Airstream Caravans

Published on by Amandine Romano Pierard - updated on

Caravans from the 30's

Who has never fantasised about time travel? Who has never taken a nostalgic look back and dreamed of reliving what happened years ago?
But what if travelling through time didn't mean turning the clock back, but simply awakening one's memories? Sometimes, a sound, a fragrance or a touch are all that are needed to plunge us into our deepest thoughts.

"Things aren't the way they used to be" is not exactly an original mantra. Many of us have wanted to embark on an adventure that draws inspiration from the past. And that's what the Rétromobile exhibition strives to do, showcasing various means of locomotion from days gone by. Luckily for us, Rétromobile is able to perfectly marry up the expertise of our ancestors, our current desires and the technologies of the future.

Do you like stories? Well, we like telling them. Here's one about the designer Wallace Merle Byam.

In the 1930s, he would say: "We have to keep improving things instead of changing them".
Byam's legacy and his ideology were passed down over the years. Wallace Merle Byam – or Wally Byam, as he was better known – founded the company Airstream, the manufacturer of 1930s aircraft style caravans. His nomadic spirit and practical mindedness inspired him to build light travel vehicles that were aerodynamic enough to cut through the wind. It was more than a concept: he wanted to create a whole new lifestyle and was the driving force behind the idea of "travelling differently". Wally Byam was passionate and anti-conformist, but most importantly, he adored camping. As such, and since he was always disappearing off in search of distant lands, in 1929 he bought the chassis of a Ford Model T for putting his tent up in during his camping parties. It's easy to imagine how uncomfortable it was to camp inside it. And his wife Marion – who accompanied him on all his adventures – was not a fan. She was quite happy to go camping – provided she didn't have to give up any home comforts.

Thank you, Mrs Byam! That's all it took to sow the seeds in Wally’s mind of what would eventually become the Airstream legend. Quite the handyman, he set about replacing the tent and building a plywood and canvas shelter against the chassis of his old Ford T. The first prototype – a teardrop-shaped permanent shelter – was aerodynamic. And what really got people talking was that it featured a mini-kitchen (with a kerosene oven and a fridge).

Wally had to start work very early and be shrewd. One of his jobs was as a company spokesman. It taught him a great deal – and he was quite brilliant at it. He used his excellent communications skills to share his caravan idea, and sold sets of plans for building them. He used the money to build his own vehicle – like the one he had built for his wife. This was a very good move that made him a lot of money.

In 1932, what had started as his way of dealing with his wife's complaints, culminated in a highly successful business venture: selling futuristic caravans that had more in common with the aircraft of the day, vehicles which were simple DIY projects, but packed with every home comfort. His whole philosophy – improving on what already existed – inspired him to think about how he could make his caravans even more comfortable, while keeping them light. He wanted to create a machine that could cut through the wind for easier handling. And so he came up with aluminium and a design that followed the wind's trajectory. Thus was born the cult caravan. And it served as the backdrop for numerous epics, anecdotes and other stories. The Airstream established itself as part of the American traveller's legend.
 There were several more milestones along the path between the very first Airstreams and mass production by Wally's company. To begin with, he bought out the Bowlus-Teller Trailer Company which built caravans that looked like aeroplanes. This was how the "Airstream Clipper" came about – a monocoque, aluminium body covered with aluminium riveted panels – a homage to the famous "Pan Am Clipper” aircraft of their time.

Wally had boundless imagination and was exceedingly capable, and so took the aluminium shortage at the end of the Second World War in his stride. For him, life was all about challenges – never constraints. He found new opportunities in the aeronautics sector, once again drawing inspiration from aviation.

If you believe in something, it will work. Wally believed in the performance of his concept. And to prove it to the whole world, he embarked on several expeditions across America and through more than 18 other countries between 1951 and 1959. "A total of 38 Airstreams criss-crossed their way through 18 European countries, just as the Iron Curtain was coming down. Later, the trip from Cape Town to Cairo in 1959 was considered the caravan heyday". "We won more people over in the countries through which we passed than all the diplomats in their fine suits".




Wally Byam’s enthusiasm for discovering new places and his love of travelling were always so much more than just business. His passion turned his caravans into a veritable novel all about a life brimming with experiences.
The company is still around today. And since 1955, he's had his own club: the Wally Byam Caravan Club.
"The result is that a light and solid structure is able to embrace all the challenges of the road, but most importantly, it can triumph over the hardest of all trials: time itself".

Web Site here 

Airstream will be at the Retromobile show, in the entrance of the hall 2