Most people have never heard the name Hawley Bowlus, but Airstream historians know him well. Bowlus, the Ryan Aircraft pilot and engineer who served as production manager for Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis in the late 1920’s, was also the creator of the first aluminum riveted travel trailer in 1934—not Wally Byam, as many believe.
Eighty years later, the (considerably upgunned) Bowlus Road Chief trailer has been “newly imagined” by the family of John Long. Long, President of Bowlus Road Chief LLC, towed his prototype new Bowlus trailer to Jackson, California for Alumafandango 2016, where he delivered a seminar on the colorful history of the Bowlus and Hawley, “the inventor of the aluminum trailer.”
“Hawley was quite an innovative designer and engineer who spent almost his entire life working on aircraft, mostly sailplanes and gliders,” explained Long. “That was really his claim to fame.” Bowlus worked closely with Charles Lindbergh, and was present at the factory when the historic telegram arrived, asking them to build the monoplane that Lindbergh was to pilot solo across the Atlantic.
It was sailplaning and soaring that Bowlus preferred, though. Among other achievements, he broke Orville Wright’s soaring duration record in 1929. “All those records he broke, he built his own sailplanes to do it,” said Long. “He built the first one when he was about 16 years old—which he crashed. And then he built the second one, which he also crashed. He continued on, building these sailplanes, and developing the techniques to do it.”
“Sailplaning was sort of the ‘extreme sport’ of the day,” Long laughed. “In the 1920s you had to be pretty well-off, you had to be adventuresome, and you had to be willing to crash—a lot.” Sailplaning was a dangerous pastime for those helping around the hanger as well as the pilot: early models were launched using huge elastic straps, stretched tight and released by hand like toy rubber band planes. “Six guys would run down the field pulling the band, as much as they could go back,” said Long. “Then they let go. The guys pulling on the band would duck immediately down on the ground and just hope that the sailplane would go over them.”
German designer-engineers—who developed sailplanes during the first World War—became the world leaders, and Hawley Bowlus carried the movement forward on the west coast of the US. “He was instrumental in America’s knowledge about sailplanes; how they worked, and what was the best design,” said Long.
“There was always this kind of competition between German-made sailplanes and American designed sailplanes, and Hawley was right in the middle of the field.” Literally: when Bowlus was a boy his father purchased a farm with an orange grove in California. Unable to make a living from his orange crop, Dad Bowlus shifted his trade to furniture manufacturing, and built a large workshop on the land. “It was just ideal for Hawley,” said Long. “A shop on a large piece of land where he could do all these crazy inventions.”
The “Bowlus Ranch” soon evolved into the local haunt for anyone interested in aviation. “People stayed in his house, they came in everyday, it was a hangout place after work,” said Long. “The place to be for other aviation designers, and people building their own airplanes. I’m not sure how many of these people were actually paid. These were students and hanger-oners, as well as people who actually worked in the factory who were paid, you know, a dollar a day. This was during the depression, and times were extremely tough.”
What does any of this have to do with the invention of the aluminum travel trailer? Everything, Long went on to explain.
Before 1934 when the first aluminum travel trailer (the Road Chief) was complete, Bowlus built a number of trailers—but they were intended only to tow his sailplanes to their launch sites. “Where he built them, he couldn’t fly them,” said Long. “There wasn’t enough wind there. He would take them up to Tehachapi and down to San Diego and all sorts of different places to fly these airplanes, so he needed a trailer.”
Bowlus developed a transport trailer with a “tubular triangulated” design that accommodated an entire plane with the wings removed and stowed alongside. He built the trailers like he built his airplanes: “exceedingly aerodynamic and insanely light weight,” said Long.
Bowlus would often need to overnight at launch sites, waiting for the wind to change. “They would set up these tents where it was extremely windy and they would always be blowing down,” said Long. “So Hawley had this idea that he would build a tent inside his transport trailer—and that’s how the idea of the lightweight travel trailer evolved.”
Bowlus built the exterior of his trailers from Duralumin—one of the earliest types of aluminum alloy used in the construction of aircraft—and situated a domed fabric tent inside. His wife wasn’t enthused. “It smelled like doped aircraft cloth,” said Long. “She said, ‘you should really do something better’.” Bowlus jettisoned the tent idea, and began appointing the interiors like a home.
From 1934 to 1936, Bowlus designed and built over eighty of his signature aluminum trailers. “Unfortunately, he wasn’t the best businessman,” said Long. “He was always having problems paying his suppliers, and getting credit for his materials. As a business it was kind of up-and-down.” Enter Wally Byam.
Byam, who we know founded the Airstream company, began making making plans for his own travel trailers in the early 1930s. “They were flat-walled, very small, and made of wood with a steel frame,” explained Long. “And he was building these about 25 miles away from Hawley.” Byam was “somehow involved in sales of Bowlus trailers, I’m not exactly sure,” said Long. “He had a trailer lot, and he bought and sold used trailers. My guess is that he bought a Bowlus trailer, and was planning to become a dealer.”
Byam was an occasional visitor at the “Ranch” when Bowlus discontinued his unprofitable trailer line to return to his first love, aircraft. In 1936, Byam adopted the Bowlus design for his Airstream Clipper.
In the next issue of Outside Interests: The modern Bowlus, back on the road.