5th August 2020

Where’s Wally? He’s out the back creating the world’s most famous caravan

What do caravans, ketchup and cola have in common? According to an international poll by Money magazine, they are the top three items that are best made by Americans. Think ketchup: it’s likely you think of Heinz. Coca-Cola is, of course, eponymous and when you think of American caravans, it’s likely that Airstream comes to mind.

Iconic in design, and largely unchanged in appearance since the 1940s, the rounded, shiny aluminium form of these caravans has become more than just a means of shelter. It has, to a large extent, become one of the go-to visual representations of car culture and the American Dream, alongside motels, tailfins and drive-thru restaurants.

The brainchild of Californian camping aficionado Wally Byam, the idea of building a caravan came about after his wife complained about holidaying in the leaky tent he had fixed to the bare chassis of a Model T Ford. Setting to work on the same chassis, he created a teardrop-shaped body in aluminium, which offered light weight and ease of towing for a creation that just happened to look great when parked up.

He found himself showered with compliments whenever he travelled with his trailer, so he began to build them for others, even selling a ‘build your own’ how-to guide for $5. As demand rocketed, Byam outgrew his own back garden and opened a factory in Culver City, California. Car and caravan culture had boomed in the USA towards the end of the 1920s and, as the demand grew, so did Byam’s competitors, of which by the mid-1930s, there were more than 400 brands of caravan and motorhome for sale in the USA.

By the end of the Great Depression and World War II, 399 of these companies had gone out of business and Byam found himself working at the Curtis-Wright Aeroplane Company. When the war ended, the Curtis-Wright factory fell dormant, so rather than see it go to waste, Byam purchased the premises and went to work relaunching his caravans to an entirely captive audience.

Success, unsurprisingly, soon followed, as did his innovation in pursuit of luxury and comfort. In 1952 Airstream launched the world’s first caravan with an internal water heating system, and in 1958 came the ‘land yacht’ – a self-contained caravan with its own internal batteries (and an optional generator) to allow it to function fully without mains electricity. Electric refrigerators, plumbed bathrooms and bespoke interior fit-outs to suit buyers’ individual tastes became the norm for Airstream caravans.

Such was the reputation for quality, that when the astronauts returned from the Apollo 11 Moon landings in 1969 and there was a need for their immediate quarantining in case of ‘space diseases’, it was a hermetically sealed Airstream that awaited them on touch-down for this purpose. No doubt the footage of the men, the military personnel and the President himself beside the aluminium bodywork helped secure sales for a generation to come.

Still in business after almost a century, the Airstreams of today are as luxurious as they ever were, while the vintage models have become highly collectable for enthusiasts around the world. They are increasingly seen at UK classic car events… although not yet at a Coffee and Chrome.

Do you have one behind your classic car, and if so, would you bring it to a Footman James event? Let us know your classic camping stories in the comments below.