An Australian company called Caravan Park Ltd., later renamed Carapark, is commonly regarded as Australia's first caravan manufacturer, with a claimed starting date for its caravan manufacturing of 1928. A mid-pandemic research effort by three Australian caravan historians has discovered that it almost certainly wasn't.
This blog is concerned only with Caravan Park's pre-WW2 history. Its post-WW2 history is relatively well known and better documented. The 1930s was an important period in Australian caravan manufacturing, being the decade in which manufacturing at scale began. Who first manufactured Australian caravans and what factors influenced their design is an important part of Australian RV heritage.
Current Caravan Park Pre-War History
The currently accepted history of Caravan Park is set out in a number of places online:
Common to all these histories is a heavy reliance on a single source: a Caravan Park article in a 1956 book called On The Trail by Keith Winser, a noted Australian travel and motoring journalist and writer. Key highlights of the company's history as described by Winser (which was probably derived from an interview with the company's owner) include:
1928: The first small 'Covered Wagon' was designed and constructed by R.J. Rankin, the company's founder
1929: The Missendon Rd workshop (in Newtown, Sydney) was set up and commercial production achieved at the end of this year
1930: A larger model was in the planning
1932: Hire fleet first started. 14 and 16 ft mobile homes went into production
1935: The name Caravan Park Ltd was registered
1939: The first all steel Superb was built
1940: Production ceased during the war
1944: Newcastle factory opened. Production of the Hunter commenced.
Accompanying this information are some grainy photos:
When there is heavy reliance on a single source, it is incumbent on historians to seek to verify the information from other sources. This is not always possible, but is especially important in this case, since if the first date of 1928 is correct, it would make Caravan Park the first Australian caravan manufacturer by at least four years.
A Trove of New Discoveries
Here's a summary of what the three caravan historians found on Trove and elsewhere over the last 18 months:
Caravan Park's founder, R.J. Rankin, was a Sydney-based used car salesman in the early to mid-1930s. He sold primarily Singers in a car dealing partnership with George Nichols which was dissolved in September 1933. Rankin then continued to sell a range of cars alone, initially from 175 Pitt Street under the name of Rankin and Co. and later from the premises of motor body builder Properts from mid-1934 to late 1935 (all adverts from the Sydney Morning Herald, courtesy of Trove):
In January 1934 Rankin went on a long road trip from Sydney to Perth together with a Mr. R. Harrison. Driving in a 'six-cylinder sedan car' and laden with 'over half a ton of petrol and equipment', it took the men about a month to reach Perth, breaking an axle and experiencing extreme heat on the way. The pair used the car as a 'sleeping apartment' suggesting the vehicle may have had a camping body (seats that could fold flat for sleeping). There is no mention of the pair taking a caravan.
Rankin was closely acquainted with the Propert family. Alf and Tom Propert were established Sydney motor body builders from the 1920s to the 1940s. Both Alf Propert and Rankin were members of the Sydney Singer Car Club, which is possibly where they met.
When Alf’s brother Tom Propert left the family business to set up his own motor body works business in 1935, Rankin’s car sales business also ceased advertising. It appears that between 1936 and 1937 R.J. Rankin and Tom Propert decided to collaborate on the construction of caravans. No records have to date been found of Rankin being associated with caravans in any form (ownership, design, construction or sales) until the late 1930s.
The company 'Caravan Park' was registered on 4 Nov 1937 to sell and hire (but not to build) trailer caravans. The company was initially registered at Tom Propert's premises (20-22 Missenden Road, Newtown, Sydney) and later at a second premises across the road from Tom (21-31 Missenden Road, as per the photo below and the gatepost numbers on the Caravan Park logo on the top of this blog). In late 1938 Rankin also established a caravan hire business.
It is almost certain that most if not all of the Caravan Park caravans made in Australia and sold by Rankin under the company's 'Mobile Home' brand were manufactured by Tom Propert alongside his traditional motor body building business. Tom Propert probably sold his caravans to Rankin at wholesale prices on an OEM basis.
Rankin also marketed in Australia caravans built overseas. The 'Model 6 Covered Wagon' above was probably taken in Australia but is likely to be a tent trailer made by the Covered Wagon Company of the USA (formed in 1929), who sought to sell their trailers overseas in the late 1930s when the US market became saturated. The 'first mobile home' pictured above is in fact a County caravan from the UK, with its distinctive 'sun-flap':
Tom Propert had the motor body skills to build caravans for Rankin in both timber and steel. Most of the caravans Tom made had timber frames, steel sides and canvas tops. The State Library of New South Wales has a 1937 photo of caravans of unknown make being built in the Sydney studios of artist Byram Mansell. From an analysis by Richard Dickins and myself of the shape and style of the caravans, it is probable that they were Mobile Home caravans being built by Tom Propert, possibly in Mansell's studio on a short term lease to meet with increased demand.
A rare and rather curious Caravan Park brochure (found by Bill Propert) from about 1938 includes additional US Covered Wagon models 're-badged' by Rankin for sale in Australia, including a 'Mobile Home Standard Model 16' and a 'Mobile Home Special Deluxe Model 16'. It includes a mix of caravans from the USA and Australia and has writing styles ranging from the poetic to the pragmatic. It claims all the designs included in the brochure were patented, but no such patents have yet been found. The brochure includes prices and features of all 1938 models. It can be downloaded below:
(Source National Museum of Australia, Libraries Australia ID 2477 0640, Call Number CUMMINS PAM 629.226 CAR)
Rare photos of an NRMA caravan exhibition in Sydney in 1939 (owned by Bill Propert) suggest that Rankin had by then decided to focus on selling a range of predominantly timber-framed ‘Mobile Homes’ made by Tom Propert, along with some of Tom’s smaller trailers called ‘Little Giants’. Tom also built steel-bodied caravans for Caravan Park such as the diminutive, 10-foot Mobile Home, visible on the far right of the photo.
Interestingly, at the same 1939 exhibition, Alf Propert (by then working independently from Tom) exhibited a US-style, aluminium caravan called ‘The Open Road’. Although similar in shape to steel-built US Covered Wagon coach trailers, it was made of lighter aluminium. Alf’s stand was directly opposite and so possibly in competition with the Caravan Park stand.
Because no caravans were manufactured during wartime, Caravan Park focused during the war on the caravan hire business, establishing hire depots in aerodrome locations where many construction and munitions workers needed temporary accommodation. In the later years of the war, Rankin also bought caravans of any make and hired them out to displaced or homeless families. After the war Rankin established Caravan Park’s own manufacturing facility in Newcastle in 1946, launching two new caravans, the Superb and the Hunter. The Superb was steel-clad and probably based on a prototype caravan built most likely by Tom Propert prior to the War and placed in storage. Caravan Park was renamed Carapark in 1950.
There is no question that R. J. Rankin of Caravan Park played a significant role in the growth of the caravan hobby in Australia prior to the Second World War. The sale and hire by Rankin of affordable caravans during the late 1930s introduced RVs to a new audience. From the available evidence it appears that Rankin purchased completed Mobile Home caravans from Tom Propert at wholesale prices and resold them to consumers. In that sense Rankin was an entrepreneur as well as a salesman.
No