The bach on wheels

By Heather McCracken

A summer break in a cute retro caravan is like taking a slice of Kiwiana on holiday. Heather McCracken meets some of the enthusiasts bringing vintage vans back to life.

Lola is painted in candy-coloured hues and was intended to be the Eagle family's forever caravan.
Lola is painted in candy-coloured hues and was intended to be the Eagle family's forever caravan.

The love affair started with "Lil". The Haynes family bought the tiny, 3m Lilliput caravan from a relative about eight years ago.

Ashleigh Haynes says they couldn't bear to let the little beauty, built in Auckland in 1975, be sold to a stranger.

So "Lil", sometimes known as "Agnes", became a key feature of family holidays. Ashleigh and husband Andrew slept inside, and four kids on bunks slept in the awning.

The caravan is towed by "Colin", a 1963 Holden EJ Special, and always draws a crowd, Ashleigh says.

"People are really surprised when they see it. We get asked if it's new made to look old," she says.

"People can't figure it out."

Now the kids, aged 14, 12, 6 and 7, are getting too big for the bunks, but the family didn't want to leave Lil at home.

Instead, they've adopted another caravan - a 1976 Lightweight Vagabond, or "Peggy".

"They're both beautiful, they're both really similar colouring, and we're just getting an awning made to go between the two," Ashleigh says.

The family, who live in Red Beach, will be towing both to Sandspit this summer, north of Auckland, where they're expecting the matching pair to turn plenty of heads.

Though "Colin" sometimes needs to take things slowly, going to new locations is one of the best things about caravanning, Ashleigh says.

"It's really neat going to different places. There are so many beautiful places and everywhere you go there's something new and exciting to do."

Next year, they're hoping to take the caravans to the Whangamata Beach Hop in March, and to Bowentown, near Waihi.

"We're hoping 'Colin' will be able to cope with pulling 'Lil' all that way. Might have to stop to fill him up with water and oil half way down," Ashleigh says.

"He drips heaps of oil and hops out of third gear, like all good 1963 Holdens do, too bad, getting there is half the fun."

The Haynes' second caravan, "Peggy", was lovingly restored by Rick Boyd and David Jeffs from Retro Caravans Northland.

The pair have been bringing old vans to life for the past 10 years, spending countless hours returning rusty, neglected caravans to their former glory.

Ashleigh and Andrew Haynes spend their summer holidays with their four children in their two caravans, one of which they tow in their 1963 Holden. Photo / Jason Dorday
Ashleigh and Andrew Haynes spend their summer holidays with their four children in their two caravans, one of which they tow in their 1963 Holden. Photo / Jason Dorday

"We just started off doing them for ourselves and it just snowballed, really," Rick says.

"We just can't get them done up fast enough."

The demand for old vans has been steadily growing, as have their prices.

Caravans that would have sold for about $700 are now going for $3500 to $4000, he says.

Rick's love of caravanning started at a young age. Growing up in Napier, his parents had a 1966 Oxford Special, which they towed with a 1966 Ford Falcon station wagon.

"Dad was too busy working so Mum and I would head off down to Masterton, to Dannevirke, even just to Hastings for a weekend."

That caravan was upgraded to an Oxford Premier, and the Falcon to a Valiant, but "in 1973, the fuel crunch came and they decided to sell the big car and sell the big caravan".

The Oxford was replaced with a Sprite 400, and the Valiant with a smaller car.

"The funny thing about it was what we saved from Napier to Taupo was 75 cents. One gallon of petrol.

"It didn't take mum too long to buy another Valiant and another big caravan again."

Those models from the 60s and 70s are still around, but many have been sadly neglected, Rick says.

"Nobody ever looks after their caravans. We've had a few that have been one-owner vans, but they've absolutely been used and abused."

They arrive with rust, leaks, dented panels, damage from being hit by lawnmowers, or towed into the side of a house.

Restoration can take hundreds of hours of work and in many cases replacement parts can't be found.

But Rick says the charm of the old vans makes them worth the effort.

"It's no different from having an old car and having it restored or spending thousands of hours rebuilding it," he says.

"It's the smell, the feel, the quaintness.

"People seem to love the little ones too - I don't know why, because there's no room in them - but the cute round bubble ones."

Beth Eagle is also passionate about giving old, neglected caravans a second chance at life and making sure their new life is a much more stylish one.

"I feel like the effort that went into building them was really let down in the style department," she says.

"They deserve a second chance at being stunning and having gorgeous names."

Those names have included "Mary-Lou", a 3.6m 1974 Tanner Craft caravan, "Polly", a 4.2m Anglo Pullman, and "Gloria", a baby blue 3.6m Burco, built in Timaru.

"I find they all have a personality and they all have a name. I just spend a bit of time in them really, and they come together."

The Waiuku mum started out by buying a caravan for family camping holidays, after deciding it would be easier than tenting with the kids.

"I thought I could do it up and it could be a little bach with wheels - and towels and cutlery and your own sheets and duvet.

"All the comforts of a holiday, and you don't have to pack so much."

That first four-berth do-up became a bit of a squeeze after having their third child so was reluctantly sold.

It had such a good response, Beth then restored and sold another van, which helped fund the purchase of "Lola", a 16-foot Lightweight Silver Stream - the family's "forever caravan".

Painted in candy-coloured hues, Lola was fitted out with matching accessories, including bunting, cushions, even a retro fondue set.

"We took her to Beach Hop and so many people absolutely loved her and were astounded that it could be done."

She turned so many heads, Beth stared to think there could be business potential in doing up caravans.

She launched her business, Love Vintage Caravans - but the seed money to start the venture had to come from selling her beloved Lola. She has now restored seven vans, and says they sell faster than she can finish them.

Her passion for caravans comes from her love of interior design - and all things cute and quirky. "I love the craftsmanship that goes into it. There's nothing in a caravan that's not meant to be there," she says.

"They're so well thought-out and I love that about them."

For those without the extra space or cash for their own caravan, Ngaire Gallagher's beautifully restored Spotty Dottie is just the ticket for a retro getaway.

The 1960s four-berth caravan was restored as a fundraiser for the Breast Cancer Research Trust. Its bright, spotty colour scheme was designed by Trelise Cooper.

It was then sold on Trade Me and Ngaire was urged by a friend to pick it up to go with her newly bought green Volkswagen Beetle.

"The car can't even tow the caravan - that's the silly thing about it - but I thought it would look rather cute," she says.

Dottie has found a home on Ngaire's Otaki property, and can be hired by holiday-makers through Bookabach.co.nz.

It has been rented by honeymooners, for use as a cocktail bar for a 40th birthday, and been used as a spare room for guests.

Inside, it's fitted out in beautiful style, with bright floral curtains, a swathe of cushions and red-and-white chequerboard floor.

Wherever Dottie goes, she's the centre of attention, Ngaire says.

"The CEO of the Breast Cancer Research Trust brought it to Taupo for me to pick up from there, and while we were parked on the lake front he said, 'here's your first visitors', and sure enough, people just walked in to have a look."

Ngaire says she has always loved the idea of holidaying in a caravan - but she hasn't yet had a chance to take Dottie away herself.

"We grew up on a farm and I think we had one holiday as family. We went to Thames and stayed in a camping ground.

"I always thought it would be lovely to have caravanning holidays."

FURTHER INFORMATION

Retro Caravans Northland: Email - sales@retrocaravans.co.nz

Love Vintage Caravans: Email - Beth@lovevintagecaravans.co.nz

Spotty Dottie: See www.bookabach.co.nz/18325

- Herald on Sunday

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