The Commodore story begins in the 1920s when Wally Byam first met Neil Vanderbilt Jr., descendent of Cornelius Vanderbilt (known as “The Commodore”), a titan of the shipping and railroad industries. Wally Byam began his lifelong friendship with Neil Vanderbilt soon after Neil launched the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News in 1923. At that time, shortly after graduating from Stanford University, Wally was involved with publishing and newspapers.
In 1948, Wally left for his first overseas trailer trip for Europe with Neil. Neil wanted to film postwar Europe for his lecture tours and Wally wanted to road-test his Airstream to discover any weaknesses that needed fixing, as well as any improvements that could be made. The pair traveled in a 22’ Airstream to about a dozen countries and Wally painted the name of each city that they visited on the trailer, labeling it the “World’s Most Traveled Trailer.” This overseas trailer trip between the two friends would be a precursor to the famous Airstream Caravans.
In 1952, Airstream built a prototype fiberglass 32’ Airstream for Neil and Wally to take to the 1952 Republican and Democratic Conventions in Chicago, where they entertained politicians and socialites. That travel trailer was named the “Commodore Vanderbilt” after Neil’s great grandfather, but it never entered production.
In 1955 Airstream launched a production version of the Commodore Vanderbilt. This top-of-the-line 30’ model offered unique features including a crossways bathtub below the rear window and pocket doors to separate the kitchen from the bedroom and the bedroom from the bath. Wally Byam personally used a Commodore Vanderbilt to lead the 1955 Mexico Caravan.
A rare model, the Commodore Vanderbilt appears to have only been built in the Ohio Airstream factory and was discontinued at the end of the 1955 model year. It is unknown how many were built, but only three are currently known to still exist. Visitors to the Heritage Center from June-October, 2022 will be able to see the last 1955 30’ Airstream built in Ohio (and the only Commodore still in pristine original condition) courtesy of a generous loan to the Airstream Foundation from the Gulley Collection.
The Gulley Collection’s 1955 30’ Commodore Vanderbilt (SN O-5064) features the frame, subfloor, cabinets, appliances, and mattresses as originally installed at the factory. This 1955 Commodore is one of the many incredible, rare Airstreams preserved in the Gulley Collection.