The Airstream Factory Tour Was a Riveting Way to Spend My Birthday

How did I spend my 44th birthday on Tuesday? Let me tell you the riveting tale of my day in Jackson Center watching Airstream travel trailers being made! Airstream factory

Airstreams date to 1936, when Wally Byam, a Californian who sold Road Chief and Papoose trailers for the Bowlus-Teller Manufacturing Company, purchased most of the bankrupt company’s equipment and began making and marketing the streamlined, aerodynamic riveted aluminum trailers under the Airstream name.

Byam’s first Airstream model, the Clipper, housed a galley, a dinette booth that converted into a bed, a water supply, electric lights, and a dry-ice air conditioning unit. The door was more conveniently located on the starboard side of the trailer, instead of above the hitch.

1937 Airstream Clipper

1937 Airstream Clipper

In post-war America, Byam’s travel trailers appealed to families who wanted to see the country at an affordable price. “Throw your cares to the winds and take off in an Airstream, for the time of your life,” encouraged an advertisement for the functional, efficient Airstreams that provided the comforts of home. “Hitch your Airstream behind you and you’re on your way to make travel dreams come true,” another suggested. “Stop dreaming and start living – get out of the rut and on the road to travel adventure!,” a third ordered.  No wonder people got “all wrapped up in the neatest polished aluminum package on wheels!”

"Discover Real Travel Adventure - Go Airstream," PA 799 2, Ohio Historical Society Archives/Library

“Discover Real Travel Adventure – Go Airstream,” PA 799 2, Ohio Historical Society Archives/Library

In the 1950s, Byam purchased an old World War II bazooka factory in Jackson Center, Ohio to make Airstreams in the East. Since 1978, the Jackson Center location has been home to Airstream’s manufacturing plant and corporate headquarters.

Airstream factory tours begin at the Airstream Service Center.  A caravan of vintage Airstreams, including a 1937 Clipper, a 1948 Whirlwind Liner, a 1957 Caravanner, and a 1960s Bambi II, made the parking lot easy to spot.

Further indications that you’re in Airstream country can be found inside the service center. Airstream memorabilia line the riveted aluminum walls. Overstuffed chairs and desks made from the back ends of Airstreams provide a comfortable environment while waiting to take the factory tour or for Airstream service appointments.

Airstream Service Center waiting roomAfter making friends with a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Wellington who was lounging in the waiting room with his parents, I browsed the super-cool lineup of merchandise in the Airstream store.  Here, Airstream owners can stock up on “Home Sweet Home” door guards, sheet sets, china, and other utilitarian accessories for their trailer. Airstream enthusiasts can indulge in Airstream cookie cutters, Vineyard Vines custom Airstream neckties, Christmas ornaments, key chains, vintage dealer signs, and an entire wardrobe of Airstream-logoed apparel, to name a few.

Airstream Service Center storeFor days, I’d been strategizing about what I’d talk to the tour guide about as he and I made our solitary way through the plant.  As tour time approached, more and more people arrived. Would you believe almost 40 people attended Tuesday’s tour?

After we received an Airstream souvenir pen, a pair of earplugs, and safety glasses, we began the tour by learning some fun facts about Airstream. Here are a few:

  • More than 115,000 Airstreams have been built. Of those, an estimated 80,000 are still on the road.
  • About 550 Airstreams roll out of Jackson Center each year.
  • It takes nine days and 300 hours to build an Airstream.
  • Airstreams range in price from $45,000 to $100,000.Airstream Bambi II
  • Each trailer produced is numbered.
  • More than 90 percent of the content of every trailer is American-made.
  • Over 400 employees work at the Airstream factory. On average, they have reached 27 years of service.
  • Airstream also builds UPS trucks.
  • In 1969, Airstream created a mobile quarantine facility for Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin after they visited the Moon in Apollo 11.
  • Airstreams have been converted into diners, bars, real estate offices, hair and makeup salons, and mobile television studios.

 All Airstreams feature a monocoque “cage” construction that lessens wind resistance. As we walked over to the factory, we saw examples of Airstream’s current fleet, including Sport, Flying Cloud, International, Eddie Bauer, and Classic. The Nissan-designed Base Camp is a 15-foot trailer that’s light enough to be towed by the typical passenger car.

Airstream Base CampAirstream has teamed with Mercedes Benz to create the Airstream Interstate touring coach. Eleven Interstates are made in Jackson Center every week. With five different floor plans, this is one sophisticated way to roam around. I might be stopping by Haydocy Airstream & RV to see what it looks like inside.

