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A Mystery Caravan

In 2014 the photo below started to appear in some online photo archives. Its caption was ‘Panhard car and caravan (England, early 1900s)’:

Panhard Levassor car and caravan, England, early 1900s (Source: Pierre François Dupond)

The photo is from the postcard collection of French RV historian and caravan restorer Pierre François Dupond. Before this photo appeared, the earliest petrol-drawn, enclosed caravan was thought to have been the one made by Frederick Alcock in England in 1914 (although this date has yet to be verified):

Alcock's streamlined caravan, UK, 1914 (Source: UK Caravan Club)

The 'Panhard caravan' photo seemed earlier than 1914, so might this be an even earlier caravan? So began a search which would rewrite the history of the RV.

"I think you may have just blown RV history out of the water", wrote Angela Willis, the UK Caravan Club's curator, when I showed her this photo. She had never seen it before. But one thing Angela Willis did was to introduce me to a wonderful book called Caravanning and Camping Out written by J. Harris Stone, the first Secretary of the UK Caravan Club, in 1914.

Amongst many descriptions of early caravans by Harris Stone in the book is a three-wheeled caravan called The Pathfinder. It reads in part:

"The caravan “Pathfinder” is in several respects unusual, if not quite unique. In the first place it runs on three wheels only, and is easily drawn by one horse. The main door to the saloon is at the rear, and there is besides, near the front on the near side, a “kitchen entrance” as Mr Robert A. Scase, the owner, calls it – formed of double doors which open square."

If you look closely you will see that the 'Panhard caravan' also had three wheels. The description of The Pathfinder in Harris Stone's book matched the one in the photo pretty closely, with one exception. The Pathfinder was described as being horse-drawn. Angela Willis suggested this might not be the end of this particular avenue of enquiry, since it was not unknown for early RV owners to revert to horse power after finding it difficult to tow heavy caravans with under-powered automobiles on poor roads.

So the research continued. With the support of the Panhard Club of the UK, it was possible to pin down the year of manufacture of the Panhard Levassor tow vehicle to 1901 or 1902. The barely legible registration plate suggested a Derbyshire registration from about 1905 or 1906. Registrations only began in 1904 and there was a large backlog, so the dates are not necessarily incompatible with a used vehicle.

Fortunately, Harris Stone's book mentioned the name of The Pathfinder's owner, a businessman called Mr. Robert A. Scase. Many more hours of research uncovered a Robert Scase who was originally a property developer from Surbiton near London but who moved to Derbyshire in the early 1900s to become a pastor. Robert Scase founded the Derbyshire Village Mission in 1914, preaching the gospel to local villages from a caravan. I have failed so far to find any living relatives of Mr. Scase, but did find a photo of Mr. and Mrs. Scase from the 1930s thanks to the Derbyshire Records Office:

Mr. and Mrs. Robert Scase, c1930s (Source: Derbyshire Records Office)

Despite the time gap between the two photos, there seems to be a good likeness of Mr. and Mrs. Scase to the couple in the mystery caravan, so this would seem to confirm that the mystery caravan and The Pathfinder are one and the same. The exact place where the photo was taken remains a mystery, but from the architecture and stone walls it could be Derbyshire. But who built the caravan, when and why? believes the mystery caravan was almost certainly built by a French coachbuilder. How do we know? The design of the caravan, in particular its square windows, ironwork roof rack and black exterior, is typical of the early French public omnibuses of around 1900. For comparison the vehicle shown below is a Panhard Levassor 12 hp omnibus with coachwork by Rothschild:

A Rothschild Panhard Omnibus c1900 (Source unknown)

Extensive searches of Gallica, the Panhard archives and private French automobile and coachwork enthusiasts have however failed to find evidence of the mystery caravan actually being built.

One tantalising possibility is that the caravan is connected to Émile Levassor himself. In 1895 he was reported to be building a petrol-drawn caravan for his own private use. But unfortunately most of the Panhard archives were destroyed during the wars and we have no sketches or images of this caravan.

Levassor died prematurely in 1897 after falling from his vehicle whilst avoiding a dog in an automobile race. Is it possible that this caravan was built and shipped to England after his death for sale? Or that the Panhard Levassor company built a caravan in later years based on Levassor's earlier designs? Could the description of the mystery caravan photo ('Panhard car and caravan') mean Panhard car AND Panhard caravan?

This is where our mystery rests at the moment. Even though the mystery hasn't yet been solved, this search has uncovered a whole range of other early French RVs including steam-powered RVs from 1896-8 and the first motorhome in 1900. So thank you, mystery caravan.

Needless to say, any further information on this caravan will be most welcome.

Andrew Woodmansey

September 2021


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