Love them or loathe them, touring caravans are more popular than ever. And, it’s not just down to economics.
Even well-heeled celebs have been discovering the joys of taking to the open road, designer caravan in tow.
Modern caravans have all the creature comforts of home, down to satellite TV. And, it seems that, back in the early days of caravanning, things were just the same. If you could afford it, you could hit the road with everything – including the kitchen sink!
Which is just what the owner of the first caravan specially built for touring did, back in 1885.
Named the ‘Wanderer’, the two-ton horse-drawn ‘land yacht’ was the brainchild of Dr Gordon Stables, a Victorian writer of boys’ adventure stories. But, while the characters in the doctor’s stories travelled light, their creator’s caravan was a luxurious home from home.
The Wanderer had two compartments, one a kitchen with full cooking range, the other an opulent living room, kitted out with all the accoutrements wealthy Victorians required.
At the end of a day’s journey, Dr Stables could enjoy an after dinner drink on the sofa, waited on by his trusty valet, Foley. The Wanderer’s lounge also contained an expensive Persian rug, gilt candle holders, a polished table and chiffonnier. And, for entertainment, there was a small harmonium, music stand and piano stool.
In stark contrast, once he’d made up the doctor’s bunk for the night, Stables’ valet had to sleep in a tent outside. And, as they resumed their travels the next day, poor Foley had to ride in front of the Wanderer on a tricycle, to warn other road users of their approach.
1897 saw the arrival of the first ever motor drawn caravan. This was built in Paris, for Prince Oldenburg, an uncle of the Russian Tsar. Essentially, this was a two-wheel trailer, drawn by a massive steam tractor. Nevertheless, in those days, it was the most luxurious caravan of its day.
The Prince’s caravan was 30 feet long and nifty for its size, reaching speeds of up to 19 miles an hour. Resembling a very upmarket railway carriage, as caravans go, it was ahead of its time.
Only the best was good enough, and with all mod cons and expensive mahogany panelling, the Prince forked out £1,200 for his touring van. He even had running water in his kitchen, a flushing loo, plus a promenade deck on the roof, complete with deck chairs.
Underneath the van, a specially designed cage meant his pet dogs could travel with him, without getting dog hairs on the furniture.
But, apart from those who lived and worked on the open road, like showmen and other travelling folk, caravanning was far too expensive a hobby for ordinary people.
Things began to change, however, following the end of the Great War, as many sought an escape to the coast and countryside. Camping, cycling and rambling grew increasingly popular. And, for those with a bit of cash to spare, touring caravans offered freedom, with a tad more comfort.
The first regular manufacturer of trailer caravans for touring was the Eccles Motor Transport Ltd of Gosta Green, Birmingham.
Hoping to cash in on the new craze for camping, in 1919, company founder, Bill Riley, took his prototype vans to that year’s Olympia Motor Show. For some reason, Riley wasn’t allowed to exhibit inside Olympia, so he displayed his caravans at an obliging garage down the road, to see what interest they might get.
The two-berth Eccles prototype was built of steel and had felt insulation with mahogany panelling inside. There was also a Primus cooker, meat safe, a basin, plus fireproof compartment and damp-proof locker for the bedding. The firm received only one order during the course of the show. But, as Riley’s first customer was influential aristocrat, Viscountess Rhondda, Eccles received many more enquiries. And, on the back of this, the firm decided to risk production of 50 more caravans.
Priced at £300, later rising to 300 guineas, the Eccles caravan wasn’t cheap. So, to drum up more interest, the company produced advertising brochures entitled “The holiday problem solved”. The British public didn’t know it, but they were soon to be hooked by the delights of motoring, caravan in tow!
But, not all motorists were enamoured. From the earliest days, many driving enthusiasts wanted to hog the roads for themselves and looked down on trailer and motor caravans. These motoring purists were decidedly snobbish, claiming that caravans were designed “for those misguided folk who imagine that motoring has something to do with carrying your home about with you”.
That insult appeared in the Motor Year Book 1905. Fortunately, the ordinary public wasn’t so snooty and demand for the touring van began to take off. The ‘cottagey’ appearance of the Eccles van, with its bulbous sides, lantern roof, bow windows and lattice panes proved a winner. Before long, its homely appearance set the prevailing style for caravans throughout the 1920s. The famous ‘streamlined’ look would not come in until the 1930s.
By the late 1920s, Eccles had outgrown their original premises and moved to a larger site in Stirchley. The new factory is believed to have been the first purpose-built caravan factory of its kind in the world. From the outset, the Brummagem-based company had an eye for publicity. Incredibly, this included pulling stunts like entering one of their caravans in the famous Monte Carlo Ralley – to demonstrate how safe towing could be! And, to prove the caravan could go just about anywhere, another Eccles dealer took one on a test run in the Sahara desert. Average punters, however, stayed closer to home, enjoying trips to rural and coastal campsites springing up across the country.
Camping and caravanning halted during the Second World War, and Eccles’ orders virtually dried up. Yet, the company managed to survive, still producing caravan bodies, but for portable workshops and radio offices used for vital war work. They also made ambulances and searchlight vehicles.
After the war, caravanning began to recover. And, in 1947, Eccles launched a modern production line, with a brand new model. In contrast with the prevailing post war austerity, the caravan was optimistically named the “Enterprise Caravan”.
Despite being just 14 long and 6ft 9 inches wide, Eccles marketed the new model as a “live-in caravan”. It was a taste of things to come, as static caravans would later become second homes for many folk.
By the 1950s, millions of us had the touring caravan bug. Who can forget those endless Bank Holiday traffic jams, when the world, his wife and kids, grandma and the dog, jammed into the family car, caravan in tow. In that pre-motorway era, a trip to Devon could take up to two days.
What everyone loved about touring caravans was the sense of freedom they gave. At the end of the working week, you could just pack up and go. And, when you eventually got there, there were other folk doing exactly the same. Whatever the weather, a sense of camaraderie prevailed.
During the 1950s, other caravan manufacturers moved into the growing market, making it harder for Eccles to maintain its pioneering edge. By 1960, Bill Riley had retired and sold the factory to Sprite, who moved production to Newmarket.
Eccles experienced a new lease of life, becoming a trendsetter with its fashionable new teak and white vinyl interiors.
In 1967, Eccles produced the Sapphire model, offering double glazing, a heater, fridge, carpets and pumped water. At last, caravanners had a van built to withstand the vagaries of our weather. Throughout the 70s and 80s, Eccles continued at the forefront of caravan design, experimenting with aerodynamic features and more advanced insulation.
In the early 90s, the Swift group bought Sprite Leisure and Eccles. And, in keeping with tradition, Swift kept the names of the early Eccles caravans, such as Moonstone, Topaz and Opal.
Modern touring caravans have come a long way since the days of the Wanderer, and the earliest Eccles vans. But, like your first kiss, you never forget your first caravan. In our case it was a dependable little Alpine Sprite.
It was old when we got it, but did sterling service sheltering our family of four, plus two dogs.
Sadly, our little Sprite went to the caravan scrapyard in the sky many moons ago. But, we still have great memories.