How Airstream Shaped Americana
This summer, the National Trust is traveling Route 66—one of the most enduring highways in America’s public consciousness—to help raise awareness to designate The Mother Road a National Historic Trail. We’re documenting our journey from a similarly enduring piece of Americana: a Silver Bullet Airstream travel trailer. We sat down with Jay Cullis, content manager at Airstream, to learn more about the brand’s history and appeal to the adventurer in all of us.
Tell me more about the history of Airstream. How and why did the company get started?
Airstream was founded in 1931 near Los Angeles by a guy named Wally Byam. He was constantly trying new things—he worked in advertising, as a shepherd, and on a variety of boats like fishing boats and merchant marines. And he loved camping and having adventures.
His first wife, Marion, did not like camping or sleeping on the ground. So, Byam took a Model T Chassis and built a travel trailer on top of it. It was a very crude tent on plywood, so that his wife wouldn’t have to sleep on the ground and they’d have a bed with them. It would supposedly be more comfortable.
The marriage didn’t last, but his dream did. By 1931, there were lots of travel trailer manufacturers popping up all over the country, and Byam started to sell his design for a travel trailer. You could buy the [travel trailer] plans for $1, or a kit for a little more, or a pre-made travel trailer. Some other travel trailers were being built with riveted aluminum at that time, but Byam thought he could make a better mousetrap. He designed and built the Clipper Model in 1936, and that was the first Silver Bullet style. [There have only been] five major changes to the Airstream’s body style over the last 90 years.
Why does the push to designate Historic Route 66 as a National Historic Trail matter to Airstream?
Route 66 is part of the fabric of American history. The Route isn’t just about road trips, it’s also about cultural migration. [Similarly], it seems counterintuitive that the travel trailer industry would be born in the Great Depression, but we see a lot of evidence that being able to follow work and to migrate to new jobs really helped the industry.
To us, [the Route 66 road trip] is a tremendous opportunity to preserve a part of Americana that Airstream is part of, as well. It makes so much sense to explore Route 66 in an Airstream, to show people what’s going on there and why it’s so important—the cultures and the people, the sites and the sounds and the food. It’s not just a road, but a community that’s thrived over the years. We saw a lot of good in what’s been done with this initiative.
Tell us more about the new Airstream museum. Where did the idea come from?
Airstream is based in Jackson Center, Ohio. Later this month [July 2018], we’ll break ground on a new manufacturing facility about a mile down the road. This is the first new production facility that Airstream has built in almost 50 years. It’s a big deal for us, and part of that expansion is a heritage center.
We have a pretty amazing collection of vintage Airstreams, at least one from every decade of production. They’re currently outside in our parking lot. We see the heritage center as an opportunity to give those vintage models a new home, where people can see them and learn about the history of the company, plus how ingrained it is in the story of our country in the 20th century and beyond.
What about Airstream’s design makes it an enduring brand?
Art Deco was the artistic and architectural movement of the 1920s. It was followed by a movement called Art Moderne (in terms of visual art) and Streamline Moderne (in architecture). Byam’s early designs drew from both of these traditions.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s best work was about organically [connecting] it to a place. With Byam, it was about travel and about movement. He was inspired by airplanes and worked in the aircraft industry early on [in his career]. He was also an innovator. He was the first person to use refrigeration, screen doors, and running toilets [in travel trailers]. He created partnerships with other manufacturers and helped companies that are still supplying these amenities to the entire RV industry today.
I see Wally Byam as an American figure on par with someone like Frank Lloyd Wright or Henry Ford. He came up with a timeless design that’s instantly recognizable. [When Byam was starting out], there were over 400 travel trailer manufacturers, and Airstream is the only one that’s left. There’s a reason for that—Byam hit on something that has stayed in our psyche.
Do Airstream lovers have any interest in older models?
A large part of our following—we call them Airstreamers—really loves the vintage style [of the travel trailers]. A kind of cottage industry has exploded over the last five years of folks doing renovations on vintage trailers. There’s no shortage of people buying up old trailers, gutting them, and starting again from scratch.
70 percent of all Airstreams that have been built are still on the road. There’s something to be said for that quality of construction of the shell, and it’s kind of fun to see. But we really feel that the best years of Airstream are ahead of us. We’re constantly trying to live up to our founder’s creed to find new ways that help people make their dreams come true.
What about Airstream do you think speaks to Americans?
When you talk to Airstreamers, they’re all over the board in terms of politics, profession, and demographic, but the one thing that ties all these people together is curiosity and a self-determination to get out there and do things—I think that’s uniquely American.
We have a huge country that’s full of amazing sites and cultures and experiences. Our products allow people to go explore these places. And at the end of the day, it’s about the experiences you’re getting as soon as you park and step out the door.
Airstream is a sponsor of the National Trust's Route 66 National Treasure campaign.