will be big winners among the younger market. Airstream now calls all single-axel trailers by the "Bambi" name.
Let's hope this entirely new generation finds the same thrill in Airstreaming as their parents did. Let's hope they continue to keep Wally Byam's dream alive.
Airstream FM Internet Radio.
Classic Easy-Listening, Music From The Airstream!
The Wally Byam Caravan Club International
The Original Airstream Members Club.
Vintage Airstream Club -
The info place about older Airstreams.
Fred's Airstream Archives
A wonderful photo library of Airstream and Argosy trailers and motorhomes!
The Airstream Central Page.
The top Q&A place on the "Net" for Airstreams and a hugh Airstream classified section.
If you are really interested in the early history of RVing in general and Airstreams, I urge you to become a member of the Vintage Airstream Club. You can be assiciated with it without owning an Airstream. Bud Cooper began writing an excellent ongoing series about the history of Airstream and others have taken up the pen continuing the series. You should also write for the back issues of the newsletter or read them online to read the entire story.
Annual dues are a bargin at $10. To join, click on:
Please let me recommend a DVD for you. Silver Palace: An American Travel Adventure by Miles Fawcett. Miles is an Englishman who had directed another documentary on classic American autos. This 28-minute documentary focuses on the WBCCI international rally and the people, the Airstreamers involved. I bought several copies of this video around 1995 and played it for anyone who would sit still for thirty minutes. But I especially played it for my family, to let them know I was not alone in my desire to travel by trailer.
So to you I recommend you get a copy of Silver Palace: An American Travel Adventure from Amazon.com. Then sit back and enjoy an evening visiting other folks who take joy in seeing what's at the end of the rainbow while traveling from sea to shining sea. If you can't get away this week, this DVD will help keep that spark alive and give you an idea of what Wally Byam meant when he said:
To strive endlessly to stir the venturesome spirit that moves you to follow a rainbow to its end...
*** Airstream has a new "production and features" video which has been advertised in Trailer Life and other places. The video sells for $10.00 from the company and is very interesting if you are an Airstream nut. It goes into detail about the various procedures involved in creating an Airstream, including the water-leak test from INSIDE the unfinished trailer.
*** Also available is a book entitled "Airstream" which the company has for $10.00 plus shipping. The late actor, Robert Cummings (Love That Bob) was an Airstreamer and gives the forward to this marvelous book. It is FULL of vintage pictures including Wally Byam at various locations around the world. My favorite parts of the book are the FULL-COLOR, ORIGINAL promotional photos from the 60s featuring Airstreams pulled by the autos, all of which were brand new when the beautiful photos were taken. Imagine a Chevy Nova pulling an Airstream.
The Airstream video and book can be ordered directly from the company.
419 West Pike Street
Jackson Center, Ohio 45334
Airstream Company phone number - 937-596-6111
The three hundred Airstream trailers that are prowling the highways of British Columbia represent a new breed of nomad. Too active to just sit at home, but too cautious to strike out on their own, these retired couples have signed up for an organized caravan tour sponsored by the company that manufactures the trailers. Few surprises are in store for the group, but then they're never alone, and they don't have to worry about the day's route or entertainment.
You can purchase a tape of THE CARAVANERS (Title Code C 0178 008) by simply sending a check for $39.95 plus $5 for shipping and handling. Please allow 4-6 weeks for delivery because this title is not in active distribution, but available.
You can send your check to
National Film Board of Canada
1251 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
If you decide to look for these books or videos, please tell them that Don Reasons sent you.
I hope you enjoyed this visit down Memory Lane.