Transports of delight

MOTORS Caravans, far from being a menace, can be objects of desire. Report by Suzanna Drew-Edwards
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THE FIELD that plays host to the 1995 National Rally of the Historic Caravan Club is not a sight (or site) that inspires. A row of beige vehicles stretches down one side, arranged with military precision. But as you walk closer, you realise this isn't your average seaside mega-park full of barking dogs and whining kids. In place of the modern eyesores we're used to are their forerunners: lovingly restored vintage vans.

Unlike the caravans, the Historic Caravan Club is in its infancy. Boasting over 200 members, it was formed two-and-a-half years ago by a group of like-minded people whose aims are to rescue, restore and ultimately use caravans like these. This year they have proudly gathered in this field near Hinxworth, Hertford-shire, for their annual rally.

The charm of owning a vintage caravan is in the history that lies behind it, say the enthusiasts. "I like to think of all the ladies sitting inside wearing their Charleston gear," says Alan Payne from Foxton, Cambridge; he and his wife, Sheila, own a 1925 Eccles nicknamed "Helen". The name was bestowed by the previous owner in 1934, because of the heat generated when there were lots of people inside on a warm day: "Hell inside. Geddit?" Certainly,the caravan is tiny, and it's difficult to see how Mr Payne, a tall man, can fit inside.

Shirley Pippin and Bill Welsh from Taunton, owners of an egg-shaped 1935 Car Cruiser, like the thought that they're preserving a chunk of motoring history. "We've always been fascinated by the Twenties and Thirties, but since we got this caravan, our interest has grown," says Shirley. "I've got collections of caravanning magazines, model caravans and picnic sets, wind-up gramophones, baskets and assorted stoves."

There aren't that many old leisure caravans left. The first known model was the "Wanderer", an 18ft-long horse-drawn van built around 1880 by a retired doctor, William Gordon Stables. His writings about life on the road encouraged others to follow suit, and in 1907 the original Caravan Club was formed. But it wasn't until the 1930s, when leisure increased and cars became affordable, that caravanning became popular.

Teacher Paul Gallagher and his French wife, Mylene, own one of the younger vans at Hinxworth, an immaculate 1949 Freeman. Fitted out with oak, the interior has a boat-like, shipshape look. "It's a good hobby because it involves all the family," says Paul. "Everyone gains something from it and the children love going somewhere new."

Many vintage caravanners begin by collecting old cars, then then add the caravan. "I thought I'd restore a van to tow behind my Vauxhall, which is a DY Light Six Wingham Cabriolet," says John Mullen. He owns two models: a 1936 Rice Long Standard (a part-canvas folding van that looks like a horsebox-cum-tent), and a French 1950 L'Escargot (which does indeed look like a snail). "It brought my wife into the hobby as she became interested in collecting furnishings." The interiors of their vans are period pieces: Festival of Britain china, co-ordinated fabrics, old copies of Radio Times and Picture Post.

Tony Plowright, who owns a 1931 Guildford caravan and a Morris Oxford car of the same year, is similarly perfectionist. "We try and get everything right for the era," he says.

Unfathomable though such an obsession may seem, vintage caravan owners find it easy to explain. "Once you've done one up," says Paul Genner, chairman of the Historic Caravan Club, "you don't want to let it go." He has a 1930 Bertram Hutching Voyageur, which looks like a pseudo-Victorian cottage complete with lattice windows and lantern roof.

Paul Gallagher bought his Free-man five years ago for pounds 500. "Restoring it cost a couple of hundred and took about six months," he says, "which was quick because the van was in good condition."

There's a difference, however, between restored and rebuilt. "There is a bit of snobbery as to how you've done up your caravan," Gallagher confirms. "Some of our members look over them very critically, to see if there are any faults or if you've taken away its originality."

Prices of vintage caravans vary. Paul Genner's Voyageur set him back pounds 1,000 and cost pounds 2,000 to restore. "It took me four years in my spare time," he says. "Buying a vintage van is different from buying a normal second-hand one. If you see the van you want, you have to go for it."

Shirley Pippin, who owns five vintage caravans, paid pounds 250 for her Car Cruiser nine years ago. "It was a total wreck," she says. "There was a tree growing into it, it was full of green mould, and it hadn't been on the road for 20 years. But we thought if we didn't take it, it would be lost forever."

Many caravans are discovered rotting at the roadside or hidden at the back of farmyards. Once these wrecks are discovered, phone calls are made and club members are alerted, until someone steps forward to take on the ailing vehicle.

Alan Payne saw his Eccles caravan advertised in the club's newsletter for pounds 1,500. "It was in a terrible state," he says. "My kids really made me worry because they said I'd completely flipped my lid this time. So I rushed to make it look shipshape - and they don't say I'm barmy now."

Isn't this obsession a little out of proportion? "Most members are a bit embarrassed by it," Paul Gallagher admits. "They love their caravans more than they feel they can say." Does that include him? "I do find it very hard to get rid of them," he says, "and there is another very nice van I've got my eye on." !