Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Early Airstream Worldwide Expeditions: Vintage Photos

tiny teardrop trailer camping, Airstream, caravans
Not too rough a crossing for an Airstream and an International pickup. (Quartz)

What are the best words for that tiny trailer look that captures the spirit and history of tiny travel trailer adventures? Retro? Classic? VintageTeardrop? And even that four-letter word cute? Whatever word works for you, there is a mystique that surrounds some travel trailer designs, especially single-axle designs that in some way capture that taste of the past--dusty roads, classic cars, and historical views of iconic landscapes. One more descriptive word should be added to describe classic travel trailer adventures: Airstream!

The Airstream website blog has a "Tradition" page that leads to historical Airstream articles, many of them including information about the Airstream founder, Wally Byam. The blog's historical articles include a four-part series, "Wherever the Four Winds Blow," which highlights Airstream expeditions to Central America (1951-52), Europe (1956), Cape Town to Cairo (1959-60), and the "Around the World" caravan (1963-64). All of these articles include black and white photographs that capture the historical, "frontiers of caravaning" qualities of the journeys.

tiny teardrop trailer camping, Airstream, caravans
Caravan I, Central America

Central America

"In addition to being a visionary designer and engineer, Airstream founder Wally Byam was also a talented marketer," the first article begins. The modern day aluminum wagon train included a tow truck, emergency equipment and health supplies, and lasted four not-so-easy months. "Donning his iconic blue beret, Wally led the caravan through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and ended in Managua, Nicaragua."

tiny teardrop trailer camping, Airstream, caravans
"Airstream and the Green Angels"

Sixty-three trailers began the expedition, and fourteen trailers made it to the end. Terrible roads and bridges, broken axles, lack of drinking water, and the breakdown of gas-powered electric generators increased Wally's gray hair count, and he said he'd never lead another caravan. Luckily for the visual history of travel trailers, he changed his mind. A year later, another expedition left for Mexico, this time with the help of the "Green Angels," a Mexican support organization. "One of the crucial services that Mexico provided for the caravanners was the assistance of the Ángeles Verdes, or 'The Green Angels"–a bilingual crew of Federal Tourism Representatives who operated service trucks and patrolled the highways in Mexico, providing aid to travelers."

tiny teardrop trailer camping, Airstream, caravans
Caravan II, Europe


In 1956, thirty-six travel trailers and eighty-seven caravanners traveled on three freighter ships across the Atlantic Ocean for the first Airstream group tour of Europe. In 1948 Wally Byam had traveled with a 22-foot Airstream over 16,000 miles through Europe with a friend. On the second expedition, he was not alone but was accompanied not only by his fellow travelers but also by a National Geographic writer and photographer, a wife and husband team.

"They visited famous sites including the Alps, the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Vatican, and several castles in Germany," the Airstream blog article describes. "They camped along the Rhine and toured the canals in Venice. They watched a bullfight in Barcelona and the opera in Vienna." And more, of course, on this first of many caravanning trips to Europe.

tiny teardrop trailer camping, Airstream, caravans
Wally Byam, European travel expedition.  "Wally's Kindred Spirit."

In 1953 prior to the Europe tour, Wally Byam had shipped his Airstream to Europe, where according to the Airstream article, he had a Volkswagen van prepped to pull it. On this trip, he attended the annual International Trailer Rally in Copenhagen, Denmark, where he took notes and met many other travel trailer enthusiasts.

tiny teardrop trailer camping, Airstream, caravans
Caravan III, Africa


Perhaps Wally Byam's most ambitious caravan was the 1959-1969 expedition from Cape Town, South Africa, to Cairo, Egypt. The Airstream website states: "The trip required years of planning, as the group would be traveling through multiple countries, meeting foreign officials, and driving across a variety of terrains. In addition, the caravan required meticulous preparation for adequate food and fuel supplies as well as vaccinations." When the caravan finally took off, it included 106 travelers who ages ranged from 6 to 86. It was a seven-month trip that covered over 12,000 miles.

tiny teardrop trailer camping, Airstream, caravans
"The terrain was rough, and sometimes there were no roads." (Turner)

The Africa expedition was recorded by Pete Turner, a professional photographer who had developed his artistic and technical skills both in school and in the military. An Airstream blog describes the preparation and discipline required for Turner to deliver his visual impressions of the journey. "He compared the caravan to a military expedition; it was strenuous and required perseverance from every member. The terrain was rough, and sometimes there were no roads. Turner captured both the mundane and the monumental moments of the trip. His photographs showcased the differences in terrain across the continent" (Pete Turner).

Sometimes they made just two miles a day because the roads were so bad. One traveler had to have an emergency operation in the Ethiopian wilderness by a doctor on the expedition. And, as hard as it is to imagine, twenty-five of the forty-one families had never been on a travel trailer caravan before. Twenty-nine rigs made it to the pyramids--but I'm thinking--if they gave up, where would they go?

tiny teardrop trailer camping, Airstream, caravans
Caravan IV. Airstream at the Kremlin.

Around the World

Wally Byam lost his battle with cancer in 1962 and was not able to personally realize his dream of an Airstream expedition around the world. The dream was carried on and fulfilled in 1963 by Helen Byam Schwamborn, his cousin. "In the end, a caravan of 105 people ranging in age from 1 to 72 set out to travel from Singapore to Cabo Da Roca, Portugal," the Airstream blog reports. "Staff members included a mechanic, two advance scouts to survey road conditions and locations for food, fuel, and parking, and photographer Fran Hall. They traveled over 30,000 miles in 403 days, crossing through 30+ countries."

tiny teardrop trailer camping, Airstream, caravans
"The first of 45 Airstreams, loaded aboard for shipping overseas from Los Angeles." (Airstreamers)

The travel tour would take them through Europe, southern Asia, and behind the Iron Curtain. Having learned lessons from the Africa trek, participating campers were required to have been on a previous tour to provide them with experience and to, perhaps, ensure that they didn't start their trip wearing rose-colored glasses. Twenty-three families completed the journey, having experienced the agonies and the ecstasies of the long miles. The trip was chronicled in the book Thank You Marco Polo: The Story of the First Around the World Trailer Caravan, by McGregor Smith, Jr. This book is somewhat rare, copies selling for $99 and up on Amazon and Abe Books. A goodreads review by Drae Wright of the travelogue provides some interesting insights.

Another Airstream travelogue book seems an appropriate way to finish this retrospective of classic travel trailer photographs. The publishing company Quarto has a book on its lists, Airstream: America's World Traveler, "chronicling the fascinating history of Airstream trailers through a detailed history, stories, and beautiful photography" (Airstream African Caravan 1955). Perhaps one more descriptive word should be added to the list begun at the first of this article: adventure! The photo below sums it all up.

tiny teardrop trailer camping, Airstream, caravans
The caravan stops along the road. Men with rifles keep watch for wild animals. Unknown location.

Finally, I have to confess the variety of tow vehicles pulling those trailers is striking: Cadillacs and Chevrolet sedans among the Jeeps and International Harvester trucks. Over the Himalayas they go!

tiny teardrop trailer camping, Airstream, caravans
"Caravanners working their way through switchbacks on the way to Kathmandu, Nepal." (Fran Hall)

No, I don't own an Airstream--and, no, I probably don't want to go on a world tour with my trailer. Yes, though, I do believe my travel trailer is a kind of passport to new experiences and beautiful vistas. I see my tiny trailer as an opportunity. I'm not sure about experiencing the "Lions and tigers and bears" out there in the world, but I am good with experiencing the "Oh, my!" joys of life on the road.

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