7 cool things to know about Airstream design

What is it that makes people fall in love with Airstreams? 

Sleek retro shape, minimalist feel, shiny aluminum body–the iconic look and feel of an Airstream travel trailer is something that has intrigued and inspired Americans for decades.

Whether you prefer modern or vintage, here are 7 cool things to know about the design of an Airstream. 

1. Airstreams have been hand-built since the 1930s.

Airstream began making travel trailers in 1931, and except for a few years during World War II has been cranking them out ever since. Although the designs, models, and floor plans have evolved over the years, one thing hasn't: the high quality and craftsmanship that comes from skilled humans carefully building each Airstream by hand.

2. A semi-monocoque design is what gives Airstreams their rounded shape.

If you've ever thought your Airstream looked kinda like the body of an airplane, you were right. 

Monocoque is a design technique borrowed from aircraft construction. In a monocoque design, the frame and body are a single unit. An aluminum "skin" is attached to aluminum "ribs," using rivets. This design is stable, strong, and safe—making it still the preferred construction for airplanes.

Airstreams use a semi-monocoque instead of a full monocoque design because instead of a full circle "rib" required in aircraft design, the ribs in an Airstream are attached to either side of a flat trailer frame. Much like the wooden ribs that were used in the covered wagons during pioneer days, the "ribs" in an Airstream are shaped like the St. Louis Arch, not a hula hoop.

The result is an incredibly strong and lightweight body that can withstand the stress and jostling of bumpy, curvy, and mountainous roads in any weather condition. It's also why Airstreams can last for many, many decades - even if they are left outside in the elements or stuck behind an old barn (two places where abandoned Airstreams are often found and rescued).

Semi-monocoque design - aluminum sheets over metal ribs

The strength of the semi-monocoque design is due to aluminum sheets riveted to metal tubes or "ribs."

3. Using a semi-monocoque design for a travel trailer was the brainchild of William Hawley Bowlus - one of the builders of the Spirit of St. Louis.

Bowlus was an aeronautical engineer who was on the team that built the plane Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Bowlus' use of semi-monocoque design, and the aluminum alloy Duraluminum in his Bowlus Road Chief travel trailer, revolutionized the industry. 

Unfortunately, Bowlus' business skills weren't so revolutionary, and he filed for bankruptcy in 1935.

But that created an opportunity for Airstream founder Wally Byam, who approached Bowlus and offered to take over the company by buying its tools and remaining inventory. The Airstream design and "twinkie" shape most people associate with Airstreams was about to be born.

4. The first aluminum Airstream model was built in 1935 and called the Airstream Clipper.

And it was a marvel! The name was a nod to the fashion-forward Pan Am Clipper airplanes of that era. The Clipper was built on an all-aluminum, riveted body and true to semi-monocoque design - on a frame of welded metal tubes.

The Clipper slept four, had a dinette, and featured modern amenities such as cedar-lined closets, an enclosed galley, an even an experimental air conditioning system which used dry ice. Oo la la.

The early advertisements for the Airstream Clipper described it as "Sleek - dashing - svelt - daringly new, moderne in the extreme." The design was a hit and attracted a wide following. Similar to other fashionable design objects of the day, the Clipper exuded an air of modern. It was revered for its sleek, aeronautic design and aesthetics reminiscent of the Art Deco and modernist movements of the 1930s. All this in a fully self-contained, mobile living space on wheels.

1936 Airstream Clipper

The 1936 Airstream Clipper

5. Each Airstream is constructed with more than 2,000 bucked rivets.

Aside from its body shape, probably one of the most recognized features of Airstreams is the rivets that hold the body together. Something about them just seems high tech, futuristic, and retro all at the same time.

Buck rivet

There are several different types of rivets used in an Airstream, but the rivets that hold the trailer together and give it strength are called bucked rivets, like the rivet shown above.

Without getting technical, after a hole is drilled or punched into the aluminum skin, one person puts the buck rivet through the hole and a person on the other side smashes one end of it with a special tool. The tail of the buck rivet expands to about one and a half times its diameter, holding the rivet in place. The nearly indestructible bond of the bucked rivets is what makes Airstreams last forever.  

Two people buck riveting

It takes two people to "buck" the thousands of bucked rivets used in each Airstream. 

6. Airstream founder Wally Byam drove product design for decades.

Wally Byam was a one of a kind entrepreneur, innovator, and leader. He had an unorthodox yet highly effective way of evolving Airstream's design, while simultaneously leading his company. He did this by extensively traveling in the travel trailers his company built.

Wally led caravans of Airstreams through Mexico and down to Honduras, across Europe and Canada, and from Capetown to Cairo. On these "product field tests," axles broke, trailers leaked during rainstorms, and Wally was able to assess first hand what went wrong and figure out ways to fix the design. A heavy product user, Wally also got ideas for design improvements and inventions of his own - including an escape window in the back of the trailer and a flat underbelly to reduce wind resistance.

7. Airstream has more design firsts than probably any other travel trailer company.

According to Wanderlust, these include the first holding tank, the first pressurized water system, and the first fully self-contained travel trailer (the 1957 Airstream International).

And if he couldn't find it or invent it, Wally urged someone to make it. He was responsible for getting Bowen Water Heater Co. to develop the first workable hot water system for a trailer in 1954. And he persuaded Airstreamer and inventor Frank Sargent to invent a toilet that didn't require people to dig a "release" hole underneath the trailer while camping. The toilet Sargent designed has been used in Airstream trailers since 1961. 

10 comments

Raymond Russell

Raymond Russell

Excellent post! Even more to marvel about our Globetrotter!

KEVIN GOLDING

KEVIN GOLDING

GREAT HISTORICAL INFO. THANKS!

Ronald Bassett

Ronald Bassett

Excellent and thx for posting!

Tony D

Tony D

Love our Airstream. Its history makes it even more interesting.

Larry Warren

Larry Warren

Thank you for a very interesting piece!

David Byrnes

David Byrnes

Very interesting history of the features, construction and development of the AS. Thanks for the write-up.

Becky Fela

Becky Fela

This is the best and most fun to read article regarding Airstream I’ve ever come across!
We love our home-on-wheels; 2007 Classic

Cheryl Toth

Cheryl Toth

Becky, thank you so much for this comment. I’m glad you found these design facts as interesting as I did! Such great history and innovation have gone into the making of our “homes on wheels.”

steve benson

steve benson

thanks for info makes me feel better that I bought a 2007 classic needed a lot of tlc looking forward to spring.

Dave Cochrane

Dave Cochrane

Thank you for your article, we are Canadian and whenever or wherever we see an old Airstream we stop and photograph it ( our way of saving it ) especially manufacturer’s plates and decals. I would like to take them all home but my wife always won’t let me.
28’ – 2006 International

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