Aero Flite Trailers
"America's Smartest Trailers"
Prototype - Serial Number 101X
Two experimental prototypes were built when the company was still Aero Services. The prototypes were referred to as “pilot trailers” in company records. One of these trailers exists today and bears the serial number 101X, which means it was designated as trailer #1 and was experimental. In its ownership papers, which document the prior owners’ names from 1946 to present, the trailer is referred to as an Aero Flite “Lark.”
The original owner of trailer 101X was Cornelius “Neil” Vanderbilt, Jr., great grandson of the wealthy shipping magnate Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. Neil Vanderbilt was a successful novelist, freelance writer, and public speaker. He was very fond of trailer travel and in the 1930’s was the president of the American Trailer Association. In one of the many books he authored, Man of the World, Vanderbilt wrote about having taken a travel trailer to England to attend the Coronation of King George VI in 1937.
It is unknown how Vanderbilt became aware of the new brand of luxury trailer named Aero Flite, perhaps he read about it in the January 1946 issue of Trail-R-News. The publication was self-described as, “Devoted to the Exclusive Interest of all Trailerites” and in January 1946 its cover featured Aero Flite. In addition to the cover shot, the magazine dedicated two pages to the trailer, discussing its features and reporting on the public unveiling at the Beverly Hills Hotel in December 1945. The publication dedicated space to Aero Flite again, in the April 1946 issue, to report on Vanderbilt’s arrival at the factory to take delivery of his new Aero Flite. A half page photograph shows Vanderbilt sitting in the trailer with Hal Sackett, western distributor of Aero Flite. The magazine described Vanderbilt as “regarded as the world’s #1 trailerite” and discussed Vanderbilt’s plans to take a trip with the trailer, including a trip to Alaska. It is unknown if Vanderbilt ever took 101X to Alaska, but there is plenty of published documentation to show he traveled extensively with the trailer.
Vanderbilt (right) with Hal Sackett in 101X at Aero Services factory, 1946
Vanderbilt traveled throughout the country with his Aero Flite trailer gathering content for a syndicated column he wrote at the time entitled, “Vagabonding with Vanderbilt.” Vanderbilt was well known as a world traveler and on his letterhead for the “Vagabonding with Vanderbilt” column, in addition to a depiction of an airplane and train, Vanderbilt had included a sketch of a trailer that appears to have been inspired by Aero Flite 101X. Vanderbilt named his trailers, as people do with yachts, and he named his Aero Flite, “The Bride.”
Vanderbilt was a celebrity and his travels were frequently covered in the newspapers of towns through which he passed. A newspaper article in the San Antonio, Texas newspaper, in April of 1946, described the trailer as “velvety” and having “just about every comfort imaginable for a road trip.” In September of 1946 Vanderbilt and new bride, his fourth, the beautiful Mexican heiress Maria Feliza Pablos toured the west coast in the Aero Flite. By January 1947, Vanderbilt had taken the trailer and headed for Florida to work on a writing assignment.
Vanderbilt often traveled and worked with a personal secretary and in 1947 he employed a 27 year old Canadian named Melvin C. Roberts. Prior to gaining employment with Vanderbilt, Roberts had served as a personal secretary for British Prime Minister Winston Churchill when Churchill spent time in Canada in 1946. On August 10, 1947, Cornelius Vanderbilt and secretary Melvin Roberts were staying in the Aero Flite trailer at a dude ranch in Nevada. Vanderbilt returned home to the trailer after midnight, closed the divider between the front and rear sleeping quarters, and went to bed. When he arose in the morning, Vanderbilt discovered that Melvin Roberts was dead.
News reports described Roberts’ death as a suicide involving an overdose of barbiturates. Following an investigation by local officials the coroner’s jury ruled Roberts’ death a suicide but the jury added a note that the death should be considered an “honorable war casualty.” It was discovered that Roberts had been a prisoner of war in a Japanese prison camp during World War II and along with seven other prisoners had entered into a suicide pact. The eight members of the pact had reportedly experienced such horrible atrocities as prisoners of war that they all agreed to commit suicide if their postwar lives did not justify the atrocities. According to Vanderbilt, Roberts’ death was the sixth of the eight pact members. One of the two surviving members of the group of prisoners later disputed Vanderbilt’s claims about a suicide pact. A few months after Roberts’ death, Vanderbilt sold the Aero Flite Lark and purchased a larger trailer of another brand.
Vanderbilt sold Aero Flite 101X to Wally Byam in late 1947. At the time, Byam was building trailers of his own, also at the Van Nuys Municipal Airport. Byam founded Airstream Trailer Corporation the following year, in 1948. Vanderbilt and Byam had known each other before Byam purchased 101X from Vanderbilt and they remained life-long friends. In 1948 they traveled throughout Europe together in Airstream trailers and later co-designed an Airstream model named the Commodore, in honor of Vanderbilt’s great grandfather.
Wally Byam sold 101X in 1948 to Sam Eskin, a folksinger and collector of folk music. Eskin traveled extensively with the trailer, recording and performing folk music. He assembled an extensive collection of music, the majority of it recorded in the field. Aero Flite number 101X was Eskin’s home while on the road collecting folk music. In a 1949 Oakland Tribune article discussing a concert of Eskin’s, it was reported that Eskin spent most of his time traveling with the trailer, in which he carried recording equipment and two guitars. The trailer was described as “small, but comfortable,” to which the writer added, “It should be. It was built for Cornelius Vanderbilt.”
When he was not traveling, Eskin made his home at Woodstock, New York, where he was active in the local music scene. Many of Sam’s friends and relatives came to visit him at Woodstock, where the Aero Flite was used as Sam’s guesthouse. Eskin’s niece Ruth Skurnik claimed that her son Harmon was conceived in the trailer in 1957. Family friend and country music performer Crow Johnson described the trailer as “the most awful mildew-infested spot” when she and a friend visited Eskin and stayed in the trailer in 1962.
Eskin had offered the trailer for sale in 1954, but was unsuccessful and owned the trailer until 1968. The trailer changed hands again in approximately 1986 when the property on which it sat was sold. The trailer remained in the same location, a few miles from Eskin’s old home in Woodstock, until it was purchased in 2006 by Kevin and Marcia Reabe of Bloomington, Illinois.
Aero Flite 101X as found, Woodstock, NY, 2006
Restoration of the trailer began in 2007. The trailer was disassembled to its bare shell and consideration was given to retaining originality in the restoration process. For this reason, the restoration does not seek to eliminate every flaw, scratch, or scuff. The restoration of 101X is nearly completed. The interior is completed, the trailer is reassembled, and with the exception of the exterior stripes, which have not yet been repainted, the trailer is completed. Please click the Restoration Details Page button below for information about the restoration and for recent photographs of the trailer.
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