IN THE AIRSTREAM BEGINNING…

“…was the Great Depression. The stock-market was down. Many people were struggling just to keep food on the table. In the early 1930s, A young college graduate named Wally Byam went to work for a magazine publisher. An article they published was an instruction guide for building a camping trailer. After the article was published, people began using the plans to build their own trailers. However it wasn’t long before letters began coming in from the readers complaining about errors in the plans.

Bowlus Airstream
Two shots of the Bowlus trailer.

Airstream Evolution Chart
Though always aluminum, the airstream profile changed through the years.

Determined to discover the problem, Wally Byam began building trailers in his own back yard. While working but before he would finish a trailer, someone would see it and want to buy his ‘project.’ With each new attempt, Wally would experiment and change, improving the original idea. It soon became a full-time occupation for him. He called his new trailer company AIRSTREAM. The trailers were fairly standard looking for the era with some influences from the European styles of design.

Around 1935, he became associated with William Hawley Bowlus who was a pioneer in airplane design and builder of the historic airplane, “The Spirit of St. Louis” At the time, Bowlus was building a trailer of stressed aluminum. He wanted Wally Byam for his sales and marketing expertise. Due to some financial troubles, Bowlus declared bankruptcy in 1936. Although Wally Byam was not at the auction, he bought some of the Bowlus equipment and re-employ a few of his workers. (Remember, this was during the Great Depression) In early 1936, the aluminum trailers were sold with the Bolus nameplate. After the bankruptcy sale and before the end of 1936, a trailer with the AIRSTREAM nameplate was on the market which was virtually identical to the Bowlus products.”

AN OVERVIEW OF THE AIRSTREAM LINEUP

Here’s a brief overview on a selection of some of the most popular model’s and length’s through Airstream history. Most of these models were taken from the 1960s and 1970s.

Bambi – 16′

Bambi 16' Airstream

The Airstream poster child and teacher’s pet: undeniably cute and more adorable than your newborn niece. The highly desired Bambi weighs in at a stoutly featherweight 1850 lbs. As with all models, floor plans are highly varied. Except for the modern day Bambi, the bath is at the back with two convertible beds to the front and side. Believe it or not, this pint sided bunk sleeps four. Bambi is a fully self-contained 16-footer designed for the small car owner but a blessing for anyone who likes a small, easy handling trailer. It is a scaled down replica of the world-famous Land Yacht with all of it’s big brother’s quality: airplane-type, monocoque construction, all steel chassis, structural aluminum alloy body framing, all metal underbody, the Dura-Torque suspension and a classic interior.

Caravel – 17′

Caravel 17' Airstream

Slightly larger, if just barely, than her smaller sister the Bambi, is the “I’ve got one foot on you” Airstream Caravel. At 17 feet, you may not notice the extra space, and often confused with the Bambi, the plans are often quite similar. With a weight of 2250 lbs, the Caravel tows easily behind most passenger vehicles. The interior space of the Caravel is about 13.5’. Bathrooms are generally located at the rear of the trailer. The Caravel is the first travel trailer big enough for a family of six and yet light enough to be towed with a compact car. But don’t let the small size fool you. The Caravel® is every inch an Airstream with the same quality features and the same go-anywhere construction found in larger Airstreams.

Globe Trotter – 20′

Globe Trotter 20' Airstream

Weighing in at 2910 is the Airstream Globe Trotter. Here’s a trailer that’s light on the hitch, light on the hills and fast on the straight-way – a ‘natural’ for those who want a lightweight trailer to go places. Designed to meet the need for a sturdy yet lightweight, go-anywhere trailer, the Globe Trotter is the perfect small home on wheels. It is all-metal, all-riveted with double rubber-sealed doors and windows, aircraft tight, vibration-proof fastenings and many other outstanding features. The extras that anyone may desire usually can be installed in the Globe Trotter. We think the Globe Trotter is the world’s finest small travel trailer.

Safari – 22′

Safari 22' Airstream

With an overall length of 22 ft and a body length of 19 ft, the Safari comes in at a solid middleweight Airstream competitor. Weighing in at just under 3000 lbs, the Safari is quite maneuverable and easily towable (though all Airstreams arguably are.) Airstream’s construction, equipment and layouts have been literally travel-tested over millions of miles of paved and unpaved roads with the famous ‘Wally Byam Caravans.’ The ultimate Airstream testimonial was provided when thirty-five Airstreams traveled more than 11,000 miles from Capetown, South Africa to Cairo, Egypt.

Tradewind – 24′

Tradewind 24' Airstream

Depending on the year, the Tradewind came in a 24’ or 25’ model. Weighing 3700 lbs, the Tradewind is the first trailer in the lineup to sport two axles. The Tradewind is the answer for those who want the spaciousness of a larger trailer with the mobility of a smaller unit. More head room, large bathrooms, and ample storage space with no sacrifice of livability anywhere are all wrapped in the neatest 24 (25’) all aluminum package ever seen. As nimble as a mountain goat on any highway anywhere in the world your Tradewind is more than merely functional, it will be the center of attraction wherever you park, at home or abroad. The Tradewind typically will come in either a two-twin bed or one-double bed layout.

