Vintage Transportation | The Age of the Land Yacht
Sep 20, 2017 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Very excited that my grandparents are preparing for their Arizona return – come November we will be brunching every Sunday again! Their second home here is now an adorable micro-home, but their corner lot used to be filled with a different kind of adorable – a much shinier version. We’ve talked about the Airstream trailer before during our checklist for planning a retro road trip, but today I’d like to dig in more and explore the age of the land yacht. Join me as we embark!
The Airstream trailer started as a twinkle in the eye of one Wally Byam. A self-made man, his love for adventure and the open road marked everything he accomplished professionally. A 1921 Stanford graduate, he paid his way through school with a series of odd jobs. While the variety of work left its mark, perhaps the most influential of his roles was that of a sailor. Exploring the open-sea in streamlined cruisers helped to give Airstream its iconic shine.
After graduation, Wally started work at the LA Times newspaper. He was a member of the advertising team, but his entrepreneurial spirit wouldn’t be tamed. He soon left to start a new venture called the Penny Newspaper Group. The business thrived, but his dream of a caravan – fancy-free lifestyle – remained strong. In 1929 he built the first version of the Airstream. This earliest rendition was a tent built atop a Model-T chassis. At the pressing of his wife, who spent too many rainy nights in a soggy tent, he conjured up a new design. He employed a teardrop shape and it was eye-catching. Neighbors, passersby, friends – everyone was asking Wally about his quirky caravan. With that kind of street cred, he decided this would be his new business venture.
Fun fact: the Airstream brand began life in Wally’s garage, where he would build trailers out of masonite and sell how-to-kits to friends and family
A few years later, in 1931, that venture began wholeheartedly. Wally wanted to create something light as air, something that would truly feel like home. Every inch was thoughtfully designed – it was the epitome of functional beauty. Built in California, the first Airstream offered to the public was called the Torpedo. By 1932 there were over a thousand on the highways. Follow-up designs included the Silver Bullet and Silver Cloud, but the Torpedo set forth the foundational design aesthetic for the brand.
By the mid 1930s, the American public was in a tizzy over camping. Trailer companies popped up across the country, but only Airstream could weather the storm of WWII and changing consumer tastes. During the war, Airstream’s main material – aluminum – became scarce. Wally temporarily closed up shop and his employees began working for airline companies. They spent their days helping the Air Force gain an advantage over our enemies. This choice proved very fateful, as following the war, Wally and his team blended the two industries creating the Curtis Wright Clipper. This trailer was made in the aircraft factory and sought to honor its blended heritage. During the late 1940s, Wally decided to take up another opportunity to enhance the design. He and a dear friend toured Europe in the Airstream, documenting critical improvements along the way. Sounds to me like an awesome Top Gear special! In the early 1950s he repeated that success with a trip from Texas to Nicaragua. Talk about adventure…
Check out the latest design – it seems to take inspiration from the past. Don’t you agree?
The 1950s was a time of innovation. After all – the space age was upon us. In the mid 1950s they partnered with a heating company to develop a hot water system that was self-contained within the trailer. This self-sufficiency meant the Airstream’s range practically knew no bounds. Wally’s vision of a self-sufficient slice of home away from home was finally achieved. Sadly in 1962, Wally passed away from cancer, leaving a desk full of ideas yet completed. Yet his team pressed on and by the late 1960s Airstream got an extensive redesign to take advantage of the latest technological achievements. 1969 saw Airstream in the history books – it was the venue of choice for astronauts upon their return from the moon! The 1970s brought with it a gas crisis and that had a lasting impact on the brand’s history, but it didn’t dent its spunky spirit. The Land Yacht motorhome was introduced in the late 1970s, cementing its place in road trip history. Tell me dear reader, if you were to hit the open road – where’s your first destination?