From an impressive range of dozens of layouts across six models, the Grove 16ft single axle van sits as a compact dirt-road capable tourer in Billabong’s Drover Series of mid-level offroaders. There are so many variations across vans from 16 to 19ft and so many options available that the company has every right to call itself a custom builder.
Even in the 16ft versions, there are four different layouts with choices of full or combination ensuite, L-shaped or cafe lounge, central or rear door and options with bunks.
The van on review, with a central door, cafe lounge and full width ensuite at the back, is proving to be most popular with travelling couples. The layout makes the most of the small footprint and delivers a relatively lightweight model with superior manoeuvrability in the bush.
The benefits of a smaller van won't be lost on anyone travelling narrow tracks to out of the way destinations. But there's also the benefit of being able to tow it with medium size vehicles, as well as less fuel usage in comparison to some maxi offroaders.
After hitting troubled times eighteen months ago from the flow-on effect when their major Queensland dealer went belly-up, the company is under new ownership, but with the original management team intact and determined to continue the brand’s popularity. New owners, Claire and Andrew Lednar team with the original owner, Forch Salce, and crew of half a dozen workers at the Campbellfield factory, and while production numbers are down, the full range of vans is still on offer.
Construction is along the traditional lines of a Meranti frame with raised profile stucco-finish aluminium cladding on a sturdy steel chassis. A glossy composite exterior is an option, but it carries a 60kg weight penalty and might show dints more. Forch likes the flexibility and light weight of the timber frame and to his way of thinking it's an ideal construction method for offroad vans, and assured me only top-quality sealers are used to ensure weatherproofing. Still, like all vans, the integrity of joins needs checking at recommended service intervals.
With only 16 feet of internal body length, the Drover sat snuggly behind Billabong’s Mazda BT-50 tow vehicle. Tare is 2140kg, which is pretty hefty for the size of the van and reflects the sturdy underpinnings and a raft of features packed onboard. The single axles are rated to 2600kg, so adding in a ball weight of 200kg delivers an ATM of 2800kg and a very respectable payload of 640kg.
The G & S chassis is built from SupaGal with a 6in RHS in both the A-frame and main rails. Rough road travel is handled by a Simplicity trailing arm suspension with single shock absorber each side and the van towed well over rough ground and dirt roads during the review.
Brakes are 12in electrically operated drums while wheels are smart looking 16in black and gold alloys with 265/70 all-terrain tyres. At Caravan World, we like to have a good look around under the vans as it can sometimes show weaknesses in attention to detail and quality control. I liked what I saw under the Drover, with wiring well protected with conduit — including right up to the brake drums — and plumbing was high, out of harm's way.
Two 95L water tanks are suitably shrouded with metal covers and, although there was no grey water tank fitted, it’s an option that owners should select if they plan on staying in town RV parks or national parks.
One downside of a smaller van is the lack of storage, so the large toolbox on the A-frame will be a big help. One side has a slide for a generator, and the other is an open canvas.
The connection to the tow vehicle is through the relatively new AL-KO version of the venerable but now discontinued Highland Hitch. It offers plenty of side, and longitudinal movement needed offroad while retaining the simple 50mm ball coupling and visual reassurance that it's on correctly.
Two 8.5kg gas bottles, a tap with guard and a centre mount jockey wheel are all handily placed, and while the tray behind the toolbox is hard to reach, it's there to add storage for some firewood when you need it.
Having pointed out the need for storage, I'm of two minds about the electronics in the front boot. On one hand, they are beautifully presented, but on the other, they take up valuable space where camping paraphernalia usually ends up. Perhaps some sort of cover to protect them from being damaged by the jack rolling around when you throw it in at the last minute on top of mats and hoses would be good (or perhaps I am giving away too much of my lack of packing prowess).
You have to give credit though for the neat wiring to the BMPRO Genius 30-35 battery management, but if I were being picky, some grommets for the leads to the 31A solar charger would have completed a perfect installation. Twin 200W solar panels up top supply off-grid power to a pair of 120Ah AGM batteries living in a box on the chassis.
Along the passenger side, there’s more storage in a tunnel boot and a central picnic table with TV outlet, 12V and 240V points.
A manual step takes you through a forward-opening security door to a living space that’s compact but with all the essentials for travelling. With some smart design, the Billabong team have managed to include a full-width ensuite and a north-south bed and still leave room to move at the cafe dinette and kitchen. The bed arrangement removes any conflict an east-west bed involves when sleeping and also gives easy access to overhead storage cupboards and bedside tables.
