Simon de Burton

A piece of Hollywood history: inside Tom Hanks’ film trailer

A piece of Hollywood history: inside Tom Hanks' film trailer
Tom Hanks with his Airstream trailer (Image: Bonhams)
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'I got it in the days when movies moved slower,' says Hollywood A-lister Tom Hanks of the Airstream caravan that served as a home-from-home while shooting some of his biggest hits of the past 30 years, including Forrest Gump, Apollo 13 and Sleepless in Seattle. But now Hanks is offering the polished aluminium 33-footer at a Bonhams classic car auction in Carmel, California, on August 13 - where it's tipped to realise up to $250,000.

He's also selling the vast Ford F450 Super Duty pick-up truck ($70,000 - 100,000) that he bought to give the Airstream 'a kinder, gentler tow' than usual movie crew vehicles, as well as his customised Toyota FJ Land Cruiser ($75,000 -125,000) and a Tesla Model S P85D ($70,000 - 100,000) - all of which are up for grabs 'without reserve'.

Tom Hanks filming Apollo 13 (Shutterstock)

Hanks says he bought the Airstream in 1992 after spending too much time in 'regular' trailers with unappealing interiors and uncomfortable furniture - although he opted for a minimalist look when it came to his personal van, which is simply appointed with a desk, cupboard and futon platform together with a basic fitted kitchen and bathroom.

A small table and chairs and a sofa custom-made to fit through the door complete the low-key aesthetic, but the buyer will get dishes, glasses, several coffee makers and some other kitchen equipment thrown-in. The Airstream also has has electric levelling jacks, a roll-up awning, a brace of propane tanks for cooking and heating and its own electricity generator.

The capacious caravan certainly holds plenty of good memories for Hanks from the years in which it served as his refuge on sets throughout America.

'I shan't forget night shoots on 'Gump' and 'The Green Mile' (in Nashville) with the windows open and the cool air coming in. Or the time Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton and I watched a Buster Keaton documentary on the TV - before running through the Forest Lawn cemetery in our Apollo 13 costumes to pay homage at his grave,' he says.

'And you haven't lived well until you survive a movie-stopping thunderstorm in an Airstream while on location in Carolina.'

But if thoughts of 'trailer park trash' still spring to mind when you see 'U.S.A' and 'caravan' written in the same sentence, there's a good chance that you've meandered through life without hearing about the late Wally Byam, inventor of the Airstream and a man so very American that he was born on 'the fourth of July' (1890).

Simple tastes: the interior of Hanks' Airstream

Byam developed a wanderlust as a result of riding with the mule trains that his dear ol' gran' pappy ran out of Baker City, Oregon, later lived in a shepherd's hut - one made for real shepherds, not for English second home owners with literary aspirations - and then plied the bitter waters of the Bering Sea as a hired hand on a tugboat shuttling between Astoria and Alaska.

Byam eventually settled down, married a woman called Marion James and founded a business publishing DIY magazines, one particular issue of which contained plans for 'how to build a travel trailer.'

In reality, they should have been called 'how NOT to build a travel trailer,' because the instructions proved to be all wrong and elicited a flood of complaints after furious readers found themselves knee-deep in pieces of odd-shaped plywood that refused to fit together.

With his knack for finding every cloud's silver lining, Byam set-to and built his own trailer based on a Ford Model T chassis, turning a hobby into a business by selling accurate plans, home-build kits and completed units that he assembled in his garden.

Airstream proper was born when Byam opened a small factory in Culver City in 1931 - although it was to be another five years before the first aluminium-clad travel trailers hit the road. They were based on the earlier 'Road Chief' created by aircraft designer William Hawley Bowlus who worked on the Spirit of St Louis, in which pioneer aviator Charles Lindbergh made the first solo, non-stop flight across the Atlantic in 1927.

Byam had been a Road Chief salesman, but when production stopped in 1936 he adapted the design to create the original, aluminium Airstream, the 'Clipper', which could sleep four, carried its own water supply and featured electric lights and an air conditioning system powered by dry ice.

At $1,200 (the equivalent of more than $22,000 today) the Clipper wasn't cheap - but its quality shone through as brightly as its distinctive, riveted exterior and the order books filled-up fast.

The onset of war temporarily put the skids on Airstream's business and Byam was forced to shut the factory down. But experience in fabricating aluminium meant he and many of his staff quickly found work with California's Lockheed and Curtis Wright aircraft companies.

And, just as a post-Covid boom is being predicted today, Americans couldn't spend quick enough after 1945 - and many wanted to get back out on the road to explore their country.

Byam subsequently encouraged Curtis Wright to allow him to build and sell improved versions of his Clipper for two years before re-opening Airstream and going it alone once again, by which time the foundations for what was to become an all-American icon were well and truly laid.

The brand was soon introduced to Europe when Byam and his tycoon friend, Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr, took an Airstream on a tour of the war-ravaged continent in order to make films for a series of lecture tours - creating what was dubbed 'the world's most travel(l)ed trailer' in the process.

Today, around 85 new Airstreams are built each week at the factory in Jackson Centre, Ohio and more than 200,000 are thought have been made since the firm was founded.

Byam died from a brain tumour in 1962 , but it wasn't until 1969 that his final Airstream designs were significantly updated - the same year in which an Airstream served as the basis for a 'mobile quarantine facility' in which the Apollo 11 crew lived until the scientists were satisfied that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins had not brought anything unpleasant back from the moon. 

Little could they have guessed that a 13-year-old boy called Tom Hanks from Concord, California would also end-up sitting in an Airstream 25 years later - and that he, too, would be dressed as an astronaut.