The Main Man Himself: A Look Back At Wally Byam
Wallace Merle Byam, known to his friends and colleagues as “Wally,” was an eccentric innovator with an keen eye toward making American travelers more self-sufficient. Until he died in 1962 at 66 years old, Byam was a workaholic and marketing whiz combined. He’s given much of the credit for developing America’s love affair with the recreational vehicle, particularly his patented chromatic Airstream travel trailer.
Byam grew up a traveling with his grandfather, who ran a mule wagon out of their native Baker City, Oregon. He also worked as a shepherd, having to sleep in a cart with just a sleeping bag and fuel stove. After law school at Stanford and briefly working for an ad agency, Byam founded his own agency and magazine focusing on do-it-yourself projects for carpenters. By then, Byam was properly poised to help those who wished to sleep outdoors.
Around the time he published an article about how to build a crude, self-sustaining trailer for just $100, at the outset of the Great Depression in 1929, he also hauled an old Ford Model A frame out to a Los Angeles campsite, constructed a flat foundation, then his characteristically rounded frame on top of that. He had perfected the idea originally presented in the article.
In just a few years, he’d made more than $15,000 selling his own plans for how to do it. by 1932, he had enough demand to start what, two years later, would become known as the Airstream Trailer Co. At the time, just about four dozen trailer makers were in operation; in five years, 400 companies were trying their hands at making recreational trailers. Airstream is the only of those companies still rolling along.
In 1936, the Airstream brand got its chromatic “monocoque” build, with aluminum panels riveted onto the outer frame. Despite a short lull during the World War II effort, due to shortages in building supplies, the company was full-steam ahead. After a failed merger after the war, which Byam entered due to a shortage of cash flow, Wally moved his brand near the airport in Van Nuys, California, renaming the company Airstream Trailers Inc.
Much of the successful evolution of Airstream can be credited to Byam’s signature caravans across several continents to drum up interest in this new way of life and vacationing. Meanwhile, he was hard at work perfecting every facet of his product, from space-saving-but-efficient water heaters all the way down to the hinges and chairs his product would feature. In 1955, his customer base was so well-established that the Wally Byam Caravan Club took up his traveling ways. The club is still the largest of its kind in existence anywhere on earth.