There’s something powerful about how the aroma of old things can trigger a wave of nostalgia — and caravans are no exception. A whiff of weathered upholstery, a lingering sniff of snags sizzled on the old gas cooker and the faint tang of varnish on timber window frames can take us back to family holidays in caravan parks.
In Australia, a love affair with vans of yore runs deep. Enthusiasts spend months hunting down decades-old caravans online and at swap meets and occasionally make a ‘trophy find’ sitting in a garage; then either painstakingly restore them, or give them a contemporary makeover.
But what is it that inspires these retro restorers? We chat with four vintage van owners to discover what makes them tick, the rules of engagement when it comes to restoration and their tips to get into the vintage van scene.
THE AUSTRALIAN WAY
Caravans built prior to 1970 are known as ‘vintage’, while those built from 1970 are classified as ‘classic’ by members of vintage van groups in Australia. Some brands will be familiar as they are still in production today, while others are long lost, the victim of dips in demand during world wars or the advance of mass production and yearning for high-tech caravans.
Common brands include Viscount, Millard, Chesney, Carapark, Don, Sunliner and Olympic. Sunliner vans, of which construction began in Forster Tuncurry, NSW, in 1958, was the first to be made using fibreglass.
Construction methods varied, with plywood, masonite and painted canvas giving way to fibreglass and eventually aluminium. There were no toilets or showers, vans tended to be much smaller and most didn’t have fixed beds, according to caravan historian and organiser of the biennial Vintage Caravan Nationals event, Richard Dickins.
“Vans clad in ply or masonite are generally regarded as vintage, and that was used up until the mid-1960s,” he tells Caravan World. “From the late 1950s on you have companies like Viscount cladding their caravans in aluminium. Originally it was fairly plain but in the early 1960s they began to have that profile with ridges in it as that provided additional strength.
“You also had aluminium windows come in from about 1956 — prior to that most were wood frames.”
From the 1930s to 1950s it was very common for people to build their own vans, said vintage van collector and founder of Our Touring Past website Richard Potter.
“It was a cheaper way to go about it rather than to buy one from a yard,” he said. “Even caravan yards in the late 1940s and 50s were buying home-built caravans and selling them as their own brands.”
Interestingly, Dickins says the caravanning industry was pretty localised then, and you could tell which state a van came from just by looking at it. In South Australia, a squarer design was common whereas vans in NSW and Victoria favoured a more egg-shaped, curved flow from the walls to roof.
Like many vintage van fans, Richard Dickins has a personal attachment to caravanning. His parents bought their 4.4m (14ft 6in) Don 140 caravan in 1949 just before he was born and, remarkably, he still uses it for holidays.
“Our particular van has a bath in it,” he said. “As far as I know the only use that bath ever had was as my bassinet.”
His Don was considered quite large in comparison to others on the market at the time.
“It was regarded as the big, luxurious van — you needed a big car to pull them,” he said. “The more ordinary vans were 10–12ft and there were some as small as 8ft. They were really tiny. And then you had the teardrop caravans with the kitchen under the back hatch.”
The Robinson family started Don caravans in Oakleigh, Vic, in 1934. Don Robinson built a prototype for his father, but it caught the eye of the local milkman who just had to have it. The story goes that Don had a lightbulb moment.
“Don then realised there was a future in caravans because there weren’t many manufacturers — there were a couple beginning around the time — so he started building them,” Dickins explained. “They built a few thousand vans between 1934 and 1964 and kept the same style until 1956 by which time it was beginning to look really old fashioned.”
Dickins has kept his van mostly original apart from replacing the old ice box with a fridge, and hasn’t been tempted to buy a modern caravan.
“Compared to the vans which have an island bed, our van has stacks more room because of the rear lounge which converts to a double bed — people often come into our van and comment on it,” he said. “Nowadays they have all sorts of electric gizmos and sound systems and TVs and goodness knows what else. Vans were much simpler, and we still go away without our TV because it is time to have a break from those things.”
Dickins said much of the allure of vintage caravans is the nostalgia: “People hanker after their childhood,” he said. “I think it is people who have had happy experiences as kids who are buying the vintage vans.”
A TRUE COLLECTOR
Caravanning is also a tradition for Richard Potter’s family, having enjoyed many van adventures with his parents and three siblings, but he entered the scene via his interest in vintage cars.
“I bought an FJ Holden ute and was collecting parts and accessories and it dawned on me one day, ‘why not get a caravan to match the ute?’,” he said. That was 25 years ago, and his passion has since led to him to buy and restore around 18 vans.
He’s whittled his collection down to 11, which now comprises the National Caravan Museum in Wollongong, NSW, which he founded and opens up to car clubs and caravan groups on request.
His collection includes brands such as Don and Sunliner, but also a Propert folding van, a Hawthorn, a Drifta and an original 1936 Eicke and Provis camper.
