Did you know that they still make Airstream trailers? And that they’re handbuilt out in Ohio? Yep. Retro is in, and it turns out that the workers who build the shiny aluminum Airstreams by hand (50 a week) can’t keep up with demand. Maybe $2 a gallon gas has something to do with it — towing is back!

Airstream goes to war as a civil defense vehicle for atomic tests!

Airstream goes to war as a civil defense vehicle for atomic tests!

The history of Airstream is colorful. Come with me back 100 years to meet a hard-working rogue named Wally Byam. Lacking family money, he worked his way through Stanford — variously as a sailor with the Merchant Marine, a concessionaire at Stanford games, and the house manager at the Sigma Chi fraternity. He got a law degree in 1923, but he never practiced law.

One job he held was as publisher of a do-it-yourself magazine, and when readers complained about the design of a travel trailer, he agreed with them and came out with an improved version — selling the plans for $5. Build-it-yourself ads appeared on the back cover of Popular Mechanics. A major innovation, besides the streamlined teardrop shape and bright aluminum skin, was a lowered floor that allowed people in the trailer to stand up straight.

A classic Airstream interior.

A classic Airstream interior. (Photo: Airstream)

By 1930, Byam was building wood-framed trailers full time. The “Airstream” name came along in 1934, and the riveted aluminum body debuted in 1936. Airstream closed during World War II, but it came back stronger than ever in the affluent post-war years (by which time Byam had gained a lot of experience working with aluminum at Lockheed). In the '40s, Airstream ads emphasized the trailer’s lightness — they could, and did, pull one with a bicycle. Colors were experimented with and abandoned.

The design hasn’t changed much over the years, and the caravans have been built in the same factory for 60 years. “Airstreams of the '30s are still on the road today, sturdy and modern as ever,” the company says.

Pismo Beach Vintage Trailer Rally in 2010

Life's a holiday at the Pismo Beach Vintage Trailer Rally in 2010. (Photo: Steve Corey/flickr)

It’s far from a crazy idea to buy an Airstream because it’s an inherently timeless design that is not only still practical, but supported by widespread expertise, availability of parts and a still-functioning factory. You’ll definitely want to visit the Vintage Airstream website, because it’s got the straight dope on issues like fixing dents, maintaining the plumbing and keeping the HVAC alive and well. And don't miss the fascinating FAQs page.

A contemporary International Serenity Airstream model

A contemporary International Serenity model. (Photo: Airstream)

Watch out, because "classic" old ones can get pricey. This restored 1961 is being offered for $40,000.

Airstream began building motorhomes in the late 1970s, and introduced the popular “land yacht” in 1989. Can you believe it? More than 60 percent of all the Airstreams ever made are still on the road!

By the way, living in trailers is right in line with the contemporary "tiny house" movement. Here's video about how a woman has learned to fit her life into a compact space:

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Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.