The Caravan now an "Object of Design"

Michael Browning — 13 August 2011

WITH FEW EXCEPTIONS, caravans have rarely been paragons of cutting-edge design, most still clinging to their timber interior, dusky fabrics and lace curtain origins that disappeared from home decorator catalogues sometime last century. That is, until now.

These older vans were for residents of struggle street who wanted to replicate their home furnishings in the monolith they planted on their seaside block for six weeks every Christmas to host their extended family and grandkids.

But the demographic of today’s caravanner is changing rapidly, and these days, having 5-7m of portable accommodation on your drawbar doesn’t mean you’re too poor to stay in something anchored to the ground. A rough balance sheet of car and van combos we passed on the Stuart Highway on a recent trip to the Kimberley suggested that the average rig worth is upwards of $130,000.

BUT MORE INTERESTING than the added 'bling' boosting their bottom line is the winds of change that have recently been blowing through the design departments of van manufacturers. Presumably, this is occurring as the dinosaurs from the 1960s retire and are replaced by fresh thinkers. As a result, these new designs have flushed out a whole new group of caravanners who wouldn’t have given a second glance to the white mammoths slugging along most major Australian holiday highways.

Kimberley at Ballina shook up the market several years ago when it introduced its innovative and award-winning Karavan, which uses a clever concertina mechanism to condense all the features of a fully featured caravan – including an onboard ensuite – into something no taller or wider than a large 4WD tow car.

Then Melbourne’s Track Trailer came out with their Topaz pop-top, featuring similar 4WD width in a go-most-places pop-top. But the innovation here, like in the Karavan, was the use of industrial style modern decor and finishes, banishing the lace curtains, 1950s furnishings and timber kitchens into the dustbin of time where they belong. There have since been a number of caravans that have drawn their 21st century inspiration from both.

NOW, FELLOW MELBOURNE manufacturer Bolwell has trumped them all, becoming the first caravan maker to be awarded an Automotive Engineering Excellence Award from the Society of Automotive Engineers for its trend-setting Edge caravan. Scarcely had its engineering been praised by the automotive industry than the Bolwell RV earned the coveted Good Design designation in the latest round of Australian International Design Awards.

Bolwell, older readers may recall, dates back to 1962 when Campbell Bolwell turned his hand-built fibreglass sports car hobby into a business, producing more than 800 kit and complete vehicles before he concentrated on developing more lucrative commercial fibreglass products in the mid-1970s. Now the Bolwell sports car is back as a nostalgic project for Campbell, but the company’s new Edge pop-top, designed and built by his sons, is all about the future.

THE SAE-A COMMENDED the Edge for its fully moulded fibreglass construction combining light weight, strength, and aerodynamics, with the interior and outer shells bonded to create a rigid, frameless semi-monocoque unit. It’s principally the work of Campbell’s younger son Vaughan Bolwell, who was lead designer on the Australian Institute of Sport – RMIT’s SupaRoo track bicycle that won Gold at the 1994 Commonwealth Games – while his elder brother Owen drives the marketing.

They applied advanced aerodynamic principles and made extensive use of advanced composites in the Edge, including carbon fibre to add rigidity in some sections, and synthetic fibre to increase impact resistance in others. More significantly, they are tapping into a new market of buyers that probably have iPads and Facebook pages, rather than the traditional caravan buyers of old.

The folk at Bolwell say their customers to date have been former canvas campers who have done the hard travel yards but now want to go to the same places in more comfort. And while it would be tempting to consider the Edge as a caravan version of a Moruya (NSW)-built Ultimate camper, because of its strength and light weight (1250kg), actually its size, at 4750mm long (body length), 2170mm wide and 2400mm tall (travel height), places it halfway between a camper and an offroad caravan.

With just six Edge vans on the road so far they are not exactly an everyday sight, but with other models on the drawing board and a growing number of new-age caravanners moving out of canvas, or simply by-passing that initiation stage, I’m betting you’ll soon be seeing a lot more, due in part to their starting drive-away price of $51,490.


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Caravan Staff