General Notes/ History
Q: Are Airstreams still being made?
A: Yes, the company is alive and well in Jackson Center Ohio.
Q: Who are the people who are restoring Vintage Airstreams?
A: Airstream restoration/ownership is a mixed bag. Ranges from somebody keeping an old trailer patched together for economical living or traveling, to gutting an Airstream to the shell and using it to create something totally custom and different, to faithful restorations by people capturing the ambiance of a bygone era.
Q: How long has Airstream been in business? When did it start?
A: Since 1932. Only one other maker, Shasta, has been continuously in business longer. The first Airstreams were wood and canvas kits, the Model 2 and Silver Cloud being the two most noteworthy. The first all aluminum Airstream was the Clipper in 1936, and was made until aluminum was needed for WWII support in 1938. Many are still on the road today.
The first post war Airstream was the Liner made in June 1947. The first 2 dozen Liners carry plates that say “Airstream Built by Wallace M. Byam”, and in early 1948 moved production from the LA Airport in Van Nuys to its own factory at 1755 No. Main Street, LA, California. Airstream Trailers, Inc. was formally incorporated in California on November 1, 1948. When the corporation was formed, it bought Wally’s manufacturing company assets for stock and cash, and also acquired McFaul Brothers exclusive distributorship rights (stock & cash). The five initial directors of the new corporation were Wallace M. Byam, William W. Lampkin, Daniel W. Gage, Arthur R. Costello (who later became President), and Claude McFaul, whose “McFaul Bros Trailer Sales” was responsible for retailing Wally’s Airstream trailers at his sales lot. Basically, it “went public” at this time.
Q: What is the history of the AIRSTREAM factories?
A: After establishing the 1755 North Main Street factory in Los Angeles, Airstream expanded into east of the Mississippi by opening a plant in Jackson Center, Ohio in July 1952. Later that year, a second Southern California plant was opened up in Norwalk at 12804 E. Firestone Blvd. This later became the Santa Fe Springs plant in 1958 when borders of the two towns were realigned as Southern California grew. The North Main St. factory was closed in 1960. The Santa Fe Springs plant was closed to make way for the I-5 freeway expansion in 1968 at the end of the model year and after the 15949 Piuma Ave. Cerritos factory was opened in December 1967. The Cerritos factory was shuttered and all operations centered in Jackson Center, Ohio in 1979. It is because of these many factory overlaps you see different styles of the same model and within the same model year.
Q: It is rumored that Airstream quality suffered in the 1970’s when Beatrice Foods bought the company. Is this so?
A: Beatrice Foods, in the conglomerate climate of the late ’60’s, bought Airstream in July 1969. Much is said about the time Beatrice owned Airstream, both good and bad. The good include the illustrated service manuals and similar production documentation they introduced. They often get the blame for the wider, squarer body style change in 1969, but Beatrice did not take over the company until after the newly styled 1969’s was introduced.
Beatrice engineering did introduce the gray water tanks in 1973 and heavier interiors without changing the frame to support them, resulting in the famed “droop”. Beatrice design group introduced the vinyl covered cabinets, shag carpeting and dark wood grain interiors in 1972, but then that was the trend of the times. Beatrice management discontinued the smaller trailers in favor of the more profitable longer trailers aimed at retirees.
Beat up badly, Beatrice sold Airstream to a group of industry executives operating as Thor Industries in July 1979, who then closed the California factory, and still own Airstream to this day.
Q: I have seen a Silver Streak that looks exactly like an Airstream. Is it a kind of Airstream? What about those late 1940’s Curtis Wright Clippers? They look exactly like the 1930’s Airstream Clippers. Are they Airstreams?
