- Created: 13 February 2011
- Updated: 06 May 2015
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He was Art Costello, who at the time of the original publishing of this article was chairman of the Board of Directors of Airstream. Wally assigned Costello to a flat plank board supported by two orange crates and placed him in charge of “purchasing and accounting”. Basically, that meant he was to handle the money to equip and supply a manufacturing facility to produce travel trailers. The money was roughly equal to the retail price of one Airstream at that time.
Soon after that Wally Byam remembered a production genius he had known during his war time days at the aircraft plant; his group leader, Andy Charles. By some verbal magic, Wally persuaded this highly literate, individualistic man that he should become the first production superintendent of Airstream.
Just two years later, Wally gave Charles a check for $5,000 and a lease to a vacant factory in Jackson Center, Ohio, which had been built to manufacture bazookas. Starting from scratch in an area where trailers were associated with gypsies and fly-by-nights, Charles assembled and organized Airstream’s eastern facility. It took him one month to produce the first eastern-made Airstream travel trailer. That was August 1952.
The following 10 years saw Wally’s company grow to become a major American business enterprise. The best quick statement of Airstream’s present position in the market is this; while producing the acknowledged “Cadillac” of travel trailers, it outsells all but the lowest priced “Chevy”.
It is an astonishing fact that in the very midst of building his business, Wally Byam felt entirely free to leave his factories and take personal charge of every foreign caravan between the winter of 1951 and the spring of 1960!
For those who are not acquainted with Wally’s caravans, they included, among others, trips to Canada, Mexico, Central America, a six-month caravan through Europe and one 18,000-mile tour from Capetown to Cairo through the continent of Africa.
The fact is that Wally never considered that he was leaving his business but rather that he was moving right in the middle of it. As he conceived it, his business was concerned with the essence, the ideal and the “dream” of romantic travel. Wally felt that Air-stream’s product ought to be the very stuff of which dreams are made.
He kept saying over and over again, “I make your travel dreams come true.” He meant it most profoundly.
To be sure, those shiny stressed-aluminum things lined up at his factories were vital - even integral - to those dreams, but they were the means as much as the end.
By Wally’s thinking, there was a strange reciprocity between the “dream” and the trailer, a give and take. It worked out something like this: The more you could do in a trailer, the more you dreamed of doing. The more you dreamed of doing, the more you could do if you tried - in an Airstream.
The caravans and rallies conceived and personally led by Wally Byam were thus vastly more than mere “stunts”. They were more than promotional devices. They were, in fact, the deliberate way by which Wally Byam demonstrated what could be done in a travel trailer.
Then having thus stimulated the “dream” of travel by trailer, Wally sought, through caravans and rallies, to learn what qualities and equipment should be designed and built into his Airstreams.
Wally Byam became the most fanatical critic of Airstream trailers the company ever had. Hardly a day went by that his companies didn’t receive a long letter or dictating machine recording of criticism. Not even the smallest detail escaped Wally’s personal notice. Factory presidents were never surprised to receive middle-of-the-night calls from London or Mexico City or Capetown. Something should be done about the door; the air-vent was vibrating (perhaps after 18,000 miles of roadless travel), or he had an idea for a new fold down bed for children.
Wally scoured the civilized world looking for efficient hot water heaters, door hinges, butane lamps, chemical toilets, small porcelain sinks, chairs - myriad such large and small items for his beloved Airstreams.
He had thousands of things packaged up and sent back to his factories for consideration. When nothing suitable was available on the world market, Wally sought to motivate somebody to manufacture it. Failing that, he ordered his own factories to make their own - be it a new bed, a window frame or a bathtub.
Wally said there would always be caravans. They would go farther, stay longer, encompass more. They would always be needed to introduce new caravanners to the ever expanding potential of the travel trailer and to feed back more and more information to his factories.