To be one of the first caravans reviewed in the very first issue of Caravan World all those years ago affords Viscount special status around here. So when we got the opportunity during these hard times to review a new Viscount van for our 600th issue through ARV in Eden, I couldn't pass it up. Eden is nearby to where I live and when we coupled it with a photo location at Frankie J Holden’s Tathra Beachside Caravan Park everything fell into place for a safe COVID-19-compliant event.
When I showed Tom from ARV that original review, which is reprinted on pages 44 and 45, it brought a smile to his face, and it’s not surprising that the young millennial would find the cocktail cabinet and terylene drapes amusing. You also have to admit that the option of a family version with sleeping for eight was a throwback to a different expectation of what numbers the average family might be.
Some of the other features of the veteran Viscount included such advance features as three towel rails, tobacco coloured carpet in the bedroom and a Welsh dresser to deliver “more luxury than most homes”. But some things haven’t changed. The specs suggest a weight of 21 hundredweight in NSW and 23 in Victoria, because the relevant authorities had differing views of what should be weighed for registration. Regrettably, the argument continues today amongst builders. That imperial weight is so last century, hence, for the decimal crowd, 21cwt is 1066kg, meaning the van was pretty light and no problem for the Falcon 500 station sedan tow vehicle to hit 70mph (112km/h) during the review.
Now before you hit me with the old “new vans are so heavy” argument, let’s remember that the 1970 Viscount didn’t have an ensuite, a big fridge, solar and battery pack even if the reviewer did think it was better equipped than most homes. And without effective insulation or an air conditioner, it was so cold in winter that it was best to get into bed and watch TV. Oh, that's right, no TV.
The V2 on test here is the closest model in the Viscount range to their tandem 1970 model and sits as an affordable entry-level, couple’s touring van. And it comes with a suite of standard features that would be the envy of everyone in a 1970s caravan park.
Retro caravan lovers might miss the tobacco brown carpet, but I have to admit I’m not a fan. It probably goes back to the time we went overboard and painted all our outdoor furniture, the fence and chook shed Mission Brown. I like the new approach much more. And I'm sure the V2's interior will be easy to live with in a subtle palette of deep grey Platinum joinery and against white walls and light marble Como benchtops.
Like many Australian success stories, Viscount started as a backyard business in Adelaide in the late 1950s. Newly emigrated Englishman, John Carr built a couple of vans to see how people liked them and they sold almost immediately. After setting up in an Adelaide factory for a short time, the company moved closer to the action in Sydney and by 1965 Viscount was the biggest caravan builder in Australia, with Carr living the high life and travelling the world in search of new ideas.
By the late 70s Viscount had absorbed its rival Millard and was selling 75 per cent of all the vans sold across the country.
Remembered as having been built with an aluminium frame, many Viscount vans of the early days were actually timber frame construction, and in the mid-60s, customers were given a choice of both before the production line move to their jet age all-alloy construction.
The model range was huge and catered for families with vans down to 11', but some tri- axles versions ran to 30' or more. Vintage Viscounts are popular amongst retro van collectors, and because there were so many built, they still pop up as barn finds suitable for restoration.
The 80s saw a decline in RV sales and coupled with a PR disaster with the new European-influenced AeroLite's build quality and durability, Viscount was in trouble. The brand was sold, but the new owner fell foul of ASIC for breaches of the trade practices act, and that business was wound up in 2006.
In 2018, to the horror of Vintage Viscount purists, the Concept Group bought the name and started building in a dedicated factory in Campbellfield, Victoria. Purists aside, the brand continues the tradition of bringing affordable caravanning to the masses with a pared-back range of three value-proposition models, the simply named V1, V2 and V3.
The V2 is essentially a main road tourer so the 100mm x 50mm Supergal chassis and A-frame, which includes strengthening beams at the stress points, are up to the task and keep weight low. Similarly, while the tandem roller rocker leaf spring suspension isn’t state of the art technology, it’s reliable and straightforward in design and maintenance. Wheels are 15in alloys with 205/70 light truck road tyres. 62L and 95L water tanks have metal shrouds, and I like the way the pipes and electrical leads are neatly and safely led under the van.
Everything up front is standard fare touring van with a 50mm AL-KO ball hitch, brake-away control, 12 pin plug, camera connector and a pair of 9kg gas bottles with a stoneguard protecting the regulator. Along the passenger side are the basics for outdoor living including a folding picnic table, black Dometic awning, 12V power, TV point and external speakers.
A galvanised steel-lined tunnel boot will be handy for camping items, while at the back a simple two-arm bar holds a single spare.
High profile aluminium sides covering the Meranti framed walls have a black vinyl covering lower down to give a fashionable carbon fibre look. Still, the checkerplate behind the gas bottles and composite panels at the front and back, as well as over the roof, is the real thing.
