Van fans: the vintage caravan collectors

RoyalAuto magazine

Meet the people who collect, renovate and adore vintage caravans.

Story: Peter Barrett  Photos: Kim Tonelli.
September 2018.


“As soon as we saw that, we knew it was original,” John Smyth says. He is running his fingers over the inside paint job of a cupboard door in his 1963 Sunliner caravan. The tomato-coloured fibreglass panel is speckled with multi-coloured dots and loops that form a random pattern. “That’s the paint they used to spray the inside of everywhere.”

John, 72, is a retired engineer who lives in Ballarat with his wife, Judy. They were bitten by the vintage caravan bug in 2009, after stumbling across the attractive curves of Sunliner at a caravan rally. Although it took them several years to find one for sale, to date they have owned, refurbished and restored more than a dozen old caravans.

For reasons not immediately clear, Ballarat is a hub for vintage caravan lovers. John and Judy’s friends Ron and Linda Harris, who live nearby, are getting their 1965 Roadhaven ready for a “run” to Loxton, South Australia. “It’s something to do,” Ron, 67, says. “It’s exciting. The vans on the Saturday afternoon will be open to viewing by the public. Each caravan – it doesn’t matter what year it is – is like a mobile museum.” 

John Smyth's 1963 Sunliner caravan

‘There are two groups: the restorers and then those who like to modernise their caravans a little. We tolerate each other.’

A number of factors including cashed-up, time-rich baby boomers, the spread of Facebook and Instagram, and the rise of the tiny house movement have fuelled interest in vintage caravans (built on or before 31 December 1969) and classic caravans (built on or before 31 December 1979). 

Every two years the Vintage Caravan Nationals draw more than 100 caravan-mad enthusiasts to a week-long event in New South Wales, Victoria or South Australia, drawing appreciative toots and waves from other (usually overtaking) motorists. Many tow their caravans with matching classic cars but, as organiser Richard Dickins points out, there are definite tribes.

“We all get along well but there are two groups. There are the restorers, who like things as original as possible. Then there are others who like to modernise their caravans a little. We tolerate each other,” he says. 

Meanwhile, vintage caravans have been creeping into the commercial world, too. 

You’ll find a 1960s Viscount Ambassador at a cafe in Moorabbin (Dakdak), a converted vintage caravan bar perfect for weddings (The Wandering Woodsman) and six imported American Airstreams turned into luxury boutique accommodation in the middle of Melbourne’s CBD (Notel). 

Ron and Linda Harris' 1965 Roadhaven

The real boom in caravans happened after World War II.

Richard Potter, of historical caravanning website ourtouringpast.com and the National Caravan Museum in Wollongong, says the oldest van he knows of is a 1928 trailer and canopy owned by the Caravan Association of Queensland. It’s hitched up to a Model T Ford. 

The real boom in caravans, though, happened after World War II, says Laina Hall, curator at National Museum of Australia. “That was due to a few different factors: The lifting of petrol rationing, people had access to a bit more disposable income, the improvement in roads and facilities and also the greater variety and availability of different vans.” 

When those baby boomers grew up and had families of their own, it was only a matter of time before nostalgia stoked interest in acquiring and restoring second-hand Dons, Rowvans and Sunliners. 

In 2002, Perth mortgage broker Mark Taylor, now 62, started vintagecaravans.com to reflect his new hobby and passion. Two years later, the classic car collector posted a forum page, suddenly allowing people around the world to share information, and a vintage caravan movement began. Mark says the arrival of Facebook more than a decade ago saw forum numbers “drop off” to just over 5000 today, but interest in the hobby has nevertheless been gaining momentum. 

“Young to middle-aged women since about 2012 have really driven it, big time,” Mark says. “Mainly because they’ve seen the potential of decorating a little house… they absolutely love it.”

‘It will be different from everyone else’s and it will be something that the girls helped me create.’

Cara Bowley, 44, has been refurbishing a 1966 Viscount with her daughters Sienna, 11, and Amber, 9, in her driveway in Brighton East. She bought the van for $3900 on New Year’s Day 2018 as a way of scratching her renovation itch. But Cara, a single mother, now plans to use it for budget holidays with the girls. 

