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Dr. Holman & 1935 Airstream Torpedo

Was posthumously inducted into the TCT Hall of Fame at the Tin Can Tourists 11th Annual Gathering


When asked if he had ever traveled with Wally Byam on one of his caravans, Dr. Holman replied, “Hell no, he drove too slow.”

Jeri and I had the honor of visiting with Dr. Holman at Airstream Internationals and at his residence in Florida. He indicated at an International in Boise that the trailer was to go to his grandson. If anyone knows how we can contact the grandson, please pass along the information.


Dr. Holman’s 1935 Airstream Torpedo is a remnant of history. It is the oldest existing Airstream trailer. The Airstream Trailer Company officially recognized it as such in 1984.

Wally Byam founded the Airstream Trailer Company in the 1930's. He sold plans, kits and partially completed trailers. If you purchased a partially completed trailer, it was still just a shell. You had to install (or hire an electrician to install) the wiring and electrical fixtures necessary for safe and legal operation. You had to install (or hire a plumber and gasman to install) the plumbing and plumbing fixtures or gas lines and fixtures necessary for safe and legal operation. You needed to choose springs, axles, hubs, brakes, wheels and tires, etc., to even begin to roll down the road. Other requirements included mattresses for the beds, a seamstress for curtains, and much, much more. Unlike today, when you may drive into a dealership, buy an RV product, hook it to your vehicle, and drive it off the lot fully functional, owning a trailer or RV product in the 1930's presented many post-purchase challenges.

Dr. Holman read an ad in Popular Mechanics in 1935, promoting the Airstream 1935 Torpedo by Wally Byam. He wrote the company for literature and subsequently purchased a set of plans for five dollars. Imagine the Great Depression in the 1930's, in which a medical student wanted to travel and needed rest and relaxation from his profession and could not afford to meet his goals. It was decided that a travel trailer (a “gypsy” life to critics of the times) was the economical way to go. He and his wife, Thelma Mathews Herndon Holman, built the shell of the trailer in three weeks between medical school and internship. To complete the trailer required 2-1/2 years of work. Travel began in the middle of 1937.

The trailer is 17' overall with a 14' body. It sleeps four adults with one double bed in the rear and two single bunks that may be mounted along the sides. It has hot and cold running water, a sink, a two-burner gas stove, a shower, a toilet, a space heater, a vent fan, an icebox (home built - not available commercially in the 1930's) and an air conditioner that was added in the 1960's. It weighs 3,150 pounds, unloaded. It is of wooden monoque construction of 1939's airplane design (there is no frame - the body is the frame). The tongue is bolted to wooden stringers under the front floorboards. The semi-elliptical springs that support the wheels and axle are bolted to steel plates in the wheel wells and under the floorboards in the central area of the trailer. The trailer has three belly tanks: 1) 20-gallon fresh water 2) 7-gallon sewage, and 3) 20-gallon gray water (sink and shower water). The original skin of the trailer was Masonite, but due to road damage from flying rocks from early gravel roads, the trailer was skinned with aluminum in the 1960's for protection.

Remember that this trailer was constructed in the 1930’s Great Depression, and new parts were not affordable. Junkyards were scoured for matching used parts. The original filler cap for the fresh water tank was the gas tank cap of an Essex automobile. The original running lights on the forward brow of the trailer are 1935 Harley-Davidson front fender running lights (note: white, not amber color). The original tail lamps were 1929 Ford Model A tail lamps. Red lenses are running lamps and amber lenses are turning signals and stop lights. One pair of lens has been replaced with dual red rather than the original red-amber combination to meet modern standards. The pump to pressurize the water system was a 1924 Cadillac gasoline tank pressure pump mounted under the galley. (Note: Electrical fuel pumps were unknown in 1924, and pressurization of the fuel tank was necessary manually from the dashboard following a fill-up at the local gas station.)

The trailer has been in the Holman family for 64 years and has traveled over 400,000 miles. Dr. Holman “disappeared” with his family for at least one month every summer. The trailer has visited each of the 48 states of the continental USA, seven provinces of Canada, and Mexico. It has been in California five times and to the East Coast extremes of Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island in New Brunswick, Canada, and crossed the Bay of Fundy on the famous “Bluenose”(the “Famous” Bluenose, isn't a ferry,it is an undefeated ,wooden sailing ship.) Ferry from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. Dr. Holman and his wife were in Mexico City, Mexico, in 1939 when he purchased a newspaper and read that Hitler had invaded Poland. The trailer has been used on hundreds of weekend hunting and fishing trips. The exact undocumented mileage is unknown, as Thelma Holman logged only major trips.