A: No, and sort of. Curtis Wright, who moved to LA from Michigan before the war to start a manufacturing plant, hired Wally Byam. After the war in 1946, they started production of a new post-war travel trailer based on Wally’s pre-war Airstream Clipper & Sliver Cloud models at the Van Nuys Airport (LA Metropolitan Airport). After some months they went their separate ways, forming the Airstream Co. and Curtis Wright Travel Trailers. This appears to be why late ’30’s Airstreams and 1940’s Curtis Wright’s look very similar. In June 1949, three individuals, Kenny Neptune, Frank Pollito and “Pat” Patterson, who had met each other while working for Douglas Aircraft, acquired the trailer business from Mr. Wright and began producing trailers under the Silver Streak name in south El Monte California -which it continued into the 1970’s as a separate company.
Q: What about a Streamline trailer?
A: No relation again. In the 1950’s, Silver Streak partners Kenny Neptune and Frank Polido bought fellow partner “Pat” Patterson out, and Pat went off on his own to produce the “Streamline” trailer. One common Streamline model name was the “Duchess”, and they also made a very unique early motor-home. The Streamline Trailer Company went out of business in early 1974.
Q: Is an Argosy some kind of Airstream?
A: Yes, Argosy trailers were made by Airstream Company starting 1972 in Versailles, OH. near Jackson Center, and are usually recognized as “Painted Airstreams”. Many features were first tried out on the Argosy models, and then incorporated into the more traditional Airstreams if they were a success. A good example is the large front wrap windows.
These painted trailers were able to utilize steel end caps and aluminum panels that were damaged or blemished.
Argosy created a series of diminutive trailers in the ’70’s called the “Minuet”. There was the 6.0 Metre (20′), the 6.7 Metre (22′), and a 7.4 Metre (24′) Minuet.
The first Airstream Motorhomes were Argosy’s made in the mid ’70’s. Airstream didn’t brand its own motorhome until 1979.
Q: Did Airstream ever make a truck camper?
A: No, only Avion ever made a cab over camper, back in the early 1960’s, and is sometimes confused with having been made by Airstream.
Q: How have Airstreams changed over the years?
A: The late 1940’s were lightweight trailers utilizing a single pipe-frame support down the center of the undercarriage, which was also the tongue hitch. The body shape followed the deco looking aerodynamic style of the ’30’s & ’40’s, pointed ends front and back with a single large oval window in the ends. There was one taillight in the back – smack in the center as allowed on trailers back then. Interior layouts were almost always custom built to the buyers taste, and usually lacked bathrooms as we now them now. There were no hook-ups then, and the tank, fixture and pump technology just wasn’t there yet. Ice Boxes were standard, as were wobble type hand-operated water pumps. Electrical system consisted of a few 120v outlets. The stoves were the Coleman portable stove of the era, just attached to the cabinets. Furnishings were of high quality galvanized steel, solid wood and wood veneers made by furniture companies. All the appliances were centered over the axle for support. Interior paint was either a pastel “tender green” or “desert sand”. Windows were lever operated, and the door included the unique for time “door within a door” screen door.
The early 1950’s brought the wider square ladder-frame and A-shaped tongue hitch riding on leaf spring axles. The body shape became little more squarish thanks to flat front & rear windows. Skin panel end segments were 13 pie shaped wedges riveted together to form the curve. Brakes were electric, operated by a lever in the tow vehicle. Later in the decade hydraulic brakes were offered that tapped into the vehicle brake system, eliminating the need for the hand lever on the steering column. Cranks replaced notched levers in 1955, and gas refrigerators arrived about the same time. Interior finish became the Zolatone textured finish until the 1970’s. The color mix changed over the years to reflect the “in” colors of the time. Interior cabinetry became more mass produced wood veneers, first with squeeze-type latches, later with phenolic cam type. Countertops and bath surfaces were painted tempered hardboard. The electrical system was all 120 volt with an occasional 12 volt light operated by the tow vehicle battery. Primary illumination was from a LP gas fired lamp. Apartment style ranges were introduced. Water systems consisted of galvanized water tanks that were pressurized by a hand pump, gas station air, or later, an onboard Grover or Coleman air-compressor. Copper and then bronze waste tanks started appearing, making the trailer more self-contained. Showers were often just galvanized steel or painted hardboard, usually with the toilet in the middle (wet lav). In 1958, Airstream introduced 3 option levels for all its trailers: “Standard” – 120 volt AC appliances; ”Land Yacht” – self contained + 12v battery; ”International” – self-contained + upgraded. Better forming techniques allowed the change from 13 panels to 7 compound curve panels about 1958. The Princess brand of RV stove replaced the larger apartment ranges and Bowen gas fired hot water heaters replacing the 120v under cabinet units. The decade ended in 1959 with the introduction of a new style extruded aluminum window.
