The Untold Truth Of Airstream

In an alternate reality, the Airstream would simply be dismissed as a sardine tin on wheels, shunned by all who appreciate the spaciousness and luxury of a well-designed living space. However, we live in a world where the Airstream is adored by millions, and for good reason. For nine decades, this hipper-than-thou trailer has been plowing a unique path across the highways and byways of the United States and beyond. Sleek, silver, and to a certain eye, sexy, these mobile homes have become as much a part of the American culture as apple pie and the Fourth of July. The Airstream is far more than a bullet-shaped caravan made of highly-polished and well-crafted aluminum. According to the brand, it is an instantly recognizable global icon and beloved by petroleum pilgrims everywhere.

To hitch an Airstream to the back of a car and set sail for new horizons is perhaps one of the last remaining adventures to be had in the digital age. A life lived in the "silver bullet" is an existence free from the pressure cooker of the global village. When the road is open, the sun is rising, and the wild is calling, there's nothing that screams freedom like an oven-ready and well-stocked Airstream. These handy little campers are your passport into a new day and a new dawn. So get your motor running, but before you depart into uncharted territory, why not brush up on a bit of the colorful history behind the silver dream!

Before the Airstream there was the Bowlus Road Chief

Before the chicken came the egg, and the egg in the case of the Airstream was the Bowlus Road Chief. Created by William Hawley Bowlus, who was renowned for his construction role in Charles Lindbergh's famous Spirit of St. Louis aircraft, as per Forbes, the predecessor of the Airstream hit the ground running in 1934 but was soon destined to run into a dead-end. According to The New York Times, the grim specter of World War II put the brakes on the camper assembly line in the States, and only 80 Bowlus Road Chiefs were manufactured before the dream came to a grinding halt. Yet the seeds had been sown. The appetite for a lightweight trailer aroused the general public and refused to go to bed until satisfied.

With a keen eye for supply and demand and a natural love for travel, camping enthusiast Wally Byam decided to capitalize on Bowlus's foundation and built the iconic Airstream Clipper in 1936. Surviving the ravages of the late 1930s and the war in a way that the Bowlus Road Chiefs could not, Airstream would go on to blaze a unique trail through the next nine decades as America's most eye-catching travel trailer. As for Bowlus, he went back to designing what he knew best — aircraft. He even created the prototype for the first Lear Jet. 

Meet Wally, the man with a silvery dream

As a visionary who had the skills to pay the bills and make his dream a reality, Wally Byam was a pioneer, a poet, a philosopher, and a prince of industry. Born on the Fourth of July, 1896, in Baker City, Byam's fate appeared intertwined with the American dream, as per Airstream. Byam was a farm boy who grew up in a wooden wagon that a donkey towed. He didn't find living in the same rustic living conditions as his forefathers a hardship, but rather fell in love with having all his basic needs met in one handy wagon. Sound familiar? Byam self-financed his way through college, and in 1921, the Stanford graduate dabbled for a while in journalism.

Yet Byam's true love remained the great outdoors. Alongside his first wife, Marion, Byam would lie beneath the stars and sleep on the soil. Trouble was, she didn't like roughing it in a tent all that much, and so Byam took a Model T chassis and erected a tent-type contraption upon it. The year was 1929, and Byam had taken the first tentative steps on a long and winding road. Yet there was a hiccup. Although mobile, the gadget was hard to assemble and could be dispiriting in the rain. He remedied this by creating a teardrop-shaped shelter containing an ice chest and stove. It proved a hit! As word got around amongst the camping fraternity. Byam decided to go into business.

It starts with a tent on wheels and ends as an 'airplane without wings'

Although the first Airstream may have been little more than a portable tent, Byam had a dream, and it was a big one. He wanted to build a first-class travel trailer so light it would glide like a stream of air. Working around the clock, Byam would build the early designs from his backyard and send $5 manuals across America instructing people how to build their own, as per Forbes. Such instructions also appeared in the back of "Popular Mechanics: magazine. According to Tara Cox, author of "Airstream: The Silver RV," the oldest Airstream in existence was built from these plans.

Byam's first factory opened in Culver City, California, in 1931 and first produced trailers made of wood and Masonite. Yet the business turned a page on January 17, 1936, when Byam introduced the world to an all-aluminum, riveted trailer called the Airstream Clipper. Also described as an "airplane without wings," the Clipper's futuristic, bullet-shaped design and luxury interior proved to be just the ticket for those looking to ride in style. The designs have changed, but the ethos, set in silver and written in tarmac, remains. It prides itself on the fact that its trailers are an investment for life (via Airstream). 

