85 years of Airstreams – from land yachts to punk rock

by Wendy on June 2, 2016

by: Janet Eastman with The Oregonian/Oregon Live

Airstream travel trailers are on the move and it’s not just because it’s Memorial Day weekend. For 85 years, owners of these aluminum, capsule-shaped caravans have been crisscrossing the country in style.

Many of them will gather for the annual, six-day Alumapalooza, which starts Tuesday, May 31, at the Airstream factory in Jackson Center, Ohio. Some owners of the luxury campers will also be a part of the first Great Outdoors Western Campout June 10-14 in Wyoming.

Oregon is contributing to news in the Airstream universe. The company joined with Pendleton Woolen Mills of Pendleton, Oregon, to create 100 limited-edition, 28-foot-long coaches ($114,600) tied to the centennial of the U.S. National Parks.

Airstream also recently acquired Bend-based Nest Caravans, which designs molded fiberglass travel trailers. Airstream’s new line of light, modern, 16-foot-long trailers will be pulled by mid-size SUVs.

Another Oregon link: Airstream founder Wallace Merle “Wally” Byam was born in Baker City, Oregon. Relative Dale Schwamborn has donated more than 600 family items to the Baker Heritage Museum.

Schwamborn’s mother, Helen Byam Schwamborn, was a first cousin to Byam, and they grew up together in Baker City. Later, Byam hired her to take charge of the Airstream Caravans in 1955 and develop the Wally Byam Caravan Club International for Airstream owners.

Dale Schwamborn, a graduate of the University of Oregon, writes a weekly “Throwback Thursday” story for Airstream.com and has a digital archive of more than 8,000 pages of photographs and stories.

What else is on the horizon? The photo-heavy book, “Airstream: America’s World Traveler” by Patrick Foster, will be released July 1, adding to the library of books, blogs and podcasts on owners’ wanderlust.

Also capturing the fever is Tim Shephard of Suisun City, California, who, “with two tons of aluminum hitched to his bumper,” has produced 254 Vintage Airstream podcasts. His theme song just repeats the words: “Living in aluminum.”

Before Byam dreamed up the gleaming getaway on wheels, he was a camping fiend who, in the 1920s, rigged up a tent on a Model T chassis. Fellow campers wanted one, so he published “How to Build a Trailer for One Hundred Dollars” and sold 15,000 copies at $1 each.

When his wife wanted a kitchen, he switched out the tent for a permanent, teardrop-shaped shelter.

Byam officially started Airstream in 1931, building easy-to-tow travel trailers that would “move like a stream of air” and be packed with perks.

The aluminum-skinned Airstream was based on designer Hawley Bowlus’ ideas used on Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis airplane. The rounded shape cuts down on wind resistance and improves fuel efficiency.

Back then, sleek Airstreams stood out from other travel trailers, which were hefty, clumsy and seldom eye-catching in silver color. The company has survived while nearly 400 trailer manufacturers have not, according to industry experts.

Since the start, Airstreams were designed to be timeless, functional and durable. Ten year ago, on the company’s 75th anniversary, a survey was taken and found that nearly 70 percent of all Airstreams built were still road worthy.

While buying a new Airstream could set you back $146,000 or less, the price for an old one starts around $4,000. Or you can rent one in someone else’s backyard or at a vintage trailer park near the water or wineries.

Oregon Wine Country’s trailer resort, The Vintages, has a number of Airstreams, in addition to other renovated trailers. Reservations at the year-round resort between Dundee and Historic Downtown McMinnville start at $120 per night.

The online, short-term rental service Airbnb lists Airstream rentals. So does the Tin Can Tourists club website.

The Sou’wester Lodge, a five-minute walk to the beach in Seaview, Washington, rents nine vintage travel trailers, including the rustic Potato Bug, 1958 Wanderer Airstream, for $110-$128 a night. Another Airstream, a 1961 Land Yacht, is arriving in two weeks.

The iconic Airstream travel trailers are embedded in pop culture, from movies to music.

