How Airstream Became The Most Iconic RV Trailer in America

Ah, the Airstream. That highly-coveted “silver bullet” everyone recognizes as it sails down the highway toward its next destination embracing nature and adventure. 

There is no more identifiable RV on the road than the Airstream. The silver RV stands alone in its unique design and cult-like allure.

Let’s take a look at how the Airstream became the most iconic RV trailer in America.

History of Airstream

Born in 1896 and working on a sheep farm while living in a wooden wagon towed by a donkey for much of his early life, Airstream founder Wally Byam didn’t invent camping, but he may well have been the inspiration for the RV life we know today.

After graduating from Stanford in 1921 Wally worked in the field of journalism and publishing. He and his wife Marion enjoyed camping for recreation, but Marion hated sleeping on the ground.

Improving upon his original idea, Wally developed a teardrop-shaped trailer which he outfitted with an ice chest and a stove. And this was the seed from which the Airstream ultimately grew.

By the late 30’s several hundred RV-type trailer manufacturers set up shop. But the events of the Great Depression found most of them dissolving

The First Aluminum Airstream: The 1936 Airstream Clipper Trailer

Following WWII aluminum was scarce and the government had disallowed travel trailers being made for public recreation. Wally Byam closed his shop and began working on military planes at an aircraft factory. The inspiration he would draw from this experience proved to become Airstream’s driving image.

In January of 1936, Wally Byam introduced the Airstream Clipper, a travel trailer made of riveted aluminum.

The Clipper offered a choice of floor plans and amenities; such as room to sleep several people, a bathroom, a stainless-steel galley (kitchen), storage cabinets, LP gas, and even a cocktail bar.

Exterior compartments offered storage. 

With inspiration from Wally’s aircraft experience, the riveted “Duraluminum” skin exterior was insulated with a highly effective kapok blanket. Applying the laws of physics to its shape, the Clipper was designed with rounded corners.

The Clipper was an expensive, high-end RV marketed to the “well to do”, Hollywood celebrities and political leaders alike. (Jack Kennedy used an Airstream as a mobile office!)

While many other travel trailers were marketed in the ’30s, only the Airstream endured.

How Innovation Kept Airstream at the Top of the Industry

In 1980 Thor Industries acquired Airstream and they have succeeded in keeping Airstream at the top of the industry.

Customer service has remained strong and interior design innovation has moved with the times. And indeed it may well be the cultivation of the Airstream community that has made the most significant difference.

Thor/Airstream has actively sought a connection to its customer base and to customer feedback.

Customer service is so strong that many Airstream owners drive all the way to Jackson Center, Ohio for service.

This tact has also helped Airstream to innovate through the years because the manufacturer remains in close contact with the user whose experience and desires they use as guides.

In 2018 Airstream, Inc. broke ground on a huge plant expansion – the biggest in the history of the company. This 40 million dollar project included a brand new 750,000 square-foot facility powered in its entirety by renewable energy credits.

Did Airstream Start the Boondocking Trend? 

Airstream may well have started the boondocking trend – or perhaps it was Wally Byam himself! 

The Airstream was designed to be a well-insulated, self-contained travel trailer that could sustain campers off the grid. The original icebox and LP (propane) gas tanks, as well as an onboard bathroom with holding tanks, made the Airstream the travel trailer of choice for folks looking for a nomadic lifestyle, even temporarily. 

Airstream has changed with the times to keep up with the demands of off-grid living.

It was Wally Byam himself who said, “Let’s not make changes, let’s only make improvements.”

This credo is what has been credited with making the Airstream the timeless classic that it is.

Such innovation, without dramatically changing the product, is what led to Airstream’s first fully self-contained travel trailer.

The First Self-Contained Travel Trailer: The 1958 Airstream International

In 1958 the Airstream International line was introduced to the public. The first self-contained travel trailer with batteries for power and large holding tanks allowing campers to stay off the grid for several days or longer, the International put a focus on boondocking. That focus has never dimmed since 1958. It has only strengthened with time. 

The original International line included:

  • a 16-foot model, (Bubble)
  • two 22-foot models (Flying Cloud and World Traveler)
  • a 26-foot model (Cruiser Tandem)
  • and the 30-foot model known as Sovereign of the Road. 

Airstreams remain popular today for a number of reasons.

Airstream’s attention to quality since the early days of its development has been maintained over decades, and this is a commitment that has lent itself to the maintenance of the popularity of the Airstream brand.

Customers appreciate good quality and attention to detail. Airstream’s leaders, past and present, seem to have taken their dedication to quality seriously.

Airstream has remained relevant over time by making changes inspired by consumer feedback and the changing times.

All of this has inevitably led to Airstream’s longstanding reputation across generations of campers, which in turn has led to the iconic nature of the brand itself.

Features and Amenities in Today’s Airstreams

Today’s Airstreams are outfitted for today’s campers who are adventurers, couples, single travelers, families, remote workers, and people who live on the road full time.

Interiors are luxurious with updated fixtures and the most modern of amenities from flooring to cabinetry to upholstery. Sliding panels made of reflective laminate give a modern feel to the iconic camper, and larger sinks, refrigerators, and cooktops add to the convenience factor. Even the flooring is updated, and amenities such as a first-ever rear hatch door at the back of both of the newest Flying Cloud models brings with it a fresh new concept.

Sound systems and large-screen televisions are upgraded with the advancement of technology.

Overall, upscale everything is the name of the game with today’s Airstreams, along with vibes that appeal to today’s adventurous consumers, such as the rustic lodge and beach-inspired interiors.

Why Are Airstreams So Expensive?

First, they’re luxurious. Along with luxury design comes some expensive materials. High quality always costs more.

Now that we’ve stated the obvious, durability and saleability also factor into why Airstreams are so expensive. Let’s talk durability first.

Back in 2006 research showed that fully 65% of the Airstreams that were built after Wally Byam’s very first trailer were still on the road. Some of those Airstreams included models built from the five-dollar plans Wally sold before the factory ever opened! That’s durability.

Airstreams are said to regularly last as roadworthy RVs for 40 years. That’s four decades of use from an iconic travel trailer with a cult-like following. This speaks to resale value through the years, another reason why Airstreams hold their value and are so expensive to buy new.

Iconic, yes!

When we look at how the Airstream became the most iconic RV trailer in America, we have to look all the way back to Wally Byam, the man who built his wife a tent-like structure atop a Model T chassis so she wouldn’t have to sleep on the ground.

His endurance, persistence, innovation, and dedication to quality over change, as well as his post-war employment working on airplanes, are the reason why the popularity of the Airstream persists 100 years later.

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