The Australian RV company Propert is best known for its post-war RV, the Propert Patent Folding Caravan. The two brother behind Propert, Alf and Tom, had a lesser known but equally significant pre-war record of RV manufacture.
"In 1935 the firm of Tom Propert & Son opened up and still continues in a comparatively small way of business, the maximum output of bodies being about six outfits per week, but in addition to this they are about the largest supplier of caravans, known as Covered wagon Mobile Homes, of which a great number have been built and sold as a result of this particular specialisation, which has meant much hard going to market them on a paying basis."
from Recollections of the Early Motor Body Trade in Australia by Tom Propert (date unknown, courtesy of Bill Propert)
Most Australians who know a thing or two about old RVs will typically associate the name Propert with the Propert Patent Folding Caravan of 1952. It was an ingenious vehicle and has become an icon of Australian design. You can read more about it here.
Less well known is the Propert family's contribution to pre-war RV design and construction in Australia. Two family members in particular, Alf and Tom Propert, each made RVs that influenced the direction of RV design in Australia for decades. Because both were coachbuilders rather than salesmen, their lights have been hiding under a bushel for quite a while. It's time to bring them both out into the open.
Propert Motor Body Works
Brothers Alf and Tom Propert were Sydney-based coachbuilders, establishing the Propert Motor Body Works Company in about 1910. By 1914 the company had over 100 employees, increasing to 300 by 1928. After the First World War Tom was for a time appointed Principal of a Commonwealth-owned motor body building school. In 1926 the Properts were producing two thousand motor bodies a year. In 1927 Alf travelled to the UK and USA to see how body building could be improved in Australia.
As well as building bodies for cars, buses and trucks, the company also built ‘camping bodies’. These incorporated into an automobile seats that could be folded flat for sleeping (patented by Alf Propert in 1923, downloadable below) as well as a range of camping storage compartments. Camping bodies allowed those on limited budgets to go camping using everyday vehicles.
In the early 1930s growth of the business slowed during the Great Depression, forcing the company to downsize to a single factory at 73 King Street, Newtown. Faced with intense competition from fully-integrated automobile manufacturers, motor body builders had to specialise or die. In 1935 Tom and Alf decided to go their own separate ways, remaining in the industry but with different specialisations. Let's look at each one in turn.
Alfred Harold Propert ('Alf', 1890-1949)
When Alf and Tom went their separate ways in 1935, each considered how they could take advantage of the growing popularity in caravanning.
Alf came up with a at least two novel RV ideas in the late 1930s. Alf’s first idea was a basic caravan designed for use by road surveyors and bridge builders called The Cabin Coach.
His more advanced RV concept was a US-style caravan called The Open Road which was built in De Luxe and Junior forms from about 1938. Although similar in shape to steel-built US coach trailers, it was made of lighter aluminium:
It is not known how many of either model Alf produced or sold. Alf exhibited The Open Road caravan at the Sydney NRMA camping exhibitions of 1938 and 1939 (see below), but with the onset of war Alf ceased caravan production and his factory was requisitioned for the manufacture of war materials. There is no record of Alf producing any further caravans after the war.
Thomas Gershom Propert ('Tom', 1888-1969)
Like Alf, Tom decided that caravans were a useful diversification away from the competitive and declining motor body building industry. But rather than build and sell caravans himself, Tom decided to collaborate with R.J. Rankin of Caravan Park from about 1936 until the onset of the Second World War. Tom would supply Rankin with a range of caravans under the Mobile Home brand built out of timber, steel and canvas. This collaboration is explained in more detail in the Caravan Park blog.
Tom's caravans varied from the small to the large. His smallest were about 10 feet long whilst the largest went up to 16 feet. Materials used were typically timber for the caravan frames and steel for the side and canvas roofs, although Tom may have experimented with different combinations of these. Since Caravan Park both sold and hired caravans, it's likely that the hire caravans would have been made of cheaper materials such as timber and canvas.
Thanks to a photo album inherited by Bill Propert originally belonging to Tom, we can now see the range of caravans that Tom built in the late 1930s. It appears that not only did Tom build caravans for Caravan Park, but he also made caravans for others for both recreational and business use.
In 1937 for example, Tom built a commercial demonstration caravan for the Stevenson's Blue Ray Gas Company. Although perhaps not as elegant as his other caravans, it demonstrated Tom's ability to transfer automobile bodywork skills to caravans.
Both of the above photos are courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales and ACP Magazines Ltd (file nos. FL9734895 and FL9734896).
The State Library of New South Wales does not attribute the Blue Ray caravan to Tom Propert, but photos from Bill Propert's collection along with written accounts of this period by Tom Propert confirm that it was built by Tom.
From Tom's photo collection we also now know that his relationship with Caravan Park was not an exclusive one - it is almost certain that he also built recreational caravans for others. The photo above shows a caravan in front of Tom's factory that does not appear in any Caravan Park adverts or brochures of the period. Styled on a US travel trailer, it has a unique 'toaster' shape, rear entrance and segmented windows. It has no registration plate. Included in Tom's collection was the following brochure:
Research to date has been unable to find out who was Tom's client behind the 'Caravanahome' concept, but since the address on the brochure is a residential one, it is unlikely that the person behind the brochure was the same person who built the caravan. It is far more likely that it was built by Tom. He would probably have supplied this person in Beecroft in Sydney's North with a caravan to test the market for a new sales and hire business. Completed in 1938, it would not have been a great time to start a new business.
The pre-WW2 contributions of Alf and Tom Propert to Australian RV design are poignantly captured in another photo from Bill's collection of the 1939 NRMA camping and caravan exhibition in Sydney. Among the range of caravans exhibited, Alf and Tom's caravans can clearly be seen. Alf's Open Road caravan, complete with a wind turbine on the front, can be seen on the left directly across from the Caravan Park stand displaying his brother Tom’s products under the Mobile Home brand. It appears from the photo that Alf and Tom were competing for business right opposite to each other.
Despite a parting of the ways in 1935, it’s become clear that both Alf and Tom Propert made important contributions to the design and manufacture of Australian caravans before the Second World War.
After the war Alf returned to his traditional body works business until his death in 1949, whilst Tom’s son, Tom Junior, became the man behind the Propert Patent Folding Caravan in 1952.
With thanks to Bill Propert for supplying photos and content for this article and to Australian RV historians Richard Dickins and Richard Potter for their invaluable contributions and insights.