A Brief History of Airstream & the First Recreational Vehicles

Exploring the great outdoors is a uniquely American phenomenon. The car culture, cross-country highways, and vast national parks make the United States the ideal location for the Airstream RV line, one of the most popular and distinctive recreational vehicles.

Vintage Airstream
Photo by @nomadmmlodge on Instagram

Vintage Airstream models are highly sought after, and not just by collectors and restoration experts. (Speaking of, you need to see Michael Vallen‘s incredible and ever-growing fleet of vintage trailers.) There’s something about the original shiny chrome that speaks to people who love the open road.

The Outdoors Meets the Model T

Wally Byam is the man behind the Airstream company name, but before he was a CEO he was a kid who loved fishing, sailing, and camping. In 1929, he built what many consider to be the very first official recreational vehicle by combining a tent and the chassis of a Model T Ford.

Wally Byam vintage airstream
Wally in a promo photo sitting next to one of the earliest Airstream trailers.

Improvements to the original design included a permanent and waterproof covering and basic interior appliances.

The original trailer designs were inspired by the sailboats that Wally had loved in his youth. His inspiration would set a trend that would shape future RV development all over the world.

Early Models and Renewed Popularity 

The Airstream model doesn’t only include that typical “silver bullet” style. The first camper was actually the Torpedo Car Cruiser, a small and very portable camper that any car could tow. This sleek, compact style is also highly sought after by aficionados of vintage RVs and has also inspired similar modern models based on environmental sustainability.

the airstream torpedo car cruiser
Wally and the Torpedo Car Cruiser.

The “silver bullet” Airstreams, models like the Clipper, were developed during this time. The bigger trailer could accommodate the first long haul caravan trips, many of which were led by Wally himself. The medium size of the Clipper made it more ideal for families, groups and longer voyages.

Recent trends of searching for these iconic RVs and restoring or renovating them has given new life to vintage Airstreams, as well as creating new motivations for modern designs.

Michael Vallons Airstream
Nomad Mobile Motor Lodge Airstream for rent on Outdoorsy. Follow Nomad Mobile Motor Lodge on FB!

The Airstream lineage has affected the conception of the RV lifestyle itself, polishing it into a trendy, even glamorous pursuit.

1964 Airstream
Photo of 1964 Airstream by @nomadmmlodge on Instagram

It’s amazing to think that it all began with a car, a tent, and an ambitious dream.


Airstream, History and Vintage Airstream, Frequently Asked Questions. 2016.