Rear Window: Happy motoring in your home sweet home on wheels: The demise of the Dormobile

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The Independent Online
'WHAT modern carefree touring is all about - travel wherever you want without leaving home comforts behind. Whether it's a family outing or a touring holiday, get away at a moment's notice. Forget hotel reservations, they're probably all fully booked anyway. Travel is unlimited and boundaries are of your making.'

Such was the promise of the Dormobile, the vehicle that embodied, at a certain time, a British ideal of freedom. The brand name is still in common use to describe the whole class of motor caravans, but the company itself has closed. In a sorry scene at the factory gates in Folkestone last week, 160 workers were told the firm was in liquidation and they were redundant. The site had already been taken over by creditors.

Dormobile could trace its ancestry back to 1773, when a young man named Martin Walker set up in trade as a saddler to the cavalry. More than a century later the family business which carried his name turned from saddles to coachbuilding and then from coachbuilding to car bodies. George V was among the customers, driving a huge made-to-measure Daimler turned out at Martin Walker.

When the Second World War came, production switched to the Utilecon, a light van. With seats, the 'Tilly' could carry troops; without, it could be used for freight. Here was the germ of an idea.

It was in 1951, at the Commercial Vehicle Show in London, that the Dormobile, complete with catchy name, was unveiled. Based on a Bedford commercial van, it came with side windows and forward-facing seats which, when folded down, became two single beds.

Here at last was freedom in the motor age; for little more than the price of a family car, you could be king of the road. Drive as far as you like and stop where you like; no train tickets, no landladies, no luggage, no restaurant or hotel bills; all you needed was water and access to a lavatory. The world was your oyster.

Over 25 years the models evolved - the Elba, the Debonair, the Coaster, the Romany, the Land Cruiser and many more, based on a variety of van models and offering ever more elaborate appointments. A gas stove, a fridge, cupboards and a fold-away table were added, as well as the famous accordion roof with its candy-stripe canopy, 'a feature that is as practical as it is eye-catching', the makers boasted.

'It's journey's end and time for a meal,' ran the advertisement. 'No problems. The kitchen is a cook's dream. The big dining table enables the family to eat together comfortably at one sitting. No more squabbling who's going to be served first.

'Now for the bedtime story. Really comfortable sleeping is provided by a luxurious double bed . . . In addition there are two adult roof bunks offering true comfort, space and room to sit up whenever you want.'

The Dormobile, wrote a motoring magazine in 1971, was ideal for 'the multi-childrened family man' and was also a vehicle 'which housewives seem quite happy to use on their domestic duties'.

Production rose in the 1960s to hundreds per month, and a new factory opened. Other firms got into the market, but the Dormobile led the field, a genuine household name (and before long the name of the company).

What went wrong? Package holidays and changing fashions did their bit, but the heaviest blow was struck by Tony Barber, the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1972. The Dormobile's success was built in part on a loophole which exempted motor caravans from purchase tax. When this was closed by Mr Barber, prices rose beyond the means of many of those to whom the Dormobile dream was most attractive. In the years that followed, the company changed ownership half a dozen times and diversified into ambulances and school buses, but it never again found a niche.

(Photographs omitted)

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