CIAA: Side by Side

Peter May — 17 November 2021
In his first column, Peter May looks back at Australia’s long history of travel, and towards moves to make the industry safer

Throughout history, we have traversed our island continent, travelling side by side with our companions (pets included) or newfound road friends. From the nomadic Indigenous, to early explorers such as Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson, through to pastoralists exploring and drovers, we have always been a nation that has moved around.

In the early days of transportation, thoroughfares were full of horseback, wagons and coaches from builders, such as Cobb & Co, which conveyed people, goods and services to remote areas of this vast land. Afghan camel trains criss-crossed the arid central Australian deserts along with pioneers, such as John Flynn, a Presbyterian Minister and the founder of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, who provided valuable services to regional communities. These forerunners forged the many trails and tracks now used for commerce and leisure.

During the depression of the 1930s, men took to the road in swathes with a swag and a billy looking for employment opportunities outside of the cities, mainly assisting on farms and stations, in some cases working for only a meal. These men would walk for miles, before pulling up on the side of the road, making camp with a fire and a billy of tea.

The practice of a roadside fire and a billy (or something stronger) has continued via camping and caravanning, albeit under happier and more comfortable circumstances.

Post-war, caravans and recreational vehicles were rudimentary, with some being ‘home-made’ and some factory assembled. Many first caravans came from the knowledge of coach builders, who also saw the transition from horsepower of the four-legged variety to the four-wheeled type.

Manufacturing was booming with three major vehicle manufacturers: General Motors Holden, Ford and Chrysler. As a result, capital leaked into affiliated industries, seeing upholsterers, electroplaters, tyre manufacturers and other service and component industry’s benefit.

The caravan industry advanced in step, with skills such as steam bending wood, carpenters and body builders, propelling the industry forward. Caravans at the time were predominantly made of ‘Bond Wood’, a marine ply made from Hoop Pine. Being built in most states, caravans provided a new leisure and lifestyle opportunity for Australia’s enjoyment.

The caravan industry has persevered through the ever-changing economic landscape, with booming economies, high interest rates and climbing oil prices moving consumer tastes away from the larger six and eight cylinder cars to medium type vehicles like Datsun, Toyota, or the Holden Torana and Ford Cortina. The industry responded by building smaller products such as camper trailers and pop-tops to which we still see in today’s market.

Adventurous consumers also began to explore more remote regions with newfound enthusiasm from watching television programs such as The Leylands. Four-wheel drives appeared to be the answer for less travelled roads and tracks, with recreational vehicle product following trend. Purchasers of caravans and RV’s were seeking more in their product; more ground clearance, improved suspensions, more robust tyre combinations and a more robust chassis to withstand the extremes of remote travel.

Today, the appetite of the consumer has not waned, with the Australian caravan and camper crew continuing to demand more and more from their RV, including more creature comforts and more technical advances to enable them to have the confidence to go ‘anywhere’. Developments, such as safety systems like rated chains, rated shackles, larger braking systems and electronic stability control, now become the norm rather than the exception.

Much design, research and development has been conducted by manufacturing and technology businesses aligned with caravan manufacturing industry right here as Australians use their RVs in a way nowhere else does. Aligned with this, better education and regulatory frameworks mean more industry manufacturers are joining auditing and compliance regimes, such as Recreational Vehicle Manufacturing Accreditation Program (RVMAP), which assure consumers that the manufacturer is committed to building in accordance with construction standards and Australian Design Rules. All of these processes are designed to improve the safety and integrity of RVs in both Australian manufactured and imported products.

With international borders closed, many of the over 750,000 RVs registered Australia wide will soon be hitting the road, many for the first time. The Caravan Industry Association of Australia identified the need for a Caravan & Trailer Road Safety Alliance. This Alliance was formed in conjunction with affiliated businesses with a focus on road safety within the RV sector.

‘One caravan accident is one too many’ in the eyes of the Alliance and in accordance with the Federal Government’s Road Safety Strategic Plan, the Alliance will work hard with industry, consumers and Government to provide an environment which supports safer roads, safer drivers and safer vehicles, and to preserve the legacy left by us by many of those which have paved the path for us to enjoy today.

For more information on caravan safety, please visit

Peter May Caravan & Trailer Road Safety Alliance  


Regulars Column Cavan Industry Association of Australia History