Central America, 1951-1952
Airstream founder Wally Byam wasn’t just a visionary designer and engineer, he was also a talented marketer. He understood that hitching up a travel trailer and towing it down the highway was a daunting task for those unfamiliar with the concept. Wally figured the only way he could convince people to overcome their fears was to show them how exciting it was to embrace the freedom of the road. While he could have set out on a cross-country trip on the highways of the United States, Wally decided to take his dream across the border.
In 1951, Wally suggested a trailer caravan journey from Southern California to Mexico to several of his friends. The idea spread quickly and was even picked up by several trailer magazines. Seeing traction his idea had caught, Wally decided to advertise the trip in the Los Angeles Times. When the time came, he only expected around 35 trailers. In the end, he was surprised by 63 trailers of all kinds arriving at the departure point in El Paso, Texas. Each person contributed $250 for equipment and Wally purchased generators and an army surplus water purifier. In addition, a staff member with a tow truck joined the Caravan. To keep track of everyone, a number was painted on each trailer, with Wally’s Airstream being marked with the number 1. This trend stuck around and was the precursor to the red Wally Byam Caravan Club International numbers you see today on some Airstreams.
Wally, donning his iconic blue beret, led the Caravan through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and ended in Managua, Nicaragua. The Caravanners visited remote Mayan villages, experienced Christmas fiestas in Mexico City, and were personally escorted on a tour of a sugarcane plantation by the President of Nicaragua. When they arrived at the gap in the Pan-American Highway, they loaded their trailers and tow vehicles onto rail cars for a 15-hour ride through the jungle. The Caravan stretched several miles while on the road and at night, the Caravanners parked their trailers in a circle and ate, laughed, and danced together.
The four-month trip was not an easy one and took a toll on the group. The Caravanners experienced rough roads, nerve-wracking bridges, broken axles, and overheated tow vehicles. The generators and water purifier eventually failed and most trailers at the time did not have freshwater tanks, 12-volt lighting, or a bathroom. Wally himself lost weight and gained “a new outcropping of gray hair.” In the end, only 14 out of the 63 trailers completed the trip. This led Wally to vow he would never lead another Caravan.
Thankfully, this sentiment did not last long and Caravans would soon become an integral part of the Airstream Way of Life.
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