Object lesson

14th September 2001 at 01:00
Summer's on the wane and the nation's front gardens are looking a little seedy. Perennials are being pruned and caravans reversed up driveways for over-wintering. For many owners, these boxes on wheels symbolise an escape from life's cul-de-sacs. They are a plastic link in a chain that reaches back to Persian "karwans" of merchants and pilgrims. They also pull in the cash, with the UK's estimated 330,000 caravans at the heart of a pound;2.5 billion industry.

The man credited with the first recreational use of a caravan is Dr William Gordon-Stables. His 1886 book, The Cruise of the Land Yacht Wanderer, tells of a journey to Scotland in an 18ft wooden horse-drawn van. His servant cycled ahead to warn villagers of the arrival of the author's mobile study, which was modelled on the Bible wagons used by travelling preachers. Gordon-Stables blazed a trail for other "gentlemen gypsies" and, in 1907, he was made first president of the Caravan Club, an organisation that now has 800,000 members.

Horses slowly gave way to horsepower, with the first motor-drawn, one-axle caravans appearing in 1915. A Birmingham company called Eccles made angular vans with leaded lights and timber frames that gave them an air of cottages on wheels.

By the 1920s, things had become more sophisticated. Often regarded as a golden age of crafted interiors and homespun exteriors, the decade was followed by the 1930s' craze for streamlining. Caravans gained cheeky curves in place of rough charm. The top van of the decade, a Winchester, pulled no punches when it was launched at the Motor Show. Priced at pound;495, it came with sink, cooker, wardrobe and sofa-beds. More extravagant still was the Angela company's 18ft fish-shaped creation. It had a tail.

Streamlining did not mean discomfort. The emphasis was on luxury - caravanning was for the rich who could hitch up and go. Baths appeared, as well as toilets, hot and cold water, lantern roofs and brass fenders.

Production languished during the Second World War and it took a progressive businessman to tow the industry off the hard shoulder. In 1954, Sam Alper's no-nonsense Sprite opened caravan doors to ordinary folk across the world. His company became the world's largest van maker, at one time selling 20,000 a year. Some of Alper's early Sprites still exist, and should you ever get stuck behind one while driving, remember the words of a militant caravanner: "I may be the snail, but you are the slime."

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