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Wally Byam - The Man Who Started It All

history1 As you read this story of Wally Byam, you will know he was a real person, not a myth, as we have heard some profess. Wally Byam is no longer with us, but his dream goes on. Each one of you, as you travel the highways, here and abroad, are living evidence of Wally’s dream. He placed the world at our doorstep, for us all to enjoy! 

"Don’t stop. Keep right on going. Hitch up your trailer and go to Canada or down to Old Mexico. Head for Europe, if you can afford it, or go to the Mardi Gras. Go someplace you’ve heard about, where you can fish or hunt or collect rocks or just look up at the sky. Find out what’s at the end of some country road. Go see what’s over the next hill, and the one after that, and the one after that."

This is the message and the legacy of Wally Byam. The words, typically simple and direct, were Wally’s answer to a caravanner who asked in 1959, "Wally, what are we going to do while you are in the hospital?" It was what Wally would say now to all of us.

 

Wally taught a generation and more of ordinary persons how to travel to the near and far places of the world. He provided them with a mechanism in the form of a travel trailer, which he offered for sale. More basically, however, he gave them a concept, an idea, a dream come true. He taught by showing them that they could bring “home” with them on their travels, near or far, and that they could feel at home wherever they went.

 

history2 Where Wally Byam led, people eagerly followed. Somehow in following him they became better able thereafter to lead themselves. Perhaps this was because he had a way of expecting and getting the most that was in a man.

How Wally Byam happened to choose trailers to glorify his life, what inclined him in that direction, is surely contained somehow in the story of his life. But here there is a snag. Wally Byam was an extremely verbal and communicative man. To many he appeared to be an egotist. The fact is that he could rarely be brought into a direct discussion of his own life.

There aren’t many details available about Wally and his family. They were never “poor” in the modern sense, certainly never hungry or in debt. But the times were hard, rough, beset by the physical elements, the wind and the rain, the crudeness of the roads.

Later his grandfather acquired a large flock of sheep. He didn’t hesitate to put a teenage Wally in charge of them. He sent the boy to lead the flock to their summer pastures high in the mountains of Oregon, to stay there alone with them for months at a time.

As a shepherd boy, Wally lived out of a small, two-wheeled wagon covered with cloth and towed along at a walking pace by a donkey. At night the wagon would be unhitched and propped up by its tongue. The tail board let down to disclose a mat for a bed, a kerosene cook stove, food and water, and “all the other necessities of life”—a wash pail and some books.

Years later, on a trip through some western sheep country, Wally told one of his close friends that the shepherd boy’s wagon had something to do with his later interest in trailers.

Wally graduated from Stanford in 1923 with a degree in law. He never applied for a board examination or practiced law in any form for the rest of his life. Instead he went to work for the Los Angeles Times as an advertising copywriter. He held that job long enough to decide that he liked advertising, but did not like to work for other people. He quit and formed his own agency and published a how-to-do-it magazine for home carpenters and builders. In the course of editing and publishing, Wally came across an article on how to build a trailer and bought it for publication. It was rather poor, as he was soon to find out. Every mail brought him complaints.

His curiosity piqued, he decided to follow the instructions himself. He quickly found them impossible. Abandoning the article but not the project, which tremendously intrigued him, he proceeded to build a trailer.

It was a “crude, boxy structure which rested none too easily upon a Model A Ford chassis”, Wally wrote later in his book, “Trailer Travel Here and Abroad”, “little more than a bed you could crawl into, a shelf to hold a water bottle, a flashlight and some camping equipment … protected from the elements.”

Crude or not, it was Wally’s first trailer. It attracted much attention and people even tried to buy it from him. At first he wouldn’t sell; he was having too much fun with it himself. He wrote an article on how to build it and sold plans on the side.

He might have published the article himself in his own magazine, except for a very simple fact; he needed more money than he could “pay” himself. It was published by “Popular Mechanics” magazine.


 

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”.

history3 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.

history4 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.


 

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”.

history5 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.

history6 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.

history7 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.


 

Yet he knew perfectly well that only a small percentage of his Airstream owners could go on very many caravans. Most of them would do the majority of their travel by trailer to places closer to home, family and responsibilities.

He was thus enormously pleased in 1955 when a group of his followers actually beat him to the next logical step; they founded a club of their own which would “localize” caravanning and put it on a year round basis. Of course, they named it after him.

The Wally Byam Caravan Club is now one of the largest clubs in trailering, and it is a remarkable tribute to Wally. It demonstrates once more, and in an excellent way, the effect he had upon those around him. Most men would have insisted upon controlling the club; Wally let his followers keep control.

The WBCC (now WBCCI) has greatly added to the wealth of trailering experiences. Experiences? The temptation is to use the world “thrills” but that would imply cheap, sensational events of the moment. Wally Byam was against such things. Instead, he offered deeper, more lasting satisfactions through experiences of substance and meaning.

Trailering, as practiced by Wally and his followers, has always been more than the pursuit of mere superficial pleasures. It has always been above and beyond what the psychiatrists call the “pleasure principle”.

There never was a Wally Byam caravan that wouldn’t stop in the midst of having fun to take up a collection for some orphanage somewhere, to collect a pile of “surplus” canned goods for a village whose crop had failed, to drop off clothing, school supplies or books.

Does the point need belaboring? Of course not, nor does the related point that Wally Byam caravanners and club members have always been more than a group of Americans out for a good time, whether here at home or in a foreign country.

This is the way Wally wanted it, and this - greatly expanded and multiplied by his Airstream caravanners - is the way it shall be.

(The above story was written by Frank Palmer following the death of Wally Byam in 1962.)