Unusual, though, is a single window to the side of the bed, which Forch explained was necessary because of the forward opening access door. Customers can order a window if they prefer and in any case, an overhead hatch and driver side and front windows stream ample light and allow a good flow of fresh air.
The hand-built joinery looks modern with a square finish and hidden catches in a mix of light and dark grey against white walls and ceiling. The kitchen includes a Swift 500 grill and cooktop, a stainless-steel sink with a small draining board, while further back is a 190L Dometic gas-electric fridge freezer with a microwave above. Naturally enough in a van this size, kitchen bench space is limited to just the draining board and stovetop.
Opposite the kitchen is a cafe dinette with a thickly padded lounge, folding table and a long window that could have been set a little lower to maximise the view. USB and power points are handily placed, and I liked the quick access to items in storage drawers under the seats.
Comparisons with the reviews shown elsewhere from our first issue back in 1970 highlight the many differences between a contemporary van and the crop from fifty years ago, but the main difference must be that today’s models almost exclusively include an ensuite.
The Drover’s full width ensuite may be lacking the depth of some more luxurious examples seen in more extended vans, but it lacks nothing in its practical layout. As well as a small vanity with a floating bowl and full-size shower cubical, you get a floor-to-ceiling cupboard that adds significantly to storage. On the driver’s side is a Thetford toilet and a wall-mounted Camec washer.
A real standout of the Drover is its generous 660kg carrying capacity, supported by the capable Simplicity suspension. Even loaded with full water tanks and gas, there’s more than 460kg for recovery gear, generator, food and drinks, so cutting back on what you load will only be determined by storage space. Although we didn’t get a chance to experience the van fully loaded, I have every confidence the suspension is up to the task and that, loaded sensibly, there should be no problem.
For our review, we had a mix of tarred and gravel rural roads as well as farm tracks and the Drover showed no nasty traits, following behind without lurching or undue sway. Because maximum weight is 2800kg, tow vehicles like medium-size SUV's fit the mix as well as most twin cab utes.
It wasn’t that long ago that I thought they were a joke, but even doomsday preppers will find enough carrying capacity to be happy. Add in ample battery and solar to stream endless Netflix series and the Drover should get you off the grid for long stretches.
Billabong has a 5-year structural warranty that applies to full offroad use, so they have a lot of faith in their product. Agents in most states handle urgent issues, but like most manufacturers, they rely on the network of appliance suppliers for electrical repairs.
The Drover comes standard with most features a travelling couple would need, but the company welcomes input from buyers for any extras or changes. Those who like a smaller offroader that can get to more remote locations will be attracted to the rugged build and comfortable interior.
A recent price drop of nearly $10,000 to $58,000 puts this compact mid-range offroader into bargain territory. It’s sure to impress anyone looking for a sturdy and straightforward tourer to escape enforced isolation at home and find some voluntary solitude at your favourite hideaway when travel restrictions are lifted.
WEIGHTS AND MEASURES
Overall length 7.2m (23ft)
External body length 5.4m (17ft 8in)
External body width 2.5m (8ft 2in)
Travel height 3m (9ft 10in)
Internal height 2m (6ft 6in)
Ball weight 200kg
Frame Meranti timber
Cladding Aluminium, Stucco Cladding
Chassis 6in Boxed (G & S Chassis)
Suspension 2600kg Simplicity offroad suspension (coil and shocker)
Coupling AL-KO Hyland hitch
Brakes 12in AL-KO brakes
Wheels 16/265 tyres with Trooper gold rims
Water 2 x 95L (Greywater optional)
Battery 2 x 120Ah AGM Batteries
Solar 2 x 200W
Air conditioner Haughton Belaire 2400
Gas 2 x 8.5kg
Sway control Optional Dexter sway control
Cooking Swift mini grill
Fridge Dometic RM4606 Auto select (Compressor 190 L optional)
Microwave Dluxx 23L supplied by Swift
Washing Machine Camec Wall mounted in ensuite
Hot water Swift 28L with stainless steel tank
PRICE AS SHOWN
$58,000 drive away from the factory in Victoria. Interstate buyers are welcome but need to add freight and dealer costs depending on state.
To enquire about this caravan phone 0434 862 015
Billabong Custom Caravans
51b Randor St, Campbellfield 3061