Wally Byam’s Airstream dream began in Culver City
Airstreams have been around since 1929 when Wally Byam, a onetime advertising manager for the Los Angeles Times, built the first one. The Torpedo Car Cruiser was a stylish “bring-your-own-accommodations” trailer.
The growth of the auto industry and the resulting highways helped fuel Byam’s dream. Manufacturing began in the early 1930s out of a small building in Culver City.
The Depression slowed Airstream but didn’t stop it. World War II was another matter, as aluminum, the shiny shell of the Airstream, was in short supply. Airstream was put aside, and Byam went to work in the aircraft industry.
After the war, he returned to his business. In 1948, he toured Europe in an Airstream with his friend, Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr., who was a financial backer.
Growth continued, and Byam needed another manufacturing location, turning to Jackson Center, Ohio, for a second plant.
The 1970s oil crisis hit the industry hard, but Airstream held the course. In 1978, the California plant closed; manufacturing was centered in the Ohio facility, where it continues today.
In the mid-'90s, a redesign — the first in three decades — updated the interior and widened the trailer. By 2006, nearly two-thirds of all Airstreams were still on the road.
“Airstream has had the rare good sense to keep its classic design classic,” then-Times automotive critic Dan Neil wrote in a 2008 article about taking an Airstream road trip with his family.
“The riveted aluminum capsules of today are, aesthetically at least, not much different from the silvery streamliners of more than half a century ago.”
He likened the Airstream to a Lamborghini and marveled at its hipness, but noted, “An Airstream is a shiny telegraph from midcentury America, an object that reflects our grandparents’ restless, road-hungry energy.”
Sources: Airstream.com/history; “Airstream Memories” by John Brunkowski and Michael Closen; and the Los Angeles Times article “Hi-Yo Silver!,” Aug. 31, 2008.
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