2012 Airstream – an American icon

Airstream trailer under autumn trees

The symbol of an affluent, trailblazing 1950’s, the Airstream trailer hails from an age when the wagon-train gave way to the road-train

From early beginnings as the publisher of plans for a do-it-yourself trailer, Wally Byam founded a successful business selling trailers built to his own design. His company weathered the depression of the 1930s before hitting upon a winning formula in 1936 with the first aluminium-bodied Airstream model, the Clipper. The Clipper provided luxurious accomodation for four people in a trailer that featured an insulated body, piped water, electric lighting and a fitted galley kitchen – all wrapped up in a gleaming, futuristic aerodynamic shell

In the 1930s, the design of the Airstream would have been cutting-edge – inspired by aircraft design and assembled using aerospace techniques, it flaunted its unpainted shell as did the legendary Mercedes “Silver Arrows” Grand Prix cars of the day. But it seems unlikely that Wally Byam was motivated by concerns of style when he designed the Clipper. More likely he saw the design as being the best available to him – an advanced, lightweight, monocoque construction using modern materials, it echoed the American Streamliner trains of the early 1930s. The Burlington Zephyr provided luxury rail travel 1000 miles non-stop from Denver to Chicago – where it was displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair. The Zephyr and the 1935 Bowlus Road Chief trailer certainly influenced Byam’s designs, but it was his drive and tenacity that allowed the company to flourish – of more than 300 trailers manufacturers operating in 1936, only Airstream survive

When I see an Airstream I think of the USA, of wide open roads and spaces, and of epic road trips. I think, inevitably, of John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and his ten-thousand-mile tour of discovery. And I think of Dean Moriarty criss-crossing the USA in Kerouac’s On the Road, in perpetual search for himself

Steinbeck had the wandering instinct of the Airstream owner, but not their gregarious nature. Whilst Airstreamers gathered together, as he described, “Dwellers in this new kind of housing, for they gather together in groups of like to like”, Steinbeck was content to make his journey in anonymity, sleeping at the side of the road in his pickup truck Rocinante with just his poodle Charley for company

Dean Moriarty would have marvelled at a passing Airstream for a moment but would, fuelled by an urgent desire to be elsewhere, have discarded the thought as he rushed headlong to his latest destination

Neither comes close to our typical Airstream owner, and perhaps there’s no convenient stereotype to hand. Whereas many current Airstream owners are retired, the original buyers would have been a mixture of travellers, salesmen and holidayers – but all motorised drifters seized by the urge to take their home with them wherever they go

Bolide Archive: first published 25th January 2002


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