Wally wanted Airstreams to define his unique philosophy

An Airstream isn't just a toaster-on-wheels or iconic brand. For the dedicated cult of owners and enthusiasts across the globe, it's a way of life. Perhaps Harley-Davidson is the only other brand that generates such a fiercely loyal and committed community. That's exactly the way Wally Byam would have wanted it. Regardless of whether you're a weekend warrior or a hardcore full-timer, the "silver bullet" code is all about taking to the road less traveled and forging a bond with nature and like-minded souls. It's a philosophy that Byam once waxed lyrical about in little gems of enlightenment that are now treasured and known as "Wally's Creed," as per Airstream.

Explaining to fellow campers that, "My dream belongs to you," Wally explains that an Airstream's purpose is, "To place the great wide world at your doorstep for you who yearn to travel with all the comforts of home. To keep alive and make real an enduring promise of high adventure and faraway lands, rediscovering old places and new interests. To open a whole world of new experiences, a new dimension in enjoyment where travel adventure and good fellowship are your constant companions." And if that wasn't enough to make you want to throw caution to the wind and set sail on the lost highway, try this for size, "To lead caravans wherever the four winds blow, over twinkling boulevards, across trackless desserts, to the traveled and untraveled corners of the world."

Airstreams are so light a cyclist once towed one

Airstreams have a reputation for being easy on a vehicle's gas consumption because — although they are not quite as light as a feather — they're relatively easy to pull. However, expecting a cyclist to comfortably tow one from state to state as they embark on a journey of a lifetime is a big ask. Could a cyclist even tow an Airstream, we hear you ask? You bet your bottom dollar they can, and it first happened way back in 1947. Although anyone but the most ardent cycling fan may not be familiar with the name Alfred Letourneur, in 1938, the French cyclist made headlines by getting on his bike and breaking the car world speed record, going up to 90 mph, Airstream Supply Company reported.

But Letourneur's biggest claim to fame is when he appeared at the Van Nuys Airport in Calfornia to tow a 22-foot Airstream liner. It's an iconic image captured by Wally Byam himself. Airstream made good use of it by turning it into a logo and proving that the brand really was as light as air once and for all.

There is an Airstream cemetery of sorts

Where do old Airstreams go when they die? Well, if you were traveling along I-4 between Tampa and Orlando, you might be forgiven for thinking they go to Seffner, Florida. On a patch of land in the Sunshine State, you'll find eight silver bullets buried nose down in the ground with their rear ends sticking up for all the world to kiss. They look like the space-age tombstones of some forgotten race of flamboyant giants, but they're not. Known as the Airstream Ranch, they are the brainchild of Frank Bates, who, according to Atlas Obscura, owns the land and the nearby RV dealership.

The idea of erecting an Airstream version of Stonehenge came to Frank after he found inspiration in the Cadillac Ranch installation in Amarillo, Texas. Deciding to immortalize Airstreams in the same way, he set to work on what has become a popular tourist attraction. However, you can't please all the people all of the time. Even though some of Bates' neighbors complained that the Airstream Ranch was an eyesore and attracted undesirables, the court ruled otherwise. Like Elton John, the Airstream Ranch is still standing!

There was once an Airstream funeral coach

In the 1980s, Airstream was keen to diversify its range of customized vehicles with the Air Coach and the Sales Coach. However, the most unusual by a country mile was the Funeral Coach, as per Airstream. You read it right! In 1981 the deceased and 14 family members could make the trip between the funeral home, church, and cemetery in the comfortable environs of an Airstream specifically built for the task. Left reeling from the late 1970s recession and gas crisis, Airstream had to think outside the box to stay afloat. And in death, they found a new lease on life.

The Airstream Funeral Coach consisted of either a wrap-around coach or aircraft-style seats, allowing families to travel together on what is always a difficult trip. The casket was placed discretely in a side compartment, and there was a place for flowers in the back. The Airstream Funeral was extremely cost-effective compared to the cost of a traditional hearse and limousines. Between 1881 and 1991, only 32 of these units were produced, but the feedback from those who used them was positive. They were mainly purchased by owners of funeral homes who equipped their coaches with TVs, microwaves, and lavatories to make the mourners' experience as comfortable as possible.

Wally created a gold Airstream for his wife, Stella

Although "Stella's Dream Trailer" may sound like a dodgy film with plenty of unexpected twists and turns, it is, in fact, the name of a one-off Airstream model created in 1957, according to the brand. Stella was Wally Byam's second wife, and the trailer was named in her honor. As Wally was a light sleeper who tended to cat nap for a couple of nights rather than the night through, he often awoke pre-dawn to listen to the radio and jot down notes. This disturbed Stella's slumber and undoubtedly left her in a foul mood. To resolve the issue, Stella and Wally put their heads together to create an Airstream with a revolutionary floor design. The result was a partitioned area for Stella where she could dream peacefully while her insomniac husband drank coffee and waited for the dawn.