Because the van rides at a relatively low height, the need for a step at the entry might depend on your height and fitness. Being the pinnacle of nimbleness, I had no problem stepping aboard, but some may find a small removable plastic step could be an advantage, and there is plenty of room to store it at the entryway. In any case, a sturdy brushed stainless steel grab rail inside helps access and a handy storage pocket is an ideal spot for keys.
Inside is a conventional, but sensible 20ft layout, with a front bed and a rear ensuite that gives easy access to the bathroom and privacy for the bed. Ahead of the entry is a stylish, black slimline 141L Thetford fridge-freezer. A larger 175L version is the only option available in the van apart from colours for benchtops, cupboards and lino, but be aware that the bigger fridge steals a few inches of valuable bench space. Of course dealers like ARV can add things like a second battery, solar and grey water, but the layout in the review van is the only one available for the V2.
Whereas the reviewer in Issue #1 was excited about the tobacco carpet and lighter coloured wood panelling, I have to admit I thought the bamboo laminate on the kitchen splashback looked pretty slick on the V2. Bench space is limited to some room at the folding cover at the stove and on the draining board of the stainless steel sink, so that's just something you will need to work around when cooking up something special.
Cupboards are from CNC-finished ply created in the Viscount factory, and the neat, minimalist square finish is a much more modern than the "picture frame” fake timber look of our 1970s comparison. However, the lack of shelves in the cupboards seems like an oversight as it limits storage options for smaller items.
I do like the oven in the Thetford Caprice stove though, because on long trips away it’s always good to be able to serve a baked dinner or bread. A lot of entry-level vans leave you with only a grill and cooktop. Overhead and below bench cupboards have sturdy catches, and there's a dedicated cutlery drawer at a handy height.
At the café dinette opposite, there’s room for two, and the well-padded backrests extend along the wall for more comfortable seating when watching television or reading. A generous number of power outlets at the table lets you charge phones and computers even when not hooked up to the grid.
As well as for the charging capability, self-contained power for lights and fans comes from a single 135W solar panel which charges a 100Ah battery that’s stored under the bed. One of the kitchen cupboards houses a 25amp Enerdrive solar charger and a Projecta monitor. The fuse panel is also there, and while it’s in a handy spot, surely it’s time all manufacturers, as a minimum, labelled the fuse panel, so we aren't searching around in the dark for the user manual if a circuit blows.
Large windows at the bedroom might not give the wrap-around panoramic views of the vintage van, but the more storage-friendly design of the V2 means cupboards replace some of the scenery. An overhead hatch adds to the airy feeling, and like all modern vans, double glazed windows have built-in fly screens, and block-outs; it’s unusual to see dust-catching curtain nowadays.
Even though the storage space under the bed houses the battery, it still has loads of room for extra bedding and other incidentals. A padded bedhead lends some added comfort and side nooks have USB charging points and space for phones and a book or two.
It might have been nice back in 1970 to have a big club lounge and a cocktail cabinet but try selling the lack of a bathroom to most owners in 2020, and you would be on a losing streak. The rear ensuite of the V2 is roomy enough to towel down, and extractor fans in the main section and the shower provide proper ventilation. Under the vanity is a compact washing machine to help save a few bob on the road by avoiding laundromats. Overhead cupboards add to storage space and the round floating bowl with a designer waterfall tap lend some extra refinement.
At 2209kg, the modern-day Viscount differs by around 1000kg in extra Tare weight, but that's about average these days for this size van with all the features a touring couple would want. A payload of 400kg takes the maximum weight out to 2609kg so the old Falcon 500 would be struggling. Even the last off the line XR6 Falcon was only rated to 2300kg, so something like an Isuzu MUX or more agricultural ute will be needed.
Happily, Tom’s ML 320 Mercedes just scraped in as a legal tow vehicle at maximum payload, and the powerful V6 engine had no problem up the big hills on the way to our photo location. Being a COVID-19-compliant test, I didn't get a drive, so I have to go by observation that the van handled well. I saw no sway or undue handling issues, but I did note the rocker roller suspension can be quite noisy over rough ground.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The latest Viscount-badged range continues the 'van for every man' theme of an earlier era, because at $54,490 as tested it’s well priced. This is especially true when you consider the list of standard features: a washing machine, water filter, and full oven, outside speakers, reversing camera and an external gas bayonet for a barbecue with a value, according to Tom, of around $2000.
WEIGHTS AND MEASURES
Body length 6.07m (19ft 9in)
Overall length 7.92m (25ft 9in)
Width 2.5m (8ft 2in)
Height 2.91m (9ft 6in)
Payload (calculated) 400kg
Ball weight 122 kg
Chassis Preston chassis
Suspension Roller Rocker
Coupling 50mm Ball
Water 95 + 62L tank
Solar 135W Solar
Gas 2 x 9kg
Sway control Optional
Cooking Full oven
Fridge 141 Slimline Thetford three way
Bathroom Full ensuite with washing machine
Hot water Gas electric
No additional options
Princes Hwy Eden, NSW 2551
02 6496 4411