The One That Started It All! Airstream's "Clipper #1" Has Been Found and Restored

Clipper #1 10 photos
Photo: Airstream Inc
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The first of anything is clearly special, but when that first something signifies the birth of a legacy, it transforms into something else; it becomes an icon. With that in mind, we explore the very first riveted Airstream's story, the one before you today, all nice and shiny from a restoration process.
Back in 2017, an Italian collector searching through forgotten corners of Mexico City ran across what was believed to be an original Airstream Clipper from back in the day. According to documentation provided by Airstream themselves, it "was in pitiful shape, with crumpled panels and a dilapidated interior." It even had the words "Circo Mundial" painted inside; that last bit is a hint toward the trailer's age.

From here, another name that is somewhat associated with Airstream steps in, David Gulley, the one and the same that's considered to be one of the "world's foremost Airstream collectors," and operates The Gulley Collection, a grouping of some very ancient Airstream models, some of which are also on display at the Airstream Heritage Center.

After Gulley managed to purchase the trailer and bring it across the border, he took a trip to Silver Lady Restoration in Oklahoma, and together with a group of Airstream historians, they went to work revealing what time had hidden for so many years, the very first Clipper to ever roll out from under the Airstream umbrella, AKA, the Clipper #1, or as I like to call it, the "OG," you'll understand why shortly. It's also the one and the same built by the late Wally Byam himself, rivets and all.

Clipper #1
Photo: Airstream Inc
Once the official confirmation came in, it was up to the teams involved to restore this puppy to its true glory, keeping as much of the original intact as possible. While the #1 was travel-worn and even missing some bits, Silver Lady was able to restore and reawaken all but some aluminum panels and walls, the bed frames, the sink and icebox, and the trash receptacle.

But there's a catch to reanimating something from 1936: technology. Often, manufacturers and brands grow and learn newer, faster, not always better ways of doing things, leading to lost knowledge, but not in this case; Airstream's history and manufacturing processes are very well documented. That said, the OG was restored using the same building methods used in 1936, English Wheel and all. Original components that couldn't be restored or preserved were used as templates to produce exact copies, and once finished, they clocked in 40 weeks of work, but it's so worth it! Be sure to check out the images in the gallery.

Better yet, why not head down to Jackson Center, Ohio, and see the "Clipper #1" in all its glory? That's because starting on May 2, 2024, the Airstream Heritage Center started showing off the #1, all thanks to David and Mary Gulley's willingness to loan the #1 to Airstream. It's now on display because of "the historic relevance of this iconic model." Damn right, it's iconic! It's like having the first Benz to your name.

Clipper #1 \(LA Trailer Show 1936\)
Photo: Airstream Inc
The #1 is also on display next to a few other Clipper models from back in the day. The first is Airstream's proprietary 1938 Clipper, AKA "Old Grand Dad," and another of David and Mary's units, a 1941 Clipper dubbed "Old Grandma." It's also important to note that only 12 Clipper models are believed to still exist, of which these three are a part. So that means that nine more gems lie hidden around the world because clearly, these babies made it across borders.

As for what to expect if you ever check out the #1 in person, what you'll be looking at is the moment when Wally Byam decided to break away from the traditional way of building campers and traveling homes. So, while it's not the first Airstream ever built, it is the first of its kind, with the iconic riveted look that nearly everyone in the world recognizes and has even tried to copy, the one that started it all!

We can see the #1's wonderful shine brought back to life thanks to the aluminum panels making up the entire body; it's an Airstream, alright. From the slightly rounded nose construction to the tapered-off and pinched rear, it's all here and as inspiring and eye-catching as ever! All the while, the windows and doors are all in place, and so are three roof vents and two 'bunny ears' that sit above the kitchen.

Clipper #1
Photo: Airstream Inc
Last but not least, since the whole idea about having the first riveted Airstream on display is to actually go and see the dang thing, I'll just touch up briefly on the interior. At the front, a gorgeous galley is seen, with its cupboards and ingenious U-shape, while toward the rear, a dining table denotes the entrance into the living room, ready with opposing seating in the lounge area.

Finally, at the rear, we find the aluminum bed framing brought back to life, and brown leather cushions act as the mattresses. I wonder if it can turn into a double bed or if that's it. Other than that, the teams involved made the best effort to keep this baby as original as possible, with some minor exceptions, of course. One such exception can be spotted in the light fixtures inside; the ones in the black and white images differ from the ones used in the restoration. Other than that, Clipper #1 definitely belongs in a museum.
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About the author: Cristian Curmei
Cristian Curmei profile photo

A bit of a nomad at heart (being born in Europe and raised in several places in the USA), Cristian is enamored with travel trailers, campers and bikes. He also tests and writes about urban means of transportation like scooters, mopeds and e-bikes (when he's not busy hosting our video stories and guides).
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