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Motorhomes blossomed from the basic van conversions of the 1950s to today’s luxury apartments on wheels, says Stuart

IT was a strange anomaly of the purchase tax regulations which gave a kickstart to the idea of converting a delivery van into a form of caravan in which you could cook, eat, sleep and live in reasonable comfort. Purchase tax was charged on cars, which were seen as luxury items and boosted the price of a medium size car like the Morris Oxford from just under £600 to nearly £850. But for some reason which I never really understood, motor caravans escaped this imposition. It meant that the cost of conversion was effectively free, because of the tax saved, and the first one I was asked to test – the Austin 152 van with side windows, which were one of the requirements to escape the tax, and a basic cooker on the rear door, was priced much the same, at £885. The conversion was carried out by the south London firm of Peter Pitt.


That early Austin van was a pretty horrid machine to drive, with a clumsy steering column-mounted gear change, but a further anomaly of the antiquated regulations was that it was not subject to the 50mph speed limit which restricted commercial vehicles, not that it could go much faster. But I drove it to Cornwall, churning along at about 60mph and returning 24mpg. The seats were rearranged to form three quite acceptable beds, and with two companions we had a jolly, low-cost weekend.

A more industrial motor caravan business was being operated by Martin Walter of Folkestone, whose conversion of the Bedford van was called the Dormobile; a name which soon became synonymous with motor caravans of all makes, just as all vacuum cleaners tended to be called ‘hoovers’. It wasn’t too long before its industrious newly-appointed press officer, J. Rowland-Rouse (call me ‘Rowly’) was on the phone offering a sample Dormobile for test in The Autocar where I was a staffer.

Based on the Bedford CA, the Dormobile was a much more enjoyable vehicle to drive, and the same two friends accompanied me on a weekend drive to North Wales. The Dormobile had sliding front doors, and the big asset of its conversion was a side-hinged elevating roof with two folding upper bunks, so it could sleep four in comfort. It cruised along reasonably quietly at near to its top speed of 62mph and returned 27mpg. All this for £785 made it much better value than the Peter Pitt effort on the Austin. Demand was rapidly increasing, and Martin Walter was soon turning out over 80 Dormobiles every week and planning a further extension to its factory. Rowly said he had provided the essentials for a nightcap, and I expected to find a tin of Ovaltine in the locker but was delighted to see instead a bottle of gin and another of whisky. We slept well that night.

The early 1960s were the formative years for motor caravans, of which I was now appointed chief tester and reporter, carrying out annual reviews of all the models, and in March 1961 I was invited to the Cotswolds to see a new conversion showing ingenious thought in its design. It was produced by Calverley Trevelyan and his new firm had the ingenious name Auto- Sleepers. It brought to 22 the total of firms involved in motor caravan construction, of which Auto-Sleepers is the sole survivor still in the same business today.


One of the advantages of motor caravanning in those early days was that you could stop, park up for your evening meal and bed down for the night, almost anywhere that was not on private land and not causing obstruction. When I had for test the Auto-Sleeper based on the Commer 15 cwt van, which was much superior to the Austin, there were four of us enjoying an evening chatting with the meal cleared away, when there was a knock on the door. We were surprised to open up and see two police officers there.

We explained what we were doing, and one policeman asked: “How do you boys get these jobs?” We didn’t know if he meant the job of testing motor caravans, or the two girls he had seen, but my friend Rodney Tulloch, always amusing and quick witted, replied: “Oh we just put an advert in the paper saying that the next expedition will leave on such-and-such a date and we get applications in from all over the country.” Slightly non-plussed, the police officers said “Goodnight” and departed back to their patrol car.

The number of vehicles on which motor caravans were based increased, with Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Fiat and Peugeot coming on strength. Volkswagen offered its own motor caravan based on the Microbus and Transporter and manufactured by the German firm Westfalia, and for a time VW would not allow any other firms to build on the vans. But this soon changed and Volkswagen again became a leading choice for the motor caravan industry – and the VW Camper became iconic with a massive fan base.

Inevitably, motor caravans became ever more sophisticated, the two-burner cooker giving way to a full-size oven with four rings and a grill, a ’fridge working on gas, mains or 12-volt when on the move, and increasing size made full standing room available. Big turbo-charged diesel engines became the norm, and we began to see automatic transmission and even air conditioning.

When I left Autocar in 1981 I thought my motorhome days were over, but I was soon involved in covering caravans for Diesel Car, alternating a trailer caravan with a motor caravan every month. It was fun in the summer but not quite so attractive in mid-winter, although by then they all had good heating running off gas or the mains supply in a caravan site. In 1996, came a wonderful assignment. Anthony Trevelyan, the son of the founder of Auto-Sleepers, had taken over management of the firm and built it up with a proliferation of models getting ever bigger and more refined, and I was asked by his brother Charles to take the latest model on a Continental tour and supply an article with many pictures for the company magazine.

It started off gently enough, but they loved accounts of adventurous motoring, showing the sort of roads you could tackle with a motor caravan which would never be possible with the rival alternative of a car and trailer caravan. So for the 2000 model year we took the new Auto- Sleeper Pollensa coachbuilt Peugeot to Italy and Switzerland, romping over the St Gotthard pass very easily and I even had my sights set on the challenging Stelvio pass, taking in on the way the 8700ft Gavia pass. At one time my wife, Jennetta, had to get out to move a fallen branch from the road, and was a little shocked to open the door and find there was no guard rail between the edge of the road and a 2000ft drop! Then came the Stelvio with its seemingly endless succession of hairpins, climbing to over 9000ft at the summit, where the mountain scenery was absolutely superb.

We had covered 2000 miles in a fortnight and tackled seven major Alpine passes, showing the amazing versatility and competence of a motor caravan. Sadly, this wonderful assignment came to an end after five years when Auto- Sleepers was taken over but we had certainly had more than our share of fun and happy motoring in 40 years of testing motor caravans.
Our final sortie for the 2001 model year was in an Auto-Sleepers Sherbourne Volkswagen Transporter which we took over the magnificent Groglockner pass. If the thought of buying a motor caravan appeals, then I recommend a visit to the Motorhome and Caravan Show at the NEC from 13 to 18th October.

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