The 1960’s brought about a new style axle in 1961, the rubber cored “Dura-torque”. Skin panels changed once again in 1964 with 5 broader panel segments. The early ’60’s also saw the introduction of the 12volt electrical system, powered from either an onboard battery or 110v external power. This introduced the 12 volt Marine type light fixture, the 12v water pump and plastic water tanks, and the Uni-Volt converter. Cabinets finish options changed from lacquered birch to oiled wood (mahogany & walnut) and lacquered oak, the countertops to Formica laminate, and interior endcaps were made of one piece fiberglass. Brakes changed back to electric. The decade ended with a big body style change in 1969, with each model growing in length by one foots and getting wider by 4 inches in a squared off shape.
The 1970’s trailers mirrored the times. In addition to the bigger, wider form introduced in 1969, the trailers followed the style of the era again, this time with dark vinyl wood grained cabinets, shag carpeting, plastic tambour doors and avocado green appliances and countertops. Vista-View windows made their debut, as did solid state “Airstream Control Centers” in the front overhead. This was the era of the Beatrice Foods owning the Airstream company. Microwaves appeared, as did vinyl covered walls in place of the Zolatone. The shorter Caravel was dropped and the loaded Excella 500 was introduced as Airstream aimed its marketing at the affluent retirees. The seventies were stable in that the model offerings and appearance were the same from year to year, offering the same look and options.
Q: Where can I learn more about vintage Airstreams and restoring them?
- Peruse this website from front to back, especially the pages in the Restoration Resource section.
- Read or print the old catalogs and Airstream information found in the VAC Online Library.
- Subscribe to the free e-mail Vintage Airstream discussion list. Join the AirstreamForums.com discussion site.
- Check out what others have done on the Related Links page.
- Check out the books available in the Recommended Reading section.
- Attend a rally and ask questions and check out the vintage trailers. If you don’t have an Airstream, attend the weekend Open House that occurs at each vintage rally.
- Subscribe to the the full-color Airstream magazine “Airstream Life”.
Q: What about RV’ing and RV repair in general?
A: Get copies of:
“The RV Handbook”, a very informative book on general RV systems management and “how things work” by Bill Estes.
“RV Maintenance and Repair” by Bob Livingston
“Managing 12 Volts” by Harold Barre
Check out phred Tinseth’s RV “poop sheets”
Q: How can I find my nearest Airstream dealer?
A: Check out the Thor Airstream website.
Q: Is it true that an Airstream is sometimes chosen as a permanent home by those with severe allergies?
A: To some degree. The Airstream is modified by removing all the components, inner skin and floor leaving only the shell and frame, and then rebuilt with allergen-free materials. A stock Airstream is no different from any other form of trailer or dwelling.
Q: It seems that the Ohio factory in the 1950’s and early 1960’s produced a myriad of different models and layout designs compared to California. Why is that?
A: The California plant was subject to the strict California Division of Housing mobile home regulations and could not vary their standard model floor plans during these years. California could upgrade the furnishings and systems to International trim but could not vary the approved CDH layouts.
Q: Some options and features that are on similar year trailers in the archive section are not on my trailer. Why is that?
A: Contrary to what a lot of people assume, Airstream never magically on September, the beginning of the new model year, threw out the leftover older style parts, and started in with the new systems or features. Plus they had to have in service testing and prototype installs too. Instead they worked them in across models and option packages over time. as the old parts were used up. Since California and Ohio factories had their own parts inventory, they never really coincided east to west either. Messes with our concepts of putting things into nice neat and tidy packages and classifications, but sure does explain a lot of the variability what you will see.