Soon Wally was building trailers in his backyard for sale. They were strictly made-to-order versions of his own trailer and usually the customer would come over to pitch in and help. Parenthetically, from that day until this Wally’s customers have always been made to feel free to walk into one of his factories to see “how things are coming along”.
For some years the making of trailers was largely a backyard enterprise for Wally. Sometimes it supported his writing and other ventures, sometimes they supported it.
Wally conceived the name “Airstream” in 1934 and began applying it to his trailers “because that’s the way they travel, like a stream of air”.
In those prewar days there was really no such thing as a production line for Airstream. Each was a “custom” model. It was also an experimental model as well. Wally never stopped trying new things, incorporating new construction principles, building “the better travel trailer”.
In 1936, Wally experimented with the first systematic use of the so-called “monocoque” construction principles in his trailers. He built riveted aluminum shell trailers which are still in existence to the present day.
Imperceptively building trailers, taking them on trips, helping friends build trailers, building trailers for friends, taking friends on trailer trips—became a business, in a sense the beginning of Airstream, Inc.
The full realization that he was “in the trailer business” came home to Wally as the storm clouds gathered for World War II. It came belatedly and with pain. The explanation of this is integral both to the story of Wally Byam and to the philosophy of the company he founded.
He continued to build trailers for travel until 1942, when the War Production Board ordered that “house trailers shall not be made for the duration of the war, except by manufacturers making them for the government or recognized and approved governmental agencies”. That left Wally out.
The end of the war and the lifting of the ban on travel trailers did not immediately put Wally back in business again. A shortage of capital held him back for a time. So did a business venture which was to prove a painful blind alley.
That venture involved entering into a kind of partnership arrangement with another company of much greater facilities. At first it looked like an ideal arrangement with Wally turning over his travel trailer concept, his designs and methods and even the name Airstream in exchange for much needed productive capacity.
For a time there was a mutually beneficial exchange. Wally created an entire travel trailer division and poured into it years of pent up desire, thought and energy. He took all that he had learned of trailer manufacturing during the prewar era and added a new wealth of construction know how gained during his employment by an aircraft company.
But by 1948 the relationship was becoming estranged. It’s difficult to say exactly why. Perhaps as much as anything else, Wally was acting characteristically. He had always been restive as an employee. He had always been driven from within, rather than pulled from without.
To protect his rights to the name Airstream, and to preserve what he considered the integrity of his Airstream travel trailer concept, Wally felt forced to buy his way out of the corporation. It was a trying, difficult process which was to require every bit of patience and determination Wally had. It was also to require every penny he could get his hands on.
Wally rented a small building near the Van Nuys, California, airport and announced to the world that he was back in his own trailer business. Thus was formed Airstream Trailers, Inc.
It took a good deal to have much faith in a company with so little capital or equipment (Wally’s own tools, that was about all), but some did. The first was a bright young war veteran who had studied administration at Cornell University and was just then looking for some kind of permanent job with a future.
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