Bowlus Backgrounder #1: The Inspiration of Bowlus

Heléna Mitchell
Bowlus Road Chief LLC.
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Inspired by timeless American style, the Bowlus Road Chief is expertly handcrafted from honest materials for a lifetime of adventures.


The story of today’s Bowlus Road Chief begins in 1934, when a pilot, sailplane enthusiast, and aircraft designer named Hawley Bowlus set out to create the ultimate travel trailer using the same principles he used to build his world record-holding aircraft. Only a few years earlier, Bowlus built the “Spirit of St. Louis”, the airplane Charles Lindbergh used to cross the Atlantic Ocean non-stop for the first time.

Owing to the Great Depression, only about eighty of these magnificent travel machines were made before Hawley Bowlus shut the doors and resumed work on aircraft. Another entrepreneur, Wally Byam, soon adopted the basic design and began producing similar trailers in 1936, under the Airstream name. In the decades that followed, the Bowlus brand and the original design were virtually forgotten except by a handful of devoted collectors.

Arguably though, nobody has ever done better than Hawley Bowlus at making a travel trailer. His accomplishment is astonishing, even by modern standards. The original Road Chief weighed a feather-light 1,200 pounds, light enough to be towable by the low-horsepower cars available at that time, yet it included a full kitchen and other amenities expected by the elite road traveler of the 1930s.The aluminum body effectively lasted a lifetime—half of the Bowlus production run from the 1930s is still known to exist and many of those are still on the road.

One of those Road Chief’s – number 149, originally built in 1935 – is currently in the possession of John Long, a devotee of streamline design whose family’s automobile collection includes Citröens and rare Tatras. John spent the better part of a decade meticulously restoring his Road Chief by hand. Now he, his family and a carefully assembled team of artisans are bring the Bowlus Road Chief back to life – with all the modern updates.

Inspired by Hawley Bowlus’s brilliant engineering, and seduced by the comfort of the trailer on their own life-changing cross-country adventures, the Longs decided in a meet-up in Austin, Texas to take the next step. Their goal: to create the ultimate lightweight trailer using the Road Chief for inspiration and the best advancements of the intervening eighty years.

Imagine the difficulty of taking anything from 1935 and building it to today’s standards of reliability, efficiency, safety and performance—while keeping the appearance almost exactly identical. That’s exactly what they set out to do when they began the Bowlus “2.0” project. No aspect of the original streamline design was to be compromised. The original design requirements writing on a back of a napkin from a South Congress Ave food cart outlined the trailer had to have every modern feature necessary (and then some) and store in a conventional garage. The new Bowlus Road Chief also had to comfortably accommodate growing 6’3″ son, Erik something that wasn’t possible in the original. The new Road Chief also needed to carry the family’s favorite long gear, while providing the perfect “escape” with the best in luxury fabrics and finishes.

The Bowlus Road Chief of today shares the best of the original: classic style, and efficiency, all in a soap-bubble-light aluminum shell. The new Road Chief is also full of thoughtful updates, which makes it roomier, more durable and more practical. The new design with electronics and conveniences tucked away discreetly out of sight, still manages to keep the original design inspiration and sense of elegance. Think of it as, “Streamline Moderne meets the iPad.”

The results are obvious. The new Bowlus Road Chief is visually stunning, and perfectly adapted to 21st century conditions. Although the Road Chief looks like rolling art, it is the most modern, aerodynamic travel trailer on the market, equally ready for an afternoon of inspiration, a relaxing weekend getaway, or an ambitious cross-country adventure. After all, genius is never obsolete.