Like a silver torpedo barreling down the highway, the Airstream trailer is an iconic sight on American roads. The streamlined curving aluminum shell is instantly recognizable, partly because the design has remained nearly constant throughout the company’s nine decades in business.
But despite their distinct appearance, the trailers and motor homes produced by Airstream actually have changed over time, and the design of these vehicles has dovetailed with both American and world history. These historical influences are the subject of a new museum at the company’s headquarters in Jackson Center, Ohio.
The Airstream Heritage Center features more than a dozen vintage Airstream models produced since the company’s founding in 1931, including the first riveted aluminum model, introduced in 1938. In addition to fully outfitted trailers and motor homes that visitors can explore, the museum features a trove of company archival material, ranging from blueprints to marketing films to early sketches of the first Airstreams drawn by company founder, Wally Byam.
As with many corporate museums, it’s a walk-through advertisement for Airstream, but one that highlights the ways in which the trailer has evolved over the years, from the early days of international RV travel and the emergence of the interstate highway system to the Instagram-fueled #vanlife. With reported net sales of $2.73 billion in 2021, Airstream has enjoyed a pandemic-related boom, producing thousands of trailers every year.
Samantha Martin is the curator of the new museum, and she says that while the Airstreams on display show how the shape of the Airstream has remained mostly constant over time, models through the decades reflect changing technologies and global development. “You start to see some of the subtle evolutions,” says Martin, “from the very first aluminum Airstream in the ’30s to the post World War II aviation influence in the late ’40s models and so on.” Learning from the aviation industry, Byam developed new designs that reduced weight and improved aerodynamics. The trailers shrunk even more in the 1960s as smaller vehicles became more popular in the U.S.
The museum also features film and photography from the early days of motor-home caravan travel, including a 1951 trip from Texas to Central America that included more than 60 Airstreams. Led by Byam himself, this caravan would lead to others through the 1950s and ’60s that crisscrossed Europe and Africa. Byam’s own Airstream was decorated with a hand-painted list of his international road trips during this time, more than 10 in less than a decade.
The Airstream was more than just a vacationer’s vehicle. It became part of the space race in the 1960s, serving as an official segment of NASA’s Apollo mission to the moon. Four modified Airstreams were created to serve as temporary quarantines for astronauts returning from the moon. “There was a fear that they could come in contact with some sort of lunar pathogen, so they needed a way to keep the astronauts quarantined from the site of the splashdown until they made it back to the receiving laboratory in Houston,” Martin says. One of those modified trailers, designed without wheels to sit on either a boat, aircraft carrier, or flatbed truck, is on display in the museum.
Another modified Airstream became NASA’s official transport during the Space Shuttle era, driving astronauts the short distance from their suit-up area to the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida for nearly 30 years.
The museum also tracks the company’s growth and evolution over time, including a brief stint producing fuel-efficient aluminum-based delivery trucks during the oil crisis of the 1970s. A decade later, the company went in the opposite direction, creating supersize models, some with three axles. One model was even named the Land Yacht. “The ’80s was that ‘bigger is better’ era,” Martin says.
Today, the company has shifted again to meet the moment. Partnerships with brands ranging from Pottery Barn to Eddie Bauer have revamped interiors, automatous-driving technology has been harnessed to create a self-parking trailer, and the pandemic has led some to see an Airstream as a remote-work paradise.
Each step in this evolution is on display at the museum. But for all the change that has shaped and reshaped the Airstream, its bullet-like form has withstood the test of time. “That iconic shell has essentially stayed the same over the years,” Martin says.