Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Wally Byam Caravanners

In 1929, Wally Byam purchased a Model T Ford chassis, built a platform on it, towed it with his car to a campsite, and painstakingly erected a tent on it. The effort was tiresome and unpleasant, especially when it rained. Spurred on by his first wife Marion, Wally built a tear-drop-shaped permanent shelter on the platform that enclosed a small ice chest and kerosene stove. He then published an article that ran under the headline, "How to Build a Trailer for One Hundred Dollars." Readers wrote Wally for more detailed instruction plans, which he sold at a cost of one dollar each. The response was extraordinary, earning him more than $15,000. After building several trailers for friends in his backyard, "the neighbors started complaining that I was making too much noise," Wally observed, "so I went out and rented a building." Airstream Trailer Company went into full production in 1932, when fewer than 48 trailer manufacturers were registered for business. Five years later, nearly 400 companies squared off against each other. Today, of those 400, only Airstream remains.

Wally liked to wear Wellington boots and plaid shirts with them. His choice of headgear was a blue beret, which he had spied in France. He wore the beret on his first Central American caravan, and it was quickly adopted by fellow caravanners as a means to identify each other in a crowd. The blue beret became a caravan essential. While Wally's fashion taste was offbeat casual, his office at Airstream was a "nightmare of disorder," recalled Stella Hall Byam, Wally's second wife. 

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