Silver Beauties
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13 Airstreams That Made the Silver Bullet So Iconic

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Silver Beauties
shaunl/istockphoto

Silver Beauties

For nearly 90 years, Airstream has been synonymous with America's love of travel and the lure of the open road. Plenty has changed since the day when the first Airstream travel trailers rolled out of the factory, but one thing has remained constant: that sleek, shiny, streamlined profile. Cheapism sat down with Samantha Martin, Airstream's company historian, and Tara Cox, author of "Airstream: The Silver RV," to learn more about some of the company's most iconic (and in a few instances, quirky) travel trailers and what makes them so awesome.

Related: 20 Amazing Airstream Trailers You Can Rent on Airbnb

The 'Airstream' DIY Trailer (1929)
Courtesy of the Helen Byam Schwamborn Estate

The 'Airstream' DIY Trailer (1929)

Businessman Wally Byam loved road travel so much that he decided to build a crude tent on wheels that he and his wife, Marion, could sleep in while vacationing. Byam's contraption, built on a Ford Model T platform, wasn't easy to assemble and not very weatherproof. But as a concept, says Samantha Martin, it was brilliant. He revised his plans, replacing the canvas tent with a plywood structure, adding a few creature comforts like a stove and ice chest, and advertised plans for the trailer in Popular Mechanics magazine as a DIY project. Byam dubbed the teardrop-shaped trailer Airstream.

Related: DIY RVs and Vans You Have to See to Believe

Airstream Silver Cloud (1931)
Courtesy of Airstream, Inc.

Airstream Silver Cloud (1931)

Even though the nation was mired in the Depression, demand for Byam's travel trailer was strong enough that he decided to open a factory in Culver City, California. In addition to the Torpedo, Byam began producing the 15-foot Silver Cloud. Built of plywood and Masonite (a type of engineered wood), this trailer had a double bed, a galley kitchen, and a breakfast nook that converted into additional bedding. The company even provided four color-coordinated pillows for the bed, according to a 1936 ad for the Silver Cloud.

1936 Airstream Clipper, Door Side
1936 Airstream Clipper, Door Side by Joe Wolf (CC BY-ND)

Airstream Clipper (1936)

Lightweight, durable, and easy to shape, aluminum transformed manufacturing in the first decades of the 20th century. Always interested in new ways of doing things, Byam decided to fashion the shell for his new Airstream Clipper out of this remarkable metal. Decked out with wood paneling inside and available with a choice of floor plans, as well as electric lights and a crude air-cooling system that used dry ice, the Clipper was a true luxury, costing about $1,200 at the time of its debut (about $22,000 today). But Byam's Clipper wasn't the first of its kind, says Tara Cox. Two years earlier, airplane designer William Hawley Bowlus, who was part of the team that built Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis airplane, unveiled his own riveted, aluminum-skinned trailer. "Bowlus was a better designer than businessman, and his company went under near the end of the decade," Cox says. "The savvy Wally Byam scooped it up, made some adjustments to the design and the icon we know was born."

Airstream Liner (1947)
Courtesy of Airstream, Inc.

Airstream Liner (1947)

Byam shuttered the Airstream plant in 1942, in part due to a wartime shortage of aluminum, and went to work in the defense aviation industry. He reopened the Airstream plant in 1947 and resumed building aluminum-skinned travel trailers. His first new model, the 22-foot Airstream Liner, was touted as the "easiest towing trailer coach" available. To prove the point, Byam hired French cyclist Alfred Letourneur — who once had set a bicycle land speed record of 108 mph — to promote the trailer by towing it with his bicycle. In 1948, Byam shipped an Airstream Liner to Europe and drove it across the continent to promote the brand. "He'd paint the name of each country he visited," Martin says. Back home in the U.S., full-page ads featured the Liner parked in front of Rome's Colosseum with the caption: "Wouldn't it have been spectacular if Nero could have hitched an Airstream Liner to his chariot?"

Airstream Globe Trotter (1951)
Courtesy of Airstream, Inc.

Airstream Globe Trotter (1949)

Byam's European trip inspired the company's next model, the Globe Trotter, which was unveiled in 1949. Two years later, Byam organized a caravan from California to Mexico and Central America, towing the same Airstream Liner he'd taken to Europe. He advertised the excursion in a few magazines, attracting 63 like-minded adventurers. "It was not an easy trip by any means," Martin says. "They had numerous mechanical issues, tire issues, towing issues." At one point, the caravan had to take 15-hour train ride through a roadless section of the route, and several people dropped out along the way. "He lost 26 pounds and, as he said, gained a lot of gray hair," Martin adds. Byam's travels also inspired a group of Airstream aficionados to form the Wally Byam Caravan Club International

https://wbcci.org/

, which still organizes rallies and events today.

Airstream International (1958)
Courtesy of Airstream, Inc.

Airstream International (1958)

By the early 1950s, business was booming at Airstream. Seeking room to build a larger factory, Byam (shown here) relocated the company to Jackson Center, Ohio, in 1952, though he continued to operate his California facility. A few years later, Airstream introduced the International. It was available in five different lengths ranging from 16 to 30 feet. But the most important advancements were on the inside: The International was the first travel trailer to have electricity, which came from batteries, and running water.

NASA Mobile Quarantine Facility (1969)
Courtesy of Airstream, Inc.

