If you go to a campground today chances are you’ll spot giant rolling hotel rooms that cost as much as some houses. But if the high prices of these rigs or their often boring swoopy graphics aren’t for you, there is still a huge market of vintage campers with loads of character. I found a few that look just perfect to camp out the rest of the summer in. This is the Airstream Flying Cloud, an aluminum-bodied camper sized just right to be towed by darn near anything on the road.
Today, Airstream is known as one of a handful of brands that still builds a quality RV. The company’s trailers usually come famously wrapped in shiny aluminum and are designed to stand the test of time. It’s no wonder that they command a ton of money big or small.
But Airstream’s campers weren’t always aluminum beauties. Company founder Wally Byam grew up living in a wooden wagon towed by a donkey. And in the early 1920s, Byam and his first wife were big into camping. But, like many people of today, Byam’s wife wasn’t fond of tents. Yeah, I know how she felt!
This led Byam moving from his career in the writing world to making early campers. The first was a complicated tent structure on a Model T chassis and the second a teardrop trailer built out of hardboard.
People loved the trailers so much that Byam sold plans for others to build their own. Then in 1931, Byam opened his first factory.
In 1934, Byam would get his inspiration to build the first aluminum Airstream. Aerospace engineer Hawley Bowlus–known for his work in bringing Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis to life–had taken some aircraft technology and applied it to trailers. The 1934 Bowlus Road Chief featured traits trickled down from aircraft like a riveted aluminum body using stringers for support. As Hemmings notes, they weren’t originally for families, but as a way to house crews and ground support at airports.
Byam was definitely paying attention, and just two years later, Airstream released its first aluminum trailer to compete.
The Clipper looked a lot like a Bowlus, but diverted with a door on the side instead of the front. It also had a bit of a sleeker shape and still used an aircraft-inspired semi-monocoque build. And its name was inspired by the majestic “Clipper” flying boats of the day. With the help of the Clipper, Airstream was able to survive the Great Depression. Bowlus, unfortunately, didn’t.
Airstream expanded its concepts through the 1940s with trailers like the long Whirlwind, the tiny Wee Wind, the advanced Liner, and the light Globe Trotter. But the direct successor to the original Clipper didn’t come until 1949 with the Flying Cloud.
Airstream’s focus with the Flying Cloud was to give campers all of the amenities of home in a trailer that wasn’t going to be a burden for vehicles to tow. The Flying Cloud boasted a refrigerator (many campers of the time simply had an ice box), double sinks, and working plumbing. Flying Cloud owners could enjoy taking a shower and a flushing toilet on the road.
It was also quite versatile, with Airstream offering a plethora of floorplans for its 18-foot body, giving buyers some decent choice. And at a dry weight of about 2,500-pounds, you didn’t need something huge to tow it.
Airstream says that 70 percent of its travel trailers are still on the road today. I found a few vintage Flying Clouds for sale. Most of them have been renovated but a few originals are out there.
Check out this 1955 Flying Cloud.
It’s said to be in mostly original condition. I love how the aluminum still shines bright. And the visible parts of the frame that we can see look great.
Inside, it’s like a museum piece or a time capsule. I mean, check out the original kitchen equipment. The only thing that looks out of place is the air-conditioner. It’s not original, but a welcome addition considering the crazy heat lately.
Of course, even 67 years down the road these trailers seem to hold onto some value. This one is $37,500 from a seller in Stafford, Texas.
And for an example of what these look like with a few renovations, check out this 1958 Flying Cloud.
It still has the vintage vibes–and most importantly, a bathroom–but you won’t be working with equipment old enough to receive retirement benefits. Even this one is $29,990 out in Lakeport, California.
And for just one more mostly original one, there’s a 1953 Flying Cloud with a slightly different floorplan for $25,000 in Signal Hill, California. This one looks like one good polish away from being the star of the campground.
Flying Cloud production originally lasted just ten years, with Airstream moving on to other future concepts. The company even produced a conventional fifth wheel camper at some point, too. In 2009, Airstream dug into its archives and dusted off the Flying Cloud name for a new line of trailers. The new Flying Clouds have a huge number of floorplans like the trailers of old, but they have the modern Airstream look.
It’s awesome to see old campers like these still in decent shape. It’s not easy keeping any camper on the road, let alone one nearing 70 years old. But these trailer stand proud as a testament to their owners’ willpower and quality that some modern rigs could only dream of having.
Why do I feel like Mercedes is checking her bank account and the room in her driveway for one of these right now?
I’ve been in love with Airstreams since I was a little kid, and I bought a Basecamp 20x this week. It’s amazing how well their design has aged and remained timeless.
“The Flying Cloud boasted a refrigerator (many campers of the time simply had an ice box)”
Everything old is new again. A lot of new trailers are coming with these stupid 12V-only refrigerators that can’t run more than a couple of hours on battery, which means if you want to dry camp you have to take a cooler along. In an industry with a history of bad design trends, this may be the worst one.
