The History of the First Airstream: Torpedo

The founder of Airstream, Wally Byam, an avid camper fond of the outdoors, combined a tent-like mechanism with a Ford brand Model T chassis in his first travel trailer experiment in the late 1920s. It did not take long for him to start developing the design; the result was what is recognized today as the first actual Airstream travel trailer.

Byam Publishing Co. published the 1929th Western Music and Radio Trades Journal issue.

Wally Byam, the founder of Airstream, graduated from Stanford University in 1921 and used his experience at the school newspaper to enter the world of advertising and journalism. By the late 1920s, Wally’s company, Byam Publishing Co., acquired several magazines. During the same period, Wally met and married his first wife, Marion James. The couple used to go camping regularly, but Marion didn’t like sleeping on the floor in a tent.

In 1929, Wally came up with the idea of creating a travel trailer that Marion could camp in. He started the job with a Model T chassis with a tent assembly on top. However, he found this was troublesome to put together and needed to provide more protection against weather conditions. He went back to next to his drawing board and designed a teardrop-shaped structure with a sleeping area, a stove, and an ice box. Wally and Marion took the Trailer on a camping trip and loved it when they saw its usefulness. Some of his neighbors even asked Wally to build a trailer for them.

Wally takes care of an outdoor cooker during a camping trip in his Car Cruiser in the early 1930s. You can see his wife, Marion, in a chair. (Courtesy of the legacy of Helen Byam Schwamborn.)
Around 1993 - Torpedo Car Cruiser. Courtesy of the legacy of Helen Byam Schwamborn.

In 1931, the demand for Trailers was wide enough for Wally to open a small Trailer factory in Culver City, California, producing the Torpedo (alternatively introduced as the Torpedo Car Cruiser or simply the Car Cruiser), which we now recognize as the first Airstream model. Although they would later apart, Wally initially worked with a business partner named Yaehrling Willam D. Yaehrling, who had a background in auto repair and plumbing.

The Torpedo, known for its streamlined design, had a floor plan with plenty of “walking space,” a cooker, sink, ice box, and storage space. Wally began posting ads in publications such as the L.A. Times and Popular Mechanics about selling plans for customers to build the Torpedo when the demand increased.

May 1935 Torpedo advertisement in Popular Mechanics.
Mr. and Mrs. Holman added many design innovations to the Torpedo and in the original plans together with their torpedoes and finally transferred them to their son.

One of those customers was a medical student named Ozark Norman W. Holman from Alabama. For five dollars, he bought a set of plans from Wally Byam and provided his construction materials.

Mr. and Mrs. Holman added many design innovations to the Torpedo and in the original plans together with their torpedoes and finally transferred them to their son. This rare Airstream is currently on display at a trailer museum in Texas.

The Torpedo’s design would evolve throughout the 1930s, and ultimately, the model would not be brought back when Wally relaunched Airstream after World War II. However, the Torpedo’s legacy lives on as the model that paved the way for riveted aluminum designs that would become synonymous with the Airstream name.