It hasn’t been a cheap project, however. Thanks to extensive water damage she estimates she will have spent close to $30,000 by the time it’s finished. “But I don’t really care because it’s going to be so unique. It will be different from everyone else’s and it will be something that I created; that the girls helped me create.”

Kitty Wursthorn, 36, says the 1975 Franklin she bought for $800 and refurbished over three weeks for $1500, with her partner Andrea McLean, 33, was a thank you and birthday gift for her mother. The couple have a four-hectare bush block in the Otway Ranges and the Franklin makes a perfect guest bedroom. 

“Mum has really been very, very generous with us, so it was just such a beautiful thing to be able to give something back to her,” says Kitty. “It was a life highlight.”

‘They really are pieces of art and I love that iconic, silver bullet shape.’

Chloe McConchie's American Airstream

Meanwhile, over on the Mornington Peninsula, Chloe McConchie, 38, has amassed an armada of American Airstreams. At last count she had 10 dating from the 1940s to the 1970s. In total, she has owned and restored 18. Her Airstream obsession began five years ago after a friend showed her a photo. 

“I think it’s the mid-century design,” Chloe says of how she got hooked. “They really are pieces of art and I love that iconic, silver bullet shape.” Chloe, a founding member of Airstream Club Australia, regularly joins seven families who camp together every two or three months.  

‘I think many of us just need to stop and slow down and smell the roses.’

For Moorabbin automotive manager Joe Galea, vintage caravans are a symbol of another time, when life was simpler. He bought a Sportsman teardrop at an auction nearly 15 years ago. Since then, the classic car-mad collector and his wife Suzie also bought and restored a 1950s Trail caravan (which has graced the foyer of the RACV City Club), joined a vintage caravan club and displayed both at swap meets in Ballarat, Phillip Island and Churchill Island. 

Joe, 47, grew up watching Happy Days and yearns for a time when products were built to last; when people weren’t living so fast. “I think many of us just need to stop and slow down and smell the roses,” he says. “They tended to do that very well back then – we struggle to do that today.”

Joe and Suzie Galea


Six iconic vans still on our roads 

Propert folding caravan – Made from 1952 to the early 1970s in Sydney by the Propert family (also famous for making the Ezy Whisk egg beater), its innovative folding mechanism needs to be seen to be believed. Thankfully, internet videos abound.

Don – Produced by the Don Caravan Co. Pty Ltd in Melbourne from 1932 until the early 1960s. Many of these oval-shaped timber beauties have survived.

Sunliner – Australia’s first lightweight, fibreglass caravan; its curvaceous shape is so distinctive drivers can spot it a kilometre away. Made in the 1960s in Forster, NSW.

Teardrop – A generic name for a supremely cute caravan style, vintage Teardrops were first made in the 1930s, known as Caravanettes (later as Sportsmans).  

Airstream – These sleek, silver, bullet-shaped vans date back to 1930s Los Angeles. Import costs to Australia are steep (up to $20,000) but Airstreams are still in production. Jayco is the Australian distributor. 

Franklin – Franklin started in Ballarat and is still going today. Aluminium-sided Franklins of the 1960s and even ‘70s are becoming more and more collectable. 

Buying and owning a vintage van 

Daryl Meek, RACV’s motoring interests manager, loves vintage caravans but counsels caution if you’re a newbie. Rather than heading straight to Gumtree or eBay, consider reaching out to classic car groups first, where word of mouth rules. 

“The owners of the cars tend to have a wider group of contacts and a better idea about the condition of the caravan,” he says.

Daryl’s tips include: 

  • Use your nose to discover mould
  • Check under the sink for water damage
  • Beware modern sealants around windows. 

And remember, your vintage caravan must be registered and roadworthy. This means brakes and working rear lights (even if your classic car doesn’t have indicators) and it pays to check wheel bearings and axles annually, for safety. Finally, be safe and use metric tow fittings, ensure chains are fitted underneath, and don’t overload your vehicle. 

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