December 07, 2012

Airstream trailers: To move like a stream of air

The Founder of Airstream, Wally Byam, had a dream to create lightweight travel trailers that slipped cleanly through the wind. And with it was born another dream, one of new freedoms, new places, new experiences, and new friendships. It was a dream so powerful and so enduring that it did far more than create a new way to travel; it created a new way of life shared by thousands upon thousands of families.

In 1929, Wally Byam purchased a Model T Ford chassis, built a platform on it, towed it with his car to a campsite, and painstakingly erected a tent on it. The effort was tiresome and unpleasant, especially when it rained. Spurred on by his first wife Marion, Wally built a tear-drop-shaped permanent shelter on the platform that enclosed a small ice chest and kerosene stove. He then published an article that ran under the headline, "How to Build a Trailer for One Hundred Dollars." Readers wrote to Wally for more detailed instruction plans, which he sold at a cost of one dollar each.

The response was extraordinary, earning him more than $15,000. After building several trailers for friends in his backyard, "the neighbours started complaining that I was making too much noise," Wally observed, "so I went out and rented a building." Airstream Trailer Company went into full production in 1932, when fewer than 48 trailer manufacturers were registered for business. Five years later, nearly 400 companies squared off against each other. Today, of those 400, only Airstream remains.

Let's only make improvements

Anecdotes are legion about Wally's passion for product innovation. "Let's not make changes, let's make only improvements," was his familiar refrain. In quest of these, Wally scoured the world looking for efficient hot water heaters, door hinges, butane lamps, chemical toilets, small porcelain sinks and chairs — myriad large and small items that would make an Airstream more functional and liveable. In Europe he discovered a heating system that took up little space but gave off plenty of radiant heat. He borrowed the design, improved it, and renamed it the Byam Burner.

In France he spied a compact gas refrigerator manufactured by Dometic. He arranged for the refrigerators to be installed in Airstreams, making an end to ice-electric refrigerators that required travellers to be constantly on the prowl for ice. More than 50 years later, Dometic still supplies refrigerators to Airstream.

When nothing suitable was available on the world market, Wally urged someone to manufacture it. In 1954 he persuaded Max Bowen, president of Bowen Water Heater Co., to develop the first workable hot water system for a trailer. Other innovations were brought directly to him by customers. Frank Sargent, an engineer, approached Wally in 1960 with a novel toilet valve that used steam pressure for flushing waste into a holding tank. Sargent's Thetford toilets have been used in Airstream models since the 1961 model year. Wally tallied several inventions of his own, including the idea of a flat-sided underbelly to reduce wind resistance, and an 18 x 40 inch escape window in the back of the trailer in case the side door was jammed.

International Signature

Quality, innovation, and design

The list of "firsts" in the trailer industry attributed to Airstream is a long one, including the first holding tank, the first ladder frame, the first pressurized water system, and the first fully self-contained travel trailer — the 1957 Airstream International. "Self-containment" was a term Wally had coined to describe full freedom from external trailer hook-ups, such as outside sources of power. He once said he wanted to build a trailer that "my lovely old grandmother might tow … to the middle of the Gobi Desert, there to live in gracious metropolitan luxury … without reloading, refuelling, recharging or regretting."

Nearly 80 years after its backyard beginnings, Airstream maintains an unwavering commitment to the tenets upon which it was founded: Quality, Innovation, and Design.

A who’s who and what’s what

Overseas celebrity owners of Airstream include Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp, Matthew McConaughey, Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, Lenny Kravitz and Sandra Bullock while in Europe Today Celebrity occupants include George Michael, Hugh Grant and Gerri Halliwell.

The most recognised aluminium travel trailer in the world has featured in numerous movies and television shows including NBC’s Grey’s Anatomy and CSI LA. In season three of The Apprentice, Donald Trump challenged contestants to create mobile business ventures using Airstreams. They have appeared in numerous films including Charlie’s Angels, Independence Day and Wall Street II.

For many years a customised Airstream was prominently displayed at MTV’s headquarters in Santa Monica, California and a 1960 Airstream Bambi is part of a permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art for excellence in style and design.

In 1969, Neil Armstrong and members of Apollo 11 were quarantined for three weeks in a specially built Airstream after returning from the first voyage to the moon.

Several specially built Airstreams are commonly used to transport American officials around the world. Strapped down inside military cargo planes Airstreams have transported Vice Presidents, First Ladies, Generals and Admirals in comfort. First Lady Laura Bush travelled cocooned inside her personal Airstream which had been installed inside the transport aircraft when visiting the troops in Afghanistan in 2008.

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