Family Caravanning in the '70s

Malcolm Street — 4 June 2020
Family holidays in a Viscount caravan had some influence on not only the way Malcolm Street takes his holidays but his career.

My Recreational Vehicle (RV) lifestyle started in the early '70s with my parents, younger brother and sister. Prior to that time, camping under canvas was the family holiday but my folks had had enough of wet flapping canvas and decided that solid aluminium walls and roof were something to  consider. 


Off we all went to a caravan show. I don’t exactly remember all we looked at, but I know my folks were honing in on a 14ft (4.27m) or 15ft (4.57m) Viscount Royal. Back then, Viscount made a huge range of caravans but one of the characteristics of the Royal models were curved perspex windows on each corner. I always thought they gave the caravan a stylish look. 

I mention the possible lengths of the proposed purchase because both had at least one fixed bed, the other being a cafe dinette that folded down into a second bed, something still familiar in some vans and motorhomes today. 

However, a couple of experienced caravanners decided to be 'helpful' and suggested to my mum and dad that even though we were family of five, a 13ft (3.9m) van would more than suffice. Instead of a fixed bed down the back, it had a day/night lounge, meaning all beds had to be made up every night, including the fifth bed on the floor. Mum and dad purchased that van and I have never forgotten that 'helpful' couple. I think it affected me for life — even now I’m reluctant to use anything without a fixed bed, even though there are only two of us. 


The 13ft Viscount Royal was duly delivered to our home and the next thing on the agenda was a tow vehicle — keep in mind towing weights in those days. I can’t remember precisely but the van would have had a tare weight of around 14cwt — that’s 700kg in new money. What’s interesting is that I recently saw a caravan handbook from that time and tow vehicle capability was based entirely on engine size and performance, weight wasn’t mentioned at all.

A Holden Kingswood HQ sedan was purchased and we became the 1970’s quintessential caravanning family with the Holden towing the Viscount. It’s funny what you remember but one of the oddities of the sedan Kingswood was that the spare wheel looked like an afterthought and was mounted almost in the middle of the boot at an angle.  It always made packing for a caravanning holiday a bit tricky.


Inside the caravan, the layout was quite simple. The aforementioned dinette was up front, the day/night lounge down the back and in between was a kitchen bench on the offside and a wardrobe on the nearside. To say the least the kitchen facilities were basic — an Electrolux 2.2 cub ft (about 60 litre) three way fridge and a two burner hob with a grill. Installation was interesting, with the cooker was located in a metal lined box. Power points (not that we worried about such things) were few and the dome lights (two inside and one out) were dual 240V AC and 12V DC supplied. The stainless-steel sink did have a cold water supply but it was a hand pump.

Aluminium was big in those days. The Viscount frame was aluminium and as was the 'log cabin' style cladding. At the time, insulation wasn’t heard of. Except for the corner perspex, all the windows were glass, and not safety glass either, because I’m sure I fixed a window at some point. 


We enjoyed a couple of caravanning holiday trips before it became obvious that a caravan annexe would be a major advantage in maintaining family relations. There were no sprung vinyl awnings in those days. Instead awnings tended to be made of heavy duty canvas. At the time there was a manufacturer based at Carlton, NSW, called, surprisingly enough, Carlton Canvas who were into the annexe business big time. I remember them well, particularly when setting up time came along. A sail track was used to attach the annexe roof to the caravan roof and the most difficult task (given to the oldest son, aka moi) was to drag the canvas roof along the sail track. Once that was done, poles, pegs and awning ropes were put to use, and the walls and floor followed.

The annexe made a huge difference to the living area of the van and all the younger members of the family moved outside. Mind you those metal framed and canvas triple bunks weren’t exactly comfortable, but we had one each and no need to make them up each night. All that setting up might sound like hard work, but I seem to recall it was a bit of fun and there was always the anticipation of the following few weeks around the caravan park. Yes, most people did head to caravan parks in those days. 


Caravanning holidays followed for quite a few years afterwards, even when some of us had started our careers. I remember a few things about that van. It only had a painted 80mm x 50mm (3in x 2in) RHS chassis and since the van was often parked in coastal caravan parks, I recall regularly being under the van with a wire brush and can of primer.  An oddity was that many of the internal cupboards had key locks and latches. The key locks were very irritating, and we didn’t use them much. 

I also remember fixing the fridge on a holiday. The van had been stored at an awkward angle with the fridge being run and when we arrived at our school holiday location, it wasn’t working at all. The local (very busy) fridge mechanic couldn’t immediately help but suggested the gases had probably separated. So, on his advice and given the fridge was relatively small, we removed the fridge from the van rolled it round a few times and stood it on its head for an hour. Once fitted back into the van, it worked just fine. I mention that because that’s something not easily done today.


There were numerous other memories of course but what’s relevant here is that the taste for the RV lifestyle never left me, indeed over the last couple of decades it gave me a career as an RV journo. Those family adventures in a Viscount caravan not only took me to many places throughout Australia but also across the world. 

This kind of walk down memory lane can be remarkable for showing you just how far the industry has come. In this month’s Caravan World you can find a review of a modern model from the venerable Viscount name, on page 30. Compare that to a review from Caravan World’s very first edition under this masthead, as well as a classic article on the challenges of finding the perfect layout — something that’s still relevant to caravanners today. 


Historical Viscount Caravans Family holidays


Malcolm Street and CW archives