To some folks, Airstream's aluminum trailers are peculiar structures that warrant little more than a glance. But look a little closer, and you'll find a perpetually futuristic vehicle that has been used by NASA to shuttle astronauts, the Air Force to move high-ranking officials, and by millions of superfans to simply get out of town.
To chat about the iconic silver trailer's most unusual history, Airstream caught up with Tara Cox, former editor-in-chief of RV Living magazine and author of the upcoming book Airstream: The Silver RV.
1) The Origin Of That Design
If Airstream trailers are known for anything, it's their distinctive silver shape. But the company wasn't the first to make a streamlined silver trailer. The design actually originated with William Hawley Bowlus, a veteran designer who had previously worked on Charles Lindburgh's Spirit of St. Louis plane. Bowlus took inspiration from his work with airplanes to create a silver trailer called the Bowlus Road Chief. "The company went under in 1935, but was actually revived this year by a fan of that trailer," Cox says.
Another fun fact: Early Airstream models were actually made out of wood, before the shiny silver became company standard.
2) The Plans Used To Be Sold In The Back Of Magazines
"Airstream founder Wally Byam originally sold plans on how to build a trailer in your backyard in the back of Popular Mechanics magazine," Cox says. "The oldest existing Airstream trailer was built by its owner from these plans."
3) Just How Light They Are
In the 1940s, Airstream commissioned publicity photos that showed a cyclist pulling a trailer with his bike. The goal: To show off just how lightweight the trailers were.
4) There Were Almost Colored Airstreams
"Wally Byam planned on making colored Airstreams to match the pastel schemes of the cars of the 1950s," Cox says. "After experimenting with his own gold Airstream, he abandoned the idea."
5) NASA Used Them
Neil, Buzz, and Michael's first stop when they got back to Earth: A modified Airstream. "NASA used an Airstream motorhome called the Astrovan to bring astronauts to the launchpad," Cox says. "Apollo 11 astronauts were quarantined in an Airstream until they were clear of feared 'moon germs. In fact, Nixon interviewed them through the trailer."
For decades, NASA also used an Airstream (or Astrovan, as they called it in the '80s) to shuttle astronauts to the launchpad in style.
6) The Military Loves Them
What's the best way for the Air Force to transport VIPs to far-flung locations? Via Airstream, of course. As part of its "Silver Bullet" program, the Air Force Research Laboratories transformed a series of Airstream trailers into mobile communications modules. The trailers, which are outfitted with at-home luxuries such as comfy couches and TVs, as well as a load of communications gear, are designed to fit inside Air Force cargo planes such as the C-17. Past and current Defense Secretaries Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel have both served as passengers in these flying trailers.