Although all that glitters is not gold, "Stella's Dream Trailer" definitely was. Fresh off the production line at the Ohio factory, it broke norms in that instead of being regulation silver, this Airstream was dripping in gold. It was also the first 22-footer to have tandem axles. It debuted at the Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500 and wowed everyone in attendance. Airstream had gone bling, Stella had her gold Airstream, and Wally had added another feather to his cap.

An Airstream once served as a mobile White House

When the sun rose on the morning of June 5, 1963, 10-year-old John Armstrong left his home of El Paso to travel with his family the 60 or so miles to New Mexico's White Sands Missile Range (WSMR). According to the brand, they were traveling in their new 30-foot Airstream trailer. Although Armstrong didn't know the exact purpose of the trip, it was exciting to be roaring along the highway in a silver bullet. Upon arrival at the WSMR's gates, Armstong and his family were met by other Airstreams. Military police escorted the convoy of campers to a location containing military vehicles, helicopters, grandstands, and in the distance, rocket instillations. After being ordered to park by the grandstands, the Airstreams were evacuated, and the military personnel moved in.

Armstrong told Airstream, "No-one was telling us what was going on. Armed guards were posted around all the trailers." As the grandstands began to fill, a Lincoln limo pulled up and out stepped President John F. Kennedy. Armstrong and his family were escorted back into their Airstream, where two Secret Service agents guarded a red telephone. Kennedy followed in behind, introduced himself to Armstrong's parents, and thanked them for their hospitality before sitting on the couch. Armstrong later learned the Airstream was being used as a temporary White House prior to the missile test. Armstrong recalls, "I can still recall President Kennedy's big smile, tan, complexion and firm handshake. He was a very personable and genuine man."

In the 1960s, Airstream organized an adventure of a lifetime

An Airstream is synonymous with adventure, and as founder Wally Byam points out in his creed, Airstreamers should "Strive endlessly to stir the venturesome spirit that moves you to follow a rainbow to its end." It's definitely a philosophy that Virgil and Grace Golden took to heart in 1963 when they spent 403 days traveling through 31 countries and chalking up a tally of 31,000 miles in their trusty Airstream. The Statesman Journal reports that the adventurous couple embarked on an epic trip through Asia, the Middle East, and Europe as part of Wally Byam's Around the World Caravan. Joining 103 other Airstream adventurists, the Goldens were proud to participate in what Airstream branded the "expedition of a lifetime."

In total, 47 trailers created what, in effect, was an American hometown on wheels. The participants parked in front of pyramids, tallied beside ancient temples, and loitered outside of the Kremlin in a bid to put Airstream on the map. They were ambassadors of Wally's dream, but sadly he died in July 1962 of a brain tumor before he could see it made a reality. Nevertheless, Virgil, who was 67 at the time, and Grace, 59, proved you're never too old for a grand adventure. Following a similar route forged in the late 13th century by Marco Polo, the Airstream ambassadors set out from Singapore and ended their trip in Libson. It just goes to show that the trajectory of the silver bullet is truly open-ended.

Airstreams are a big hit with celebrities

Airstreams aren't just popular with the common folk; they're loved by the famed and fortunate, too. Let's journey into the upper echelons of stardom to find out which celebs have been seduced by the silvery vision of one of Wally Byam's trailers in full flight. Tom Hanks once received one as a gift from his wife, and fellow thespians such as Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Sandra Bullock, Denzel Washington, Matthew McConaughey, and Steve Carell have all been bitten by the bug of air-conditioned mobility, as per Airstream. Airstreams are also popular with rock stars. Eddie Vedder, Billie Joe Armstong, Lenny Kravitz, and John Mellencamp are all proud owners.

Airstreams have also played a leading role in a host of movies, including "Wall Street," "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," "Independence Day," "Charlie's Angels," and "Mars Attacks!" MTV also displayed a customized 1957 Airstream for many years at its Santa Monica headquarters. The former U.S. President Donald Trump also got in on the act when hosting "The Apprentice." During Season 3 of the hit reality show, he laid down the gauntlet for contestants to use an Airstream to create a successful mobile business idea.

Hugh Hefner gifted an all-white Airstream to Pamela Anderson

Never one to miss an opportunity to impress a lady, Playboy mogul Hugh Hefner once surprised "Baywatch" actor Pamela Anderson with an all-white Airstream that he playfully named the Lovestream. Autoweek reports that the seven-year-old trailer went up for auction in 2008. Apparently, Anderson used the trailer as a dressing room when she was on set, and the auctioneers described the interior with the curious phrase: "fully-loaded." The inside of the Lovestream was customized, and there was a disco ball and a dance pole. It's safe to say such exotic things are not standard in most Airstreams.

The seats inside Anderson's former wagon are also emblazoned with pink Playboy bunnies to remind everyone that Hugh was there. Those who bid on the rare vehicle at auction got to meet Anderson as a bonus, since she was selling it herself (via AutoEvolution).

