Fifty years ago, the Recreational Vehicle (RV) industry looked somewhat different to today. Popular for many years, the bondwood style of caravan manufacture was being rapidly replaced by a framed body with silver aluminium cladding.
Manufacturers such as Viscount and Millard, the two largest, had huge factories in Sydney. Additionally, other names including Chesney, Coronet, Crusader, Cub Campers, Franklin, Freeway, Hillandale, Murrumba Star, Newlands and Roma were also a common sight.
At the same time, the Holden Kingswood, Ford Falcon and Chrysler Valiant were typical tow vehicles. Items like towing weights, batteries and air-conditioners were not considered and offroad was a term used mostly by Land Rover and Toyota LandCruiser owners.
Much has since changed, of course. Some of the changes have been evolutionary, others more revolutionary. Most of the names mentioned above have disappeared and, of those still to be seen, only Roma and Cub can claim early ownership back to the original manufacturer. Freeway isn’t around but the owners, the Binns family, are still in the game with their Avida range — after a couple of name changes.
Another item of note is that back in those times a considerable amount of caravan manufacturing happened in Sydney with Melbourne, Ballarat and Brisbane taking lesser roles. Today, about 80 per cent of caravan manufacturing happens in the greater Melbourne area, but motorhome manufacturers are more equally spread. To chart some of the changes, I spoke with a few people who have been around for a good part of those 50 years.
INDUSTRY EXPERT – RON CHAPMAN
Someone who has long been the face of the caravanning industry in Queensland is Ron Chapman. For many years he headed up Caravanning Queensland, the organisation that represents both the Caravan Trade and Industries Association (CTIA) of Queensland and the Caravan Parks Association of Queensland Ltd (CPAQ).
Chapman didn’t always work in the RV industry, but in 1966 he applied for a Public Relations job with Brisbane-based caravan manufacturer Chesney. In that role, Chapman handled the Chesney advertising, among other PR work, and became involved with sales. After a few years, he went to work for another caravan manufacturer, Glendale, in a similar role. Glendale was based in Caboolture, Qld, and a slight oddity because it was a Canadian company which set up operations in Australia by buying out the Murrumba Star company.
UPS AND DOWNS
After another couple of years, the next career move was managing a Chesney dealership at Maryborough, Qld, which went along nicely until the 1990s when the then Prime Minister announced the “recession we had to have” and the dealership was sold. A downturn was something the RV market did not need, especially after the shrinkage in demand in the decade previously, caused by the 1973 and 1979 world energy crises.
Following a couple of years of being a ‘dealership locum’, Chapman was approached by the then president of the CTIA to work for them on the basis he “knew something about caravans” — I had a laugh at this, because my first job at a caravan magazine came about because I ‘knew something about caravans’ which the then editor did not!
Part of his work at the CTIA was being on the organising committee for caravan shows, something he has continued to do until recently.
Chapman also ran a Hayman Reese dealership for several years, worked for Bushell and Co — a caravan accessories business which later morphed into Camec — as well as advertising agency work throughout. Around 1994, most of that came to an end when the CTIA (otherwise known as Caravanning Queensland) position became a full-time job that lasted until end of 2019 when retirement came along and Chapman became a special advisor to the association.
While I’d probably nominate recent items such as battery/electrical/solar panel systems as specific industry highlights from over the years, Chapman went back much further.
“I can still remember when bondwood caravans were still around, but there’s no doubt that the transition from bondwood to aluminum cladding was a big thing, as was the later trend to white aluminium. On the inside, the change from painted interiors to prefinished ply panelling was almost as revolutionary,” he says.
“We all take three-way absorption fridges for granted, yet there was a time when an ice chest was the only food cooler in a caravan. Neil Chesney (of Chesney caravans) changed that by importing a range of Morphy Richards two-way gas/electric fridges from Britain and later a rage of Sibir fridges from Sweden. Viscount caravans started a trend by importing Dometic fridges from the USA.
“When you talk about highlights, I often think about the people who changed things for the better in the RV industry. John Carr was one. He started what became the Viscount empire from what was literally a backyard operation, and brought aluminium framed and clad caravans to the masses.
