How to purchase an RV in the 1960s

Kath Heiman — 1 July 2019
The way we were

When we think about 1960s caravans, many of us probably picture those old immobile vans in caravan parks everywhere, forming the nucleus of onsite residences or holiday homes.  

With permanent annexes attached, their tyres flat or rims entirely removed, and with many of their interiors gutted to support a more residential floorplan, it could be argued that these units barely warrant the title of caravan. Or could it?  

WAVE OF NOSTALGIA



Recently we were lucky to find a 1961 copy of Keith Winser’s Australian Caravan and Touring Manual in an antique store. Originally priced at 7 shillings and 6 pence, that amounts to just over $10.50 in today’s money.  

In its time, this magazine claimed to be ‘[t]he only complete guide to all the Parks, the caravans, equipment and hints’. Leafing through its black and white pages, we gained a whole new appreciation of post-war caravans and what they represented to the burgeoning recreational outdoor sector.  

While the monochrome photos in the magazine were grainy, we were readily transported back to the era when Viscount’s aluminium caravans were the height of modern style and portable comfort; when companies such as Supalite Caravan Company promised ‘a larger, luxurious mobile home that can be towed by our Australian Holden’; and when Sunshine Vans offered to ‘have your Glamorvan built to our requirements by craftsmen’.  

With Sunliner’s moulded fibreglass caravans promoting ‘amazing strength and durability’ and ‘glorious colours,’ there’s no doubt that these rigs presented a range of ‘stylish’, ‘lustrous’ and ‘modern’ options for the discerning buyer.

And the features just kept getting better as you stepped inside these rigs. The ‘superb finish’ offered by Roadhaven Caravans included its ‘lustrous grained laminex’. Roma’s inlaid lino flooring was just one of the attractive features of its latest interiors.  

Meanwhile, Skyline boasted that the seats in its vans converted into beds covered with yellow Vynex. With the company promising its customers ‘Lasting Pleasure’, its rigs clearly aimed to be the things that dreams were made of. 

CARAVANNING ON THE RISE

The 1961 Australian Caravan and Touring Manual told us a lot about what was driving the growth of the caravan industry during the economic upturn of the 1960s.  

As opening article ‘The Holiday on Wheels’ explained, “[t]his busy Australia is giving its many workers the chance to get away with the family”. Explaining why caravanning was becoming such a popular recreational pursuit, the article outlined several factors: “Firstly, [caravanning] replaces the weekend shack of former years. It doesn’t cost as much as a block of land…. [T]he modern caravan with gas and electricity connected is a luxury apartment that costs no more than it would to build a garage!” 

Then, with a sentiment that places the Manual firmly in its 1960s context, readers were no doubt happy to learn that, among other key benefits of caravanning: “[i]t doesn’t need the maintenance of a weekender nor are there so many chores for the housewife…” (Well, that must have been a relief!)   

In combination, these considerations meant that the caravan industry of 1961 was booming. With greater public interest, sales were up and Australian companies — large and small — were popping up across the country to service consumers’ needs.  

The rapid growth of the caravan tourist industry was also being reflected in the rising standard of amenities within caravan parks, putting pressure on others to lift their game to remain in business. In short, the 1960s began an era which saw thousands of Australians hitching up a caravan for the first time to get into the great outdoors and to start enjoying all of what this country has to offer.

So, next time you see a slab-sided old caravan languishing in a tourist park, its aluminium panels corroded from years exposed to the elements, its net curtains dirty, and its formica cabinet-tops discarded or damaged, look again. Can you picture how luxurious the van would have appeared to its first owner, and the potential it offered? 

Far from being disparaged as bulky relics from a bygone era, these grand old dames deserve a communal cuddle for the open-air lifestyle that they instigated — and that we’re still enjoying today.    

WISDOM FROM THE PAST

Among the numerous handy hints that the 1961 Australian Caravan and Touring Manual offered readers was a checklist for choosing a good van.  

Well, no doubt the list of ‘must haves’ for buyers of a modern rig is longer the same as consumers in the 1960s. 

But much of what author Keith Winser had to tell us still resonates today. And if you’re buying a second-hand (or vintage) rig, his hints may be as relevant now as when they were written. So here are some highlights from the Manual’s 20 top tips: 


Construction: Ideal in combination of lightness and strength is welded steel frame covered by riveted aluminium sheeting or fibreglass.

Walls: Insulated walls minimise internal overnight condensation in cold climates. If the van is used near the sea, aluminium walls are best painted to avoid corrosion. 

Doors: The door or doors of the caravan should be dustproof and fly-proof. The lock should be secure enough to eliminate all possibility of the door vibrating open in transit.

Windows: It is preferable to have windows that open… [T]he catches must be effective enough to prevent jarring open on the road.

Wheels: In a relatively light van, it is useful to have wheels interchangeable with the car’s wheels, so that the spare wheel of the car can be used on the van in the event of a puncture.

Brakes: A braking system on the van is highly desirable.

Headroom: Make certain this is adequate for the tallest person who will be using the van.

Ventilation: If the caravan is divided into compartments, each should be individually ventilated.

Lighting: The van should be separately wired for 240 current and 12V, with a point externally placed for connection with an outside power source.

 Kitchen equipment: The stove ought to be sufficiently far away from the beds to avoid splashing them.

Beds: Check these for width — so-called double beds are often in reality three-quarter beds.

Tables: In a caravan, these come in for considerable use. See that Mumma can easily sit down for a cuppa without filling the saucers when it wobbles!

Lockers: These should be numerous and capacious as it is easy to underestimate the bulk of gear required on a holiday.

Water supply: The water tank should be as low as possible to keep the centre of gravity close to the road.

Upholstery: Plastic or vinyl covering is the best — durable and easy to keep clean.

Tags

1960 RV purchase

Photographer

Kath Heiman