Airstream Interstate Touring CoachesInside the factory, we watched the classic hand-built Airstream shell go through several stages of assembly. At the routing platform, automated aircraft routers cut holes for the side windows and doors out of sheets of Alcoa aluminum. Workers attached parts of the shell with aluminum aircraft rivets, applied thermal barrier bonding tape to help control condensation and outdoor temperatures, stretched shell segments on a mold to form them, then trimmed and punched them for assembly. Other workers installed the doors, roof air conditioner, TV antenna, electrical wiring, exterior trim, taillights, and graphics.Airstream factory

Inspectors carefully went over the exterior shell of the trailer, subjecting it to a rigorous check for leaks with a high pressure water test that simulates hurricane-strength rain. Other workers insulated the interior with fiberglass, glued an insulated vinyl wall liner to control temperature changes and prevent condensation, and checked electrical outlets and connections. Furniture artisans assembled hand-crafted galley cabinets, wardrobes, lavatory cabinets, dinettes, roof lockers and other Airstream furniture. Still more sanded, glued and finished wood panels, drawers and Corian countertops before installing Moen faucets and other plumbing, carpet, furniture, appliances, a television and a sound system. Finally, quality control inspectors performed a series of detailed tests to make sure that everything in the trailer is working properly. Productivity measures and efficiency charts were everywhere.

At the end of the tour, we saw Jesse James’ Airstream motorcycle…

Jesse James' Airstream motorcycle, Airstream factory … and Wally Byam’s 22-foot gold anodized aluminum Airstream, made for his 1958 African trailer caravan. From 1951 until his death in 1962, Byam led adventure-seekers on caravans.  Airstreamers wore blue berets so they could be easily spotted in large crowds.

Wally Byam’s gold anodized aluminum AirstreamFree tours of the Airstream production facility in Jackson Center, Ohio are available Monday through Thursday at 2:00 pm. Friday tours take place after normal production hours. For more information, click here.

The scenic route from Columbus to the Airstream factory in Jackson Center passes some interesting Union County landmarks, such as the Darby Township birthplace of Charles Warren Fairbanks, who served as Theodore Roosevelt’s vice president from 1905 to 1909. In Zanesfield, the Dr. Sloan Public Library was built in 1914 with money donated by Earl Sloan, whose liniment made him a household name. It also winds its way past three covered bridges: Spain Creek, Pottersburg and Big Darby Creek.

To read more about Airstreams and their history, see Wanderlust: Airstream at 75, by Russ Banham; Airstreams: Custom Interiors, by David Winick; Airstream Living, by Bruce Littlefield and Simon Brown; Silver Palaces, by Douglas Keister; Airstream: The History of the Land Yacht, by Bryan Burkhart and David Hunt; Trailer Travel: A Visual History of Mobile America, by Bryan Burkhart, Phil Noyes and Allison Arieff; and “The Silver City,” in Americana: Dispatches from the New Frontier, by Hampton Sides.

"The Airstream Story," PA Box 800 14, Ohio Historical Society Archives/Library

“The Airstream Story,” PA Box 800 14, Ohio Historical Society Archives/Library

 Airstream Life magazine is a quarterly publication about Airstreaming, including buying tips, suggested destinations and ways you can customize your Airstream.

In Travels with Max: In Search of Steinbeck’s America Fifty Years Later, Gregory Zeigler describes retracing John Steinbeck’s journey in Travels with Charley. In 2009, Ziegler hitched “Winnie,” his Airstream Bambi trailer, to his Toyota 4Runner and took Max, his Maltese, along as he traveled from Jackson Hole, Wyoming to Sag Harbor, Long Island, Steinbeck’s starting point for his trip. Zeigler also kept a blog, Travels with Steinbeck, during his adventure.

The Wally Byam Caravan Club International  is the oldest recreational vehicle association in the world. It provides 12,000 Airstream members with opportunities to participate in caravans and rallies around the world.

For first-hand accounts of Airstream caravans, see Trailer Travel Here and Abroad: The New Way to Adventurous Living (1960), by Wally Byam; Home Was Never Like This: A Trailer’s-Eye View of Europe Today (1957), by Etta Payne; Cape Town to Cairo (1964), by Lillie B. Douglass; and Thank You, Marco Polo: The Story of the First Around-the-World Trailer Caravan, by McGregor Smith, Jr. (1966). Display at the Airstream Service Center

Don’t miss “Through Europe by Trailer Caravan,” by Norma Miller, with illustrations from photographs by Ardean R. Miller III, from the June 1957 issue of National Geographic. President Lyndon Johnson’s daughter, Lynda Bird, traveled the United States in a caravan of Airstreams as part of the “See America First” campaign in 1964. She joined more than 8,000 Airstreamers in 2,500 trailers assembled at the eighth Airstream International Rally in Laramie, Wyoming. Read how she describes her adventure in “I See America First: Diary of the President’s Daughter,” in the December 1965 issue of National Geographic.

Update!  In the April 2014 issue of Woman’s Day, I read that Go RVing teamed with the Casserole Queens to create some recipes for dishes that Airstreamers can enjoy on the road.  You make the dishes at home, freeze them to take with you, and then bake them in your RV’s kitchen. Visit WomansDay.com/CasseroleQueens to watch how to prepare a Make, Take & Bake dinner.  GoRving.com has more recipes for the road.  Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture, by James B. Twitchell, is a great read about how auto-camping became an American pastime.

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