Overlander – 26′

Overlander 26' Airstream

The Airstream Overlander comes in a twin or double bed configuration. The Overlander weighs 3,939 lbs with a hitch weight of 405. Like the Tradewind, the Overlander is a dual axle trailer.

Ambassador – 28′

Ambassador 28' Airstream

Weight 4540lbs and hitch weight of 415lbs the Ambassador is still a featherweight compared to many comparable modern day trailers.

Sovereign – 30′

Sovereign 30' Airstream

Making it’s first appearance in the 1950s, the Sovereign was developed primarily for people who live in trailers for extended periods of time and yet must relocate often. The comfortable, livable, new interior arrangement used is a complete departure from conventional interiors. Lighter than previous Airstreams of the same length, the new weight distribution provides a towing performance that will exceed your expectations. Weight 4750lbs hitch weight 426. The Sovereign has either a standard center bath or rear bath, depending on the configuration. This model is also unique that in the center bath model, a dedicated bedroom space occupies the extreme rear of the trailer.

Excella/Limited – 34′

Excella Limited 34' Airstream

Making its debut in the 80’s, the Airstream Excella is the Titanic of all Airstreams. The 34′ models have three axles and are bring the term ‘land yacht’ to greater heights. At over 6000lbs, Forget what you thought or imagined luxury, comfort and practicality could be in a travel trailer. Designed for long-term or full-time use, the Airstream Excella takes it a step farther with traditional styling that never forces you to compromise. The Excella/Limited line offers elegant floorplans with outstanding storage capacity, residential-style galleys, spacious living areas, private sleeping quarters and ingenious slide-out options.

AND THE OTHER AIRSTREAMS…

The Airstream Argosy

The Airstream Argosy

Here is some information about the Argosy line of trailers and motorhomes. Charlie Burk said, “Argosy began possibly around ’71 thru late ’70s early ’80s. The Argosy motorhome started in 1975 and production stopped in 1979. They were built in a separate facility in Versailles, OH. In 1979 there were three models of motorhomes built. The Argosy, a painted Airstream (truly an Argosy with Airstream logos and different paint scheme) and the first silver bullet Airstream motorhome.”

The Argosy trailers were also built at the Versailles, Ohio plant. Charlie continued, “you could not actually strip and Argosy and find an Airstream. The Argosy motorhome (and the ’79 painted Airstream) were built differently. The upper rear segment was a one piece steel segement. True Airstream motorhomes used 5 aluminum segments instead. The motorhome and trailer underwent a significant structural design change in mid 1982. It is not readily apparent except in the trailer lower segments.”

The Argosy trailers have the one-piece steel segment in the front instead of the 5 aluminum segments. The Argosy trailers also had slightly different interior appointments, supposedly not as ‘nice.’ Personally, I liked them both, Argosy and Airstream.

The Pseudo Airstreams

The Pseudo Airstreams

In 1986 Airsream made a squarish, bonded (glued) aluminum trailer, painted it beige and called it an Argosy, They also made a very few 5th wheels. That 2nd generation Argosy only lasted three years, 1986 through 1988. For a short time Airstream produced a standard looking 5th wheel, Integrity by Airstream (kind of like Cimmeron by Cadillac) it’s not REALLY an Airstream. Some Airstreamers call it a Tupperware trailer.

The Airstream Motorhomes

The Airstream Motorhomes

Airstream-badged Class A motorhomes began as 24- and 28-foot (7.3 and 8.5-m) models in 1979, and in the 1980s and 1990s, models ranging from 25 up to 37 feet (7.6 up to 11.2 m) were marketed. The aluminum motorhomes were followed by more traditional-looking fiberglass models in the 1990s. Airstream discontinued manufacture of Class A motorhomes in 2006. One bus model, the Skydeck, featured interior stairs leading to a deck on the roof.

Starting in 1989, Airstream built Class B motorhomes based on the Ford Econoline chassis and the Dodge B-series van chassis. Production ceased after the 1999 model year. In 2004, Airstream introduced the Westfalia and Interstate. The Parkway model, based on the Interstate, was introduced in 2006. All models are built on the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter chassis. The Westfalia was discontinued in 2006. The Chevrolet Avenue was introduced for 2010.

The Airstream Today

The Modern Airstreams Today

Airstream, still based in Jackson Center, is owned by Thor, Inc. The company presently manufactures approximately 1,000 trailers and motorhomes per year. Currently, Airstream produces several models—Sport, Flying Cloud, International and Classic Limited. 2012 trailer sizes range between 16 ft to 31 ft (4.9 to 9.4 m). Airstream also manufactures models for the European market.

Information as seen on Airstream History