Apollo Mobile Quarantine Facility (1969)

At the request of a defense contractor, Airstream built a custom 35-foot trailer to house the Apollo astronauts after returning from their historic moon landing. "There was concern about lunar pathogens and what might happen if they were to spread," Martin says. NASA needed a self-contained, transportable unit where the astronauts could remain comfortably until it was deemed safe for them to emerge, and a travel trailer seemed like a good idea. The company built a custom 35-foot trailer (5 feet longer than the biggest Airstream available at the time) that lacked wheels so it could be transported on a flatbed truck or a cargo airplane. "A total of four were built: One was used for Apollo 11, another for Apollo 12, and Apollo 14," Martin says. The fourth trailer, intended for the failed Apollo 13 mission, was never used. Today, you can see the Airstream that housed the Apollo 11 astronauts at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Argosy Travel Trailer (1973)
Courtesy of Airstream, Inc.

Argosy Travel Trailer (1973)

Seeking to lure cost-conscious customers, Airstream in the early 1970s launched their Argosy line of travel trailers. Like Airstreams, they were built in Ohio (though at a separate facility), shared the same streamlined silhouette, and had an aluminum shell. To cut costs, the company used a cheaper grade of aluminum for the exterior, while the end caps were made of steel, which was less expensive. Argosy trailers also sported a two-tone white-and-tan paint scheme with a bold maroon stripe racing along the side (the paint, according to Airstream's website, was to hide the occasional scratches, dents, and dings of the cheap aluminum). But buyers didn't take to the Argosys the way they did Airstream. Adding insult to injury, Argosy owners couldn't even participate in Wally Byam Airstream club caravans and rallies, which for many was part of the appeal of owning an Airstream in the first place. By 1979, the Argosy line was discontinued.

Airstream Funeral Coach (1981)
Courtesy of Airstream, Inc.

Airstream Funeral Coach (1981)

The energy crisis of the late 1970s and the recession that followed were a one-two punch to Airstream's sales. Seeking to diversify, the company began exploring commercial uses for their Class A motorhome, which had been launched in 1979. The result was a hearse like no other. "The idea was to have a comfortable space for the grieving family to be together," Martin says. In addition to the furnished living quarters, there was also a hatch to store floral arrangements, as well as room to transport the coffin. The company produced only 32 of these models between 1981 and 1991, one of which will be on display at Airstream's new Heritage Center at its Ohio headquarters. The Funeral Coach wasn't Airstream's only attempt at innovation, Martin says. Using the same Class A motorcoach, the company also built prototypes that could be used as mobile business conference space and as a traveling sales demo vehicle.

Airstream Astrovan (1983)
Courtesy of Airstream, Inc.

Airstream Astrovan (1983)

When NASA launched the Space Shuttle program in 1981, they again turned to Airstream to devise transportation for the astronauts. Quarantining wasn't an issue this time; NASA just needed a way to get the astronauts from base to the launch site and back again — no joyrides to Disney World here. "It only averaged about 1,000 miles per year," Martin says. "It just went from Kennedy Center to the launchpad and back." The Astronaut Transfer Van, or Astrovan as it was nicknamed, was a modified 1983 Class A motorhome, and it remained in use until the end of the shuttle program in 2011. Today, you can view the Astrovan at the Kennedy Space Center.

Squarestream 1
Squarestream 1 by Rich Luhr (CC BY-NC-ND)

Airstream Land Yacht (1989)

In the mid-1980s, as fuel prices dropped and the economy picked up, Airstream decided to reintroduce the Argosy brand. This time around, however, the trailers had fiberglass end caps and a baked enamel, painted exterior, giving the trailers a boxy appearance that came to be dubbed the "Squarestream." It wasn't the first time Airstream had experimented with using fiberglass. The aptly named the Land Yacht was a whopping 34 feet long. "It was a product of its time," Martin says.

Airstream Nest (2018)
Courtesy of Airstream, Inc.

Airstream Nest (2018)

The two-tone Nest may look like a sleek 21st century version of the earliest Airstreams, but it's a thoroughly modern affair, constructed entirely of fiberglass. Although a departure from the traditional aluminum, the Nest isn't Airstream's first fiberglass model, Martin says. Wally Byam began experimenting with the material in the early 1950s, producing a custom 33-foot trailer for newspaper publisher Cornelius Vanderbilt IV in 1952 to take to that year's presidential conventions. A few years later, he produced a pint-sized fiberglass prototype dubbed the Wally Bee. But the material was too costly for Byam to use for mass production at the time. Flash forward to 2018 and the Nest. The 16-footer comes wired for optional solar power and has LED lighting inside and out, plus two optional floor plans.

Airstream Bambi (1961-64, 2019)
Courtesy of Airstream, Inc.

Airstream Bambi (2020)

One of Airstream's newest lines, the Bambi is also a nod to the company's past, paying homage to the single-axle trailer first produced from 1961-64 and again from 1998-2002. "It was their smallest travel trailer, tiny and adorable. It had that get-up-and-go spunk; perfect for weekend trips and quick getaways," Tara Cox says. Back then, there was only one model available, a basic 16-footer that could snugly accommodate two persons. Today's Bambis are available in four different sizes ranging from 16 to 22 feet and can sleep up to four persons. "One of Wally Byam's directives was: 'Let's not make changes, only improvements,' and when you do that with skill, integrity and style you become a classic. Trend-followers don't become classics," says Cox.