Potter explained people use their vans for varying purposes — classic car shows or caravan events or for travel — and said he and his wife and two kids happily take trips in his vintage vans. He loves the social aspect of his models — they were simple, and the lack of a toilet and shower meant that you were actively meeting new people, not holed up inside your self-sufficient RV.
“You don’t have an ensuite so you have to go to the toilet block,” he said. “You say hello to everybody and everyone says, ‘you’re the bloke with the vintage van’. It is more social.
“With the modern vans — you may not see those people until 5pm at Happy Hour because they don’t have to step out of their van.”
Lana Whiting is a typical example of the new wave of vintage van enthusiasts. She’s young, a woman with a love for the ‘retro’ culture, and she also doesn’t conform to ‘traditional’ ideas about restoring vintage vans.
Whiting discovered her 1963 Millard Safari languishing on a rural property. She convinced the owner to part with it, then convinced her husband Mark to help her transform it into a veritable pink palace.
“My van is pink — it has a pink chandelier. It is pretty outrageous and impractical I suppose, but it is my pride and joy,” she said.
The cupboards and external stripe were already pink and were updated, but the floor had to be replaced so Whiting installed a bold black and white checker pattern. The cushions and sofa seats had to be reupholstered and they replaced a wall due to water damage.
“We kept as much as we could but there were just some things that were unavoidable — lucky I have a handy husband,” she said. “It would be nice if they are in perfect condition when they are found but that’s not always possible.”
Last year she created a Facebook page and a women-only group, Vintage Caravan Glamper Girls, in reaction to being “shot down” by members of other groups for her decor and styling, particularly miniature white picket fences and lawn flamingos. Within a day she had 100 members and now has more than 1000 women who either own or aspire to renovate a vintage van, or just love the aesthetics of the group. They share crafting ideas, showcase vintage-themed accessories and photos of their caravan adventures.
She said taking pride in your vintage van is immensely satisfying, more so than buying a sparkling new model.
“It is one thing to go out and have $100,000 to splurge on one of these new modern, beautiful vans; it is another thing to have sat there weekend after weekend like I did and sand things back and pull nails out,” she said.
Murray Plaister and his wife Raelee own three vintage vans, but their 1960 Sunliner is their favourite. Based in Tasmania, Murray started the Vintage Sunliner Caravans Australia Facebook page and routinely connects with fans of the brand and owners of the 200–300 Sunliner vans around Australia.
"I really like the egg shape of the Sunliner, which is why I think most people like them too,” he said. "My wife Raelee and I don't travel in the Sunliner but I do take it to car shows in Tasmania — even though it is usually the only caravan there.”
Plaister, whose other vans include a 1963 Valiant and a 1964 Harris van from South Australia, renovated his Sunliner and added a few modern touches — LED lights, an electric water pump, modern fridge, updated colour scheme inside and a shiny exterior paint job.
He agreed that nostalgia is a clear factor in their popularity.
“Everyone seems to love them,” he said. “At shows and when we took it over on the Spirit of Tasmania, we get people coming up and asking to have a look inside it. They all have a story about when they used to travel in vans as a kid or when they went on a caravan trip for their honeymoon.
“That's the enjoyment of it, being able to show it off."
RULES OF RESTORATION
Restoring a vintage van is a contentious issue within vanning circles. Some believe vintage vans should be restored to their original condition, using authentic parts, furniture and appliances (which can be hard to find), while others support installing modern conveniences such as air conditioning and hot water, or going so far as stripping out the innards and converting the vans into food trucks or props for events and wedding photography.
Potter set up his website, ourtouringpast.com, as a repository of restoration wisdom. Multiple projects are logged here with photos and progress reports and the forum contains many questions from amateur renovators.
NATIONAL VINTAGE RALLY
The biennial Vintage Caravan Nationals, a week-long gathering of vintage vans from across the country, has been running since 2007. Postponed due to COVID-19, it will be held in 2021 and is expected to draw nearly 240 vans. Organiser Dickins said it’s a wonderful opportunity for like-minded van owners to admire each other’s models, restorations and gather inspiration.
“There is a lot of talk about the ins and outs of the caravans and how they have been restored or refurbished,” he said. “Some vans have been done up with craftsman skills and you are open-jawed at what people have achieved.”
TIPS TO BE A VINTAGE VANNER
- Don’t buy a van unseen — it may have damage you can’t see in photos.
- Take an expert with you to inspect the van.
- Don’t buy something that needs more work than you can do yourself, unless you have a budget for qualified tradespeople.
- Do your research on the age and authenticity of a van to ensure you don’t overpay.
- Our Touring Past restorations: ourtouringpast.com; facebook.com/vintagecaravanman/
- Vintage Caravans Forum and Nationals event: vintagecaravans.proboards.com
- Vintage Caravan Glamper Girls: facebook.com/vintagecaravanglampergirls. Search facebook.com for this group.
- Vintage Sunliner Caravans Australia: Search facebook.com for this group.
- Olympic Vintage Caravans: Search facebook.com for this group.
- Tasmanian Vintage Classic & Retro Caravans: Search facebook.com for this group.