I had one of those coolers and the first night it killed the battery in the car- Had to push start the Volvo in the campsite in the am
The trick with those is that they need to be paired with the right solar and battery setup. If you’ve got at least 200Ah of battery and 300W of solar, they’re far better than the absorption fridges. If you’ve just got the one little car battery and little to no solar, they suck.
I really appreciate all these camper articles, it’s nice to dream.
I just wish I could afford one that my spouse approves of.
I spent a year living on the road in a 30’ 2020 Airstream International Serenity. It was a gorgeous trailer and towed better than anything I’ve ever pulled. It also happened to be one of the first trailers out of the new factory, and as such had their new composite floor, so there’s no plywood anywhere to rot. We sold it after that year to buy a stationary home, but I bet that trailer will still be rolling around the country for another 50+ years.
The look of those old stoves in there are so incongruous to the sleek design. I bet they are significant contributors to the overall weight. LOL
I once slept in an old Airstream for a few nights. It was poorly kept and used as a guest cabin on a farm. It was still a far better experience than I have had in a modern camper. It somehow managed to not smell musty/mouldy, which is the first thing I think of with every modern RV. I even noticed that smell once at an outdoors show when I decided to look inside some of the new campers for sale. Dank and off gassing of adhesives. Yuk.
Another great article, Mercedes. Just how does one go about de-oxidizing, polishing and preserving aluminum like this?
Purple? Scotch pad, aluminum cutting polish, low grit. And lots and lots of elbow grease.
Keeping it clean, washed and polished isn’t too hard and will preserve the shiny aluminum. Getting it there from an oxidized state is hard work.
I don’t know what gauge is aluminum airstream uses, but I was warned to be very careful of removing too much metal on the unpainted Cessna 152 I got my PPL in.
Thank you for such a great article Mercedes; I have been in love with and fascinated by Airstreams my whole life, so much so that for Christmas in 97’ my dad got me a Franklin Mint Airstream International Land Yacht that I still have to this day. Haven’t been able to get a real one yet though, one can only dream…
I think if there was -any- real regulation around the RV business, all you would see is aluminum and composite construction. I’d be very surprised if even 50% of towable campers built in 2000 are still on the road, and of those I’d bet another 50% are suffering from some type of water damage. The current build quality is an order of magnitude worse. My Living Lite truck camper is all aluminum with composite panels and a metal roof. It’s been bulletproof. Unfortunately Living Lite was purchased by Thor in 2015 and quickly killed off. I don’t think there are any RV manufactures outside of airstream still producing all aluminum campers which is too bad.
Thor bought Airstream years ago and runout has it that the bean counters are starting to infringe on the legendary airstream quality. I don’t know if it is the typical manufacturing snafus that have popped up since COVID, or if it points to a change in company values, but Airstream may no longer order the value it once did.
Airstream is the original Thor company, Thor itself was only organized to serve as the holding company to bid on the Airstream acquisition, that was about 42 years ago now.
I have been looking at various do it yourself travel trailer plans. Most all are wood framed trailers, just like typical commercial trailers. Wonder if there are plans out there for an Airstream like design? Would make a lot of sense. We’ve got great experimental aluminum airplane designs- Vans and Zeinith – not difficult to fabricate. Why not a travel trailer? I need to look into this.
We’ve had a 1966 “Canned Ham” for many years, but always wanted an Airstream. We made it happen last year (a year ago today actually) . I’m writing this under the shade of our “Zip Dee” awning outside our 2007 23′ Airstream Safari. It’s been a great camper so far. It’s nearly the same as a modern one, but less than half the price of a new one. We’ve had to fix very little, and everything has been DIY. As with any camper, check for leaks and frame rust. We were able to look at ours while the owner was camping, so we were able to see everything working (AC, water pump, tanks, refrigerator, water heater, oven, microwave, shower, etc. Airstreams are aluminum, but the frames are still steel and it’s inside a belly pan, so it’s not visible. If you buy a good one though, they hold their value and can provide decades of enjoyment. I wouldn’t buy new… let someone else work the bugs out first.
Somebody revived the Bowlus brand a few years ago, building replicas of the 1930s models. They are ridiculously gorgeous and ridiculously expensive
We’ve toured a vintage one at one of the Tin Can Tourist rallies a few years ago. It was ahead of its time.
I deeply regret not getting a solid Airstream shell to renovate myself 6 or 7 years ago, before prices exploded. My neighbor has a nice one that never moves. I keep waiting for a For Sale sign to be put onto it.
Perhaps a Silver Streak, Avion, even some Spartan’s are less expensive than Airstream in their “Project Mode”
Funny you should mention Spartan, this popped up on BAT this morning…
If I had one of these with an air conditioner, I would fabricate an aluminum cover to replace or cover over the plastic to keep the look of the Airstream.
I don’t know about fabricating up the aluminum, but once you had that done it’d be easy to replace the stock plastic housing (I’ve installed a lot of those ACs).
I’d be tempted to also stick an old VHF TV antenna on it, just to complete the look.
Nice! There are always a few Airstreams and Silver Streaks at the vintage camper event we go to every October. I try not to drool directly ON them.
In the last photo, is that cylindrical thing a heater?
It is! It’s called a Panel Ray heater.