Matthew McConaughey plans to own a fleet of Airstreams

There are Airstream enthusiasts, and then there's Matthew McConaughey. The Hollywood A-lister caught the bug for Airstreams way back when and has never looked back. In an interview with Architectural Digest, McConaughey explained his love of going mobile with the old African proverb, "Architecture is a verb." The Airstream advocate elaborated, "I've always loved driving. It's the best way to see the country." Naturally, Airstreams fit McConaughey like an old glove. From the ocean to mountain ranges, having an ever-changing backyard was right up the Texan's street. His Airstream has served him as an office, a home, a boardroom, a taxi service, and he even once used one to carry out a promotional tour for his 2005 film "Sahara."

For the shooting of his comedy, "Surfer, Dude," the actor put the production crew in 14 Airstreams in Malibu instead of renting a hotel. McConaughey currently has three Airstreams parked in his Malibu pad but plans on one day owning a fleet of the vehicles he described as "a beautiful piece of art and aerodynamically very functional." He said, "Then one day I'll have either an Airstream hotel or an Airstream compound. I don't know where it'll be yet, but the thing about Airstreams is you feel a little bad for 'em if you got 'em parked too long and the axles aren't spinning, you know, because they're built for the road."

NASA is a big fan of Airstreams

Airstreams have always had a futuristic, almost Sci-Fi flavor to them. It's part of their appeal. As such, it's no surprise the company has enjoyed a relationship with NASA since the first moon landings to the present day. Forbes reports that in 1969, Airstream was commissioned to create a mobile unit where Apollo 11 flyboys Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins could quarantine safely after sticking the stars and stripes in lady lunar. NASA was concerned that the space team might bring back some alien germs from their trip into outer space and decided that an air-conditioned Airstream would be the perfect place to isolate them in. Airstream CEO Bob Wheeler explained, "They wanted to keep the astronauts isolated for a time in that kind of environment. It seems quaint at this point, but put yourself back then."

The services of Airstreams were again called upon by NASA in 1983 when they needed a trailer to ferry astronauts to their shuttle in Kennedy Space Center. The vehicle was aptly named the Astrovan. Fast forward to the 50th anniversary of the first moon landings, and NASA once again joined forces with Airstream to create the Astrovan II. In partnership with Boeing, Airstream designed a vehicle to take astronauts to the launch pad of the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. Airstreams have always made it their mission to go where no trailer has been before. The question is, will we ever see a "silver bullet" on the moon?

There are some pretty far-out Airstream Hotels

If roughing it on the road doesn't appeal, but ironically you still yearn to live in a mobile trailer, then staying at one of the many Airstream hotels scattered around the globe could be just the ticket. If ever you wanted to be treated like trailer royalty, then South Africa's Grand Daddy Hotel is the place to be. Its roof is home to seven luxury Airstreams, all individually styled and furnished to reflect a good old-fashioned South African road trip. There's something for everyone, from a safari to the beach, from a city to a mountain.

If you think that's weird, it's just the tip of a rather bizarre and towering iceberg. Compare it with the Shooting Star RV Resort in Escalante, Utah. Here, you'll find eight stationary Airstreams designed to resemble the dressing trailers that Hollywood royalty used (via Forbes). Whether you want to walk in the high heels of Marilyn Monroe or the cowboy boots of John Wayne, there's a trailer for all shapes and sizes. Yet perhaps it's the retro trailer situated on top of a hill in Manses, France, or an alien-themed Airstream in the middle of the desert, that appeals more. Regardless, you don't need to own an Airstream to taste a little of the trailer life that these Airstream hotels offer.

A family of four gave up their home in 2020 to embark on an Airstream odyssey

An Airstream is a metallic embodiment of throwing caution to the wind and following the road wherever it takes you. In the middle of a global pandemic, Dana Haim, Jaron Glinsky, and their two young children did exactly that, according to Vogue. They gave up the lease on their San Francisco apartment, packed everything they owned into a 25-foot Airstream nicknamed La Tortuga, and embarked on an odyssey across the U.S. When a large chunk of the population was pulling up the drawbridges and battening down the hatches in a frantic bid to keep Covid-19 at bay, the Airstream version of the Swiss Family Robinson decided to flip the script. They reasoned that America's great outdoors and National Parks were probably safer spaces than crowded cities.

Roaring thousands of miles into the unknown with a 3-year-old and an 18-month-old, Dana and Jaron knew life as a nomad would not be without its hitches, and so it proved. With little personal space and less chance for any alone time, coupled with the chores of RV maintenance, things got a little frayed and claustrophobic. The couple described some days as "RV hell." However, waking up beneath a canopy of towering Redwoods to a birdsong serenade, or stepping outside and finding the swell and surf of the Pacific Ocean on their doorstep made such trials and tribulations worthwhile. The family discovered that nature truly is the best medicine, and an Airstream was the only prescription required.