Wally Byam also started the Wally Byam Caravan Club International (WBCCI). Dr. Holman was affiliated with this club as early as 1947. Wally Byam at one time had a 1935 Airstreams Torpedo, but sold it. Dr. Holman and his wife, Thelma, attended the 1947 Rally of the WBCCI in Tampa, Florida. When Wally saw the 1935 Torpedo, he offered Dr. Holman the amount of $50,000 to replace his loss to purchase the trailer. Wally soon found to his dismay that “he did not have enough money.” This was the first of several encounters with Wally Byam. Remnants of the 1947 WBCCI decal may be seen on the door window.

In 1992 Dr. Holman retired after 57 years from the practice of medicine. He wished to spend his retirement traveling the roads of the North American continent with his wife Thelma, as he had in earlier years. Unfortunately, Thelma suffered a stroke, dying after several years in a nursing home. Dr. Holman has suffered multiple medical problems, including congestive heart failure, four-vessel coronary artery bypass grafting, a pacemaker for a trial fibrillation and an automatic defibrillator for intermittent ventricular fibrillation. His doctors grounded him from driving and he became depressed, having outlived his wife and friends and having nothing to do. The trailer had not been used in several years, and many features failed to function as designed.

His sons Norman, Jr., and Harry Herndon Holman, a Delta pilot and Navy veteran, hatched a plan in 1996. It was decided that Dr. Holman and his Torpedo would attend – at a minimum – the annual WBCCI International. Dr. Holman and his trailer have since attended international rallies in Rapid City, South Dakota in 1996, Huntsville, Alabama in 1997, Boise, Idaho in 1998, and in Dayton, Ohio in 1999. The trailer almost did not return from the 1996 Rapid City rally due to failing seals and brakes. Parts were absolutely unobtainable. A process of restoration and refurbishment went underway in 1996. After 2-1/2 years of hard work, the “old trailer” was re-plumbed for water, re-plumbed for gas, re-electrified and re-machined for modern brakes, hubs, drums, wheels, etc. Also, old brass work was polished and lacquered and the skin polished. Old rusty nickel and chrome-plated screws were replaced with stainless steel. Curtains and upholstery were replaced.

In 1935, no trailers or RVs had running water, except for that which was poured out of a bucket. The Airstream 1935 Torpedo had a water tank that could be partially filled with water and then pressurized by air from the local gas station or a hand pump mounted in the trailer. Unfortunately, air pressure may have leaked to zero by the next morning, and thousands of strokes would have been required via a hand pump in the trailer to re-pressurize the system. Dr. Holman decided that “water on demand” – especially if he was in the wilderness and poured a bucket of water into the trailer tank from a springhead – was desirable. He devised a system with a 12-volt marine bilge pump and a pressure-operated cutoff switch.

Dr. Holman purchased a 30' Airstream in 1957 and later in 1960 traded it for a 27' Airstream. He drove to the factory in Jackson Center, Ohio, to take possession of his 1960 Airstream. He stayed there for two days, removing the factory installed air pressured system and replacing it with his pressure-switch controlled marine bilge water pump system that he had designed. The chief engineer of Airstream questioned the activity and Dr. Holman explained it to him. The next year, the Airstream Trailer Company subsequently produced that system, while all other manufacturers on the market adopted the identical system. This innovation led the industry by 23 years. Dr. Holman still becomes disgruntled when he remembers that he failed to patent a system that became an industry-wide standard. Dr. Holman had his system in operation in 1938. It took less than six months to decide that he did not want to spend a considerable portion of his vacation working a hand pump for running water when he could flip an electrical switch and have instant running water. Airstream and its competitors henceforth saw this advantage.

Dexter brakes were adopted in the restoration. This company provides multiple lug patterns on brake drums such that one may match the wheels on the tow vehicle and trailer. The wheels on both the original tow vehicle, a 1931 Model A Ford Coupe and the 1935 Torpedo were Model B wheels. Currently, the 1935 Torpedo has 15“ 5 on 5 wheels that are interchangeable with the tow vehicle, which is a 1995 Chevy conversion van. For the first time in approximately 61 years, the concept of “lighter is better” has returned and only one spare tire is carried for both the tow vehicle and trailer.

Some originality has been lost, but the benefit is a trailer that continues to roll and may be serviced easily and relatively inexpensively. Most visitors to the trailer have difficulty imagining that such a futuristic unit was designed in the 1930s.

Dr. Holman was not only a successful physician, but also a successful pioneer, inventor, and leader in the recreational vehicle industry. He lived to be in his 90’s and attributes his success in medicine and long life to his ability to escape stress in life with his trailer…

The 1935 Airstream Torpedo is now coming up for auction Jan 2016 through www.HeintzDesigns.com

holman_norman.txt · Last modified: 2017/04/16 19:23 (external edit)