The punk song “Airstream” by the Vandals included these lyrics:
Driving in our Airstream
We’re a band on the road
with equipment, roadies, a manager
we’ve got a heavy load

Here are other facts about Airstream, which is celebrating its 85th anniversary:

  • Celebrity owners include Tom Hanks who was gifted by his wife, Rita Wilson; Johnny Depp; Patrick Dempsey; Matthew McConaughey; Brad Pitt; Sandra Bullock; Adrian Brody; Diablo Cody; Steve Carrell; Colin Farrell; Sean Penn; Denzel Washington; Lenny Kravitz; Matthew Modine; Kate Pierson of the B52s; David Duchovny; Tim Burton; Green Day’s Billy Joe Armstrong; John Mellencamp; Eddie Vedder and AC/DC’s Brian Johnson.
  • Kyle MacLachlan’s Airstream, which he used while filming “Twin Peaks,” was part of a farm-stay vacation at Monteillet Fromagerie in Dayton, Wash.
  • Matthew McConaughey used an Airstream trailer while promoting his 2005 film “Sahara,” and lived in a 28-foot Airstream in Malibu for several years before buying a home with enough space for his three Airstream travel trailers.
  • In season three of “The Apprentice,” Donald Trump challenged contestants to create mobile business ventures using an Airstream. The silver bullets reappeared several seasons later in “Celebrity Apprentice.”
  • Airstreams have been featured in films, including “Charlie’s Angels,” “Raising Arizona,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “Independence Day,” “Mars Attacks!,” “American Odyssey,” “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Wall Street II.”
  • Airstream began appearing on television in the late 1950s when it was featured in “Troubleshooters,” a series depicting the brawling adventures of a globetrotting construction crew. More recently, the trailers have been seen on NBC’s “Grey’s Anatomy”, “Hero’s” and “CSI LA”, on “The Simple Life” with Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton, CBS’s “Promised Land, and the Food Network’s “The Surreal Gourmet.”
  • Mark Harmon uses a 1972 Airstream trailer that he restored himself as a dressing room on the set of the CBS show “NCIS.” The trailer has avocado green bench-tops.
  • Patrick Dempsey had his 2013 International Sterling Airstream on the set of “Gray’s Anatomy” as a dressing room/lounge. The trailer has purple floors and black ultra-leather upholstery. Additionally, Dempsey has a 1950 Flying Cloud Airstream trailer in his backyard at his home in Malibu.
  • President John F. Kennedy had a mobile Airstream office which he used during a visit to White Sands, New Mexico, where the Army demonstrated its latest weaponry.
  • In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson’s daughter Lynda Bird toured America in a caravan of Airstreams to help publicize the “See America First” campaign.
  • In 1969, Neil Armstrong and members of the Apollo 11 were quarantined for three weeks in a specially-built Airstream after returning from the first voyage to the moon, until it could be determined that there was little likelihood that they were carriers of “lunar pathogens.”
  • For decades, NASA has used a fleet of Airstreams to transport astronauts to launch pads.
  • Several specially built Airstream trailers are commonly used to transport American officials around the world. The trailers are strapped down inside a military cargo plane, usually a C-17 Globemaster III. Vice Presidents, First Ladies, generals and admirals are among the more frequent travelers.
  • When flying across Afghanistan in 2008 to visit the troops, First Lady Laura Bush was cocooned in a private Airstream trailer, which had been towed on board The Spirit of Strom Thurmond. Vice Presidents Dick Cheny and Joe Biden have also occupied Airstreams.
  • A 1960, Airstream Bambi Travel Trailer is part of the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) for excellence in style and design.
  • In 2011-12, Airstream was featured in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition, “Pacific Standard Time.” The installation includes Art in L.A. 1945-1980.
  • Architect Paul Welschmeyer revamped a 1958 Traveler and received the Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects’ for his design beating out lavish $8 million homes.
  • In 2009, the world’s only penthouse trailer park was built atop the luxurious Grand Daddy Hotel in Cape Town, South Africa. Seven Airstream trailers are surrounded by tiny gardens, an outdoor movie theater and Table Mountain.
  • Architect Matthew Hoffman introduced the Airstream-bungalow hotel, Santa Barbara Auto Camp, to California’s Central Coast travelers looking for a unique and luxuriously-nostalgic, lodging experience.




To read the original article, go to 85 years of Airstreams, from land yachts to punk rock

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