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Wallace Merle "Wally" Byam, (1896-1962) was one of the pioneer manufacturers of the travel trailer. He founded the company, Airstream Inc. From the 1930s until his death in 1962, Byam was a leader in developing both a romance and enthusiasm associated with the automobile and recreational vehicle culture as well as product features as the United States became increasingly focused on highways and automobile travel.
Byam was born July 4, 1896, in Baker City, Oregon. As a young child, he traveled extensively with his grandfather, who led a mule train in Baker, Oregon. Later, as an adolescent, Byam worked as a shepherd. He lived in a two-wheeled shepherd's cart outfitted with a kerosene cook stove, a sleeping bag, and wash pail.
By the time Byam was three, his parents had divorced. Thereafter, his mother married David Davis, a butcher. By 1910, the family had moved to Astoria, OR. Prior to leaving Astoria, Byam took the name of his stepfather. It was under this name, Wallace M Davis, that he registered at Stanford University, from which he graduated in 1921 with a BA in History.
In his early years, Byam signed on with the merchant marines. He married his first wife, Marion James, with whom he owned an advertising agency and became a magazine publisher. A do-it-yourself magazine he published featured an article describing how to build a travel trailer. When readers complained about the plans, Byam tried them out for himself. Indeed, he discovered the plans were flawed.
Byam was thus inspired to build his own travel trailer. While he considered his first attempt primitive, the design profoundly influenced the evolution of travel trailers. By dropping the floor down between the wheels and raising the ceiling height, his design made it possible for occupants to stand straight upright when inside the trailer. Byam wrote an article describing how to build his trailer for under $100 — this time drawing an enthusiastic response from his readers.
During the late 1920s, Americans were beginning to take to the roads in greater numbers. Byam's new trailer was a perfect match for the increasingly popular mobile lifestyle. Byam thus began selling sets of his plans for five dollars. He also sold complete trailer kits and finished trailers he built in his Los Angeles backyard. His fledgling business survived the crash of 1929. By 1930, he had abandoned advertising and publishing to become a full-time builder of Masonite travel trailers. The Airstream Company was incorporated in 1931.
In 1934, Hawley Bowlus developed the first riveted aluminum trailer, named the "Road Chief". Wally Byam was involved in sales of these trailers. Bowlus continued to produce his line of trailers, finally ending production in September 1936. William Hawley Bowlus was an aircraft designer who had worked on The Spirit of St. Louis.
On January 17, 1936, the Airstream Trailer Co. introduced the "Clipper," and a well-known American brand was born. The Clipper was a similar shape and length to the Bowlus Road Chief but with the door now located on the side. With its semimonocoque, riveted aluminum body, it had more in common with the aircraft of its day than with its travel trailer predecessors. It could sleep four, thanks to its tubular steel-framed dinette, which could convert to a bed. It carried its own water supply, had an enclosed galley, and was fitted with electric lights. The Clipper boasted advanced insulation and a ventilation system, and even offered "air conditioning" that used dry ice.
At $1200, the Clipper was considered an expensive travel trailer. However, market response to the product was strong. Byam's company could not build units fast enough to satisfy the deluge of orders.
Wally Byam's meticulous attention to quality and design helped guide the firm through tough economic times. Of more than 400 travel trailer builders operating in 1936, Airstream was the only one to survive the Great Depression years.
With the onset of World War II, leisure travel and the materials necessary to build trailers both became luxuries the country could not afford. In response to the war, Airstream Trailer Co. closed its doors. Byam decided that the best way to help the war effort was to use his experience with aluminum fabricating in the aircraft industry. He took positions at Lockheed and Curtis Wright for the duration of the war.
When World War II ended, the economy boomed and Americans once again turned their attention towards recreational travel. Byam reopened Airstream; by 1948, the demand for Airstream trailers seemed limitless. Like the Coca-Cola bottle and Zippo lighter, Airstream travel trailers became one of the most recognizable products in the world.
In July 1952, the lease was signed for a facility in Jackson Center, Ohio, to serve the eastern market. By August 1954, the first Ohio-made Airstream rolled off the production line, and the California factory was moved to larger facilities in Santa Fe Springs.
In 1955, Wally travelled to Europe with his wife Stella, in a one-of-a-kind Airstream Bubble to scout the 1956 caravan. Byam's globetrotting adventures were the inspiration for the formation of the nonprofit club, Wally Byam Caravan Club International, to promote the use of Airstreams to travel as much as possible. Founded in Kentville, Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1955, the club is still in existence today, with more than 6,000 member families. In 2007, the club held more than 1400 rallies and caravans.
Then in 1956, he travelled to Europe in a white 26' trailer towed by a Cadillac.
Airstream is now owned by Thor Industries, Inc., the largest travel trailer manufacturer in the world.
The Wally Byam Caravan Club's 50th International Rally took place in Perry, GA June 23-July 4, 2007.
Byam famously led caravans worldwide as publicity exercises for the Airstream brand. His most notable caravan was a 1959 sojourn from Cape Town, South Africa, to Nairobi, Kenya. A recreation of Byam's legendary Cape Town to Nairobi caravan was scheduled to take place in 2009. However, the planned tour was canceled due to safety and political concerns, and the prohibitive insurance costs.