Airstream : The Company During WWII

There isn’t anything more American than a self-made man unless what that man creates actually becomes a piece of Americana itself.

Airstream, Inc. boasts that claim to fame.

Conceived by self-made man, Wally Byam, the travel trailer company sprouted from a mix of Byam’s ambitious drive and past experiences. As a child, he lived a nomadic lifestyle travelling over much of Oregon with his grandfather’s mule train. He later became a shepherd moving his flock from field to field while claiming a minimally-furnished shepherd’s cart as his home. This environment would fuel his lifelong pursuit of the perfect travel trailer design, putting the shepherd’s cart before the wagon, so to speak.

After a formal education and several jobs, Byam became a publisher of a magazine. When readers wrote in to complain that plans for a build-it-yourself trailer had errors, he was determined to test the plans himself. Finding that his readers were correct, Byam decided to remedy the situation. He took what he knew from his past and built his own trailer. Publishing the plans, orders piled up as interest grew. Seeing an opportunity, Byam went into business for himself and, in 1936, began production of the “Clipper,” the first travel trailer Airstream offered. Byam’s structural design had more in common with an aircraft fuselage than with previous trailer frames. The new design provided more room in a streamlined body.

Due to the aluminum shortage during WWII, companies relying on aluminum for their products stopped production altogether. The Airstream Trailer Company was no different and took a production hiatus as well, temporarily closing shop. Byam went one step further than his contemporaries, however. Never able to sit still for a period of time, he chose to put his fabrication knowledge to use and help the war effort by working alongside aircraft engineers from Lockheed and Curtis Wright.

Originally trained in riveting techniques by Hawley Bowlus who worked on the Spirit of St. Louis as an aircraft designer, it is almost certain that this call to duty was seen as a payback to the field of aviation in Byam’s mind. What he took from the aviation industry, he gave back to the country in its time of need. Better aircraft fuselage design meant better survival rates for pilots and airmen. Proving to be a symbiotic relationship, Byam learned further techniques that would improve his own product. After the war, Airstream began producing trailers with more advanced designs.

Part of America’s love of road trips is a sense of being tied to the land. The only thing better would be touring the vast countryside in a piece of Americana–a little travel trailer that, in a roundabout way, supported our troops in WWII.

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