"Richard Davis was another. Apart from anything else he owned several caravan parks, was president of the Caravan Parks Association of South Australia for 40 years and was very influential in setting up the peak body of the caravan industry, the Caravan Industry Association of Australia. Neil Chesney I have already mentioned, but he introduced many new RV features to Australia and also acted as a technical auditor for the caravan industry.
“Hugh Isermann did something a little different when he set up Golf Caravans. He introduced European caravan trends into Australia. Obviously, a big hit with the buyers even though his vans were $10,000–$20,000 more than anyone else’s.
"Finally there’s Gerry Ryan. He became a latter-day John Carr when he set up the very efficient operations that is Jayco Australia,” he concludes.
COULD DO BETTER
In anything we do in this world, there are always unsuccessful stories or something that can be done better. I put this to Chapman, and he reckoned there were a few.
One is the lack of research and development departments in many RV manufacturers, though it’s not so much a shortcoming as something that is not really economically possible in Australia given our relatively small population.
Another is imported RVs have something of a chequered history in Australia, due in part to our rather unique conditions.
Undoubtedly, RV weight has become something of an issue in recent times and while many people blame the manufacturers, the consumers are also at fault in wanting more and more in their RVs when there are finite limits, such as a ready supply of tow vehicles. In the latter case, Caravanning Queensland, like others, has embarked on a consumer (aka caravan traveller) education program by doing things like safety checks, which includes checking towing weights.
A MANUFACTURER's PERSPECTIVE
Cub Campers, a camper trailer manufacturer, has an interesting claim to fame. It’s been around since 1948 when it manufactured not only box trailers, but a few bondwood caravans as well — there is at least one still around.
In 1968 John Fagan, father of current owner Roger, purchased the business and the freehold. At the time Roger was working as a salesperson for a welding company but, having learned a few welding and trade skills along the way, joined his father in the new business.
The father and son team started building horse floats and developed Cub’s first camper trailer, which evolved into the Cub Drifter. It was the first soft floor camper in a time when camper trailers were fairly unusual. Later, when fashions changed, the company's focus shifted to rear fold, hard floor campers.
Roger Fagan told me one of Cub’s claims to fame is that it is one of the few RV manufacturers to have stood the test of time. Cub Campers has been in the Fagan family since that 1968 purchase — first with Roger’s father John, then with Roger himself and now with Roger's son Shane.
Business was good in the early days which allowed for an expansion from the original factory at Pendle Hill (west of Sydney) to North Rocks which meant a good design range of camper trailers could be offered, and having a larger factory premises meant that everything could be built in house.
“One of our highlights happened in 1986 when we sent three containers of camper trailers for display at the Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles, USA," says Roger Fagan.
"We even had the event covered by Robert Penfold who was then the North American Bureau Chief for the Nine network.”
But Fagan says the business wasn't all plain sailing.
“Like many others we struggled in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when the world fuel crises happened and people either downsized or stopped travelling," he says.
"In 1976, the RV industry turned out something like 34,000 units and just four years later, that figure was down to about 6000 units. At Cub we downsized too, and I went back to the tools for a few years to keep things going.
“Many people think the cost and supply of fuel was a factor in the general RV industry downturn from which it never recovered to those heady days of 50 plus caravans a day (Viscount and Millard). However, I reckon that international travel became a factor. Overseas flights became affordable and Australians became extensive international travellers.”
There’s no doubt the local camper trailer industry had a boom time of its own at start of the 21st century — at one point there were around 40 manufacturers, from large builders like Cub to small one- or two-person operations. That changed around 2008–09 when a number of Chinese-built camper trailers began to be imported. Although it affected everyone, it certainly impacted greatly on the smaller operators, putting many out of business.
“The thing I take great pride in is the quality of our product, something I think we do very well with our use of Australian steel and canvas," continues Fagan.
"However, one of the problems within the industry is that it’s very much self-regulated and that creates problems in all kinds of areas, including things like weight and braking systems, both safety type items.
“That’s one of the reasons why I helped create the Australian Manufactured Camper Trailer Guild (AMCTG) in 2011 and subsequently became its president. To be a member of the AMCTG, a manufacturer has to meet engineering compliance to Australian standards and ensure its complete manufacturing process (chassis, body, suspension and canvas) is all done in Australia,” he says.
Although Fagan has a limited role in the day-to-day operations of Cub Campers because his son Shane is now the managing director, he still takes a keen interest in the business.
“I reckon we’ll be around for a while yet!” he laughs.
Kratzmann Caravans is a well-known Brisbane caravan dealer. Until a couple of years ago, the business was in the hands of the original owner, Gary Kratzmann, but it wasn’t always a caravan sales yard.
Kratzmann was originally a car dealer and a mechanic who wanted to take on a Holden dealership. When that fell through, Kratzmann started considering other options — the main criteria was it had to be an Australian product.
After some research into the boating and caravan industries and an extended chat with Ron Chapman, Gary ordered a small range of Windsor caravans in 1987.
That was followed by the Roadstar range and resulted in the expansion of the Kratzmann sales yard at Virginia and the cessation of car sales.
By early 2000 Gary had eight or more brands available. The Virginia sales yard later expanded to the existing dealership at Burpengary, north of Brisbane, and later to another yard at Loganholme.
There’s no bias in the next comment but Kratzmann told me at one point that he took out seven pages of Caravan World, which helped Kratzmann Caravans because not only were Queensland buyers attracted into the salesyard, but interested people from other states as well.
“One of my claims to fame is that I was one of the pioneers in fitting out caravans with extras like ensuites, awnings and air-conditioners — all of those things that are taken for granted today," he says.
“In addition to that I reckon I was one of the first dealers to custom build caravans. It all started with racing driver, Peter Brock. He approached me about fitting out a pantech truck with an office, and shower/toilet. Caravan World did a story on it and that started potential buyers thinking about the same thing for their caravan,” he continues.
“In my early days in the caravan business, the ‘Around Australia’ trip wasn’t quite so common as it is today but at one point we fitted out a Roadstar caravan with bigger wheels and tyres, as well as an ensuite and created what was a forerunner of today’s rough road/offroad caravans. In 1997 Kratzmanns, in a specially-built Windsor caravan and along with other manufacturers like Jayco, Coromal, Golf and Winnebago, took part in the ‘Industry Outback Challenge’ demonstrating the versatility of purpose-built caravans.”
Of course it wasn’t only his dealerships that Kratzmann took an interest in. Like others, he served on the board of the Queensland CTIA, in his case for 30 years. During that time he saw a considerable advancement in the caravanning industry in Queensland. Although not a manufacturer, Kratzmann was also involved in the foundation of the Recreational Vehicle Manufacturers Australia (RVMA), previously the Recreational Vehicle Manufacturers Association Australia (RVMAA).
ANOTHER 50-YEAR VETERAN
Although I didn’t interview him for this piece, it would be remiss of me not to mention Bruce Binns of Avida motorhome and caravan fame.
Back in 2015 he and the company celebrated 50 years of motorhoming in Australia. Just prior to that in 2013, Avida built its 10,000th unit — a considerable achievement considering that Binns started by building slide-out campers under the Freeway name out of the family garage, a far cry from the purpose-built factory at Emu Plains in western Sydney that exists today!
It hasn’t all been plain sailing of course. In the late ‘70s, the original Freeway company almost disappeared because of financial problems. Winnebago (Australia) emerged from the ashes however and went from strength to strength, building a large range of motorhomes.
In 2007–08 the global financial crisis took its toll on Winnebago, like many other RV manufacturers.
Unfortunately, a few years later in 2010 Winnebago (USA) mounted a legal campaign against the use of the Winnebago name in Australia which resulted in a name change to Avida.
Nothing altered from a manufacturing point of view and couple of years later Avida added caravans to its motorhome range, giving Sydney its second caravan manufacturer in a number of years — Millard was the only one for quite a few years.
THAT’S ALL, FOLKS
There is much more to these 50 years of RV history in Australia than this little missive, but it’s a snapshot at how we arrived at the RV lifestyle and industry we have today!