What’s shiny, shaped like a bullet, made in Ohio and can be found the world over?
It’s an Airstream trailer, and nothing could be more of an American icon, says author and automotive history expert Pat Foster.
His 20th publication, “Airstream: America’s World Traveler,” goes deeply into the history and culture of the retro silver coaches. The beautiful, oversized hardcover book contains more than 200 photos, both black-and-white and color, and the easy-flowing narrative is an effortless, fun read.
Why an entire book on the Airstream trailer?
“I was looking around for a topic because I try to write one book a year,” said Foster in a telephone interview from his home in Connecticut. “Then I saw an Airstream trailer on the highway and thought, ‘That personifies America.’”
Besides, nothing-but-nothing says nostalgia like an Airstream, and it is the undisputable King of the Road.
“Americans have a legacy of freedom,” Foster said. “We don’t think we are bound to stay where we were planted. It’s in our genetic makeup to travel.”
In 1987, Money magazine placed the Airstream on its list of “99 things that Americans make best.” Foster’s book presents plenty of evidence to support Airstream’s presence on this list.
“Visit the plant in Jackson Center, Ohio (a former World War II bazooka-manufacturing facility), and it’s the busiest factory you’ve ever seen,” he said. “They’ve got hundreds of workers going like crazy because they can’t keep up with demand. Since last year, they’ve added 25 percent more factory space and they are constantly hiring more workers.”
Airstream was the brainchild of Oregon native Wally Byam, who brought forth the first trailer in 1931. The Depression had hit with a vengeance and Byam’s magazine business was faltering. He had built a teardrop-shaped trailer in an effort to find a more comfortable alternative to camping in a tent because his wife did not share his love of the outdoors. Then he built one for a neighbor, then another and another, and people started noticing.
“Byam had no idea where this opportunity would lead,” Foster writes, but these trailers seemed to fill a need, even though it was the Depression.
“If you lost your job and had to move, you’d buy a trailer and live in it,” Foster explained. “In those days, you could buy a new Ford for $500 ($20,000 in today’s dollars), and you could buy one of these trailers for $1,200. For that you were guaranteed a place to live.”
Today, the average price for an Airstream is $70,000 to $80,000. The basic model may run $38,000, while the privileged may pay $200,000-plus.
Airstream production actually began in Los Angeles, and Byam added a second plant in Ohio in the early 1950s. The two plants merged in1963 after Byam’s death, and today, the Jackson Center facility is the sole manufacturer. It produces about 75 trailers a week.
You can’t tell the Airstream story without talking about the famous caravans – the ultimate events for true believers.
Byam began planning the first caravan in 1951. He envisioned four trailers traveling south from Los Angeles through Mexico and Central America, but like many untested ideas, the caravan got a bit out of hand. The treacherous trip lasted four months, and of the 63 Airstream owners who began the odyssey, only 14 trailers finished.
Byam chalked that initial caravan up to a learning experience and subsequent trips were much more successful. In 1955, he led a successful caravan of 500 Airstreams through Mexico. There were many other triumphant expeditions to Canada, Mexico, Central America, Yellowstone National Park, Cuba and Europe.
Then in 1959, the mother of all caravans: an 18,000-mile drive from Cape Town, South Africa, to Cairo, Egypt, in North Africa.
Through the years, there were many incarnations of the Airstream, but nearly all retained that distinctive shape and were made of aluminum. At one point, Byam experimented with fiberglass bodies, but the die-hard aluminum devotees – proudly self-proclaimed “rivetheads” – would have nothing to do with plastic.
We can learn from Wally Byam, Foster writes.
“Wally said, ’Go see what’s over the next hill, and the one after that, and the one after that.’ The Airstream story is one of travel, adventure and memories that last a lifetime.”
“Airstream: America’s World Traveler” and a 2017 Airstream calendar (16 months) are available on Amazon.
E’Lousie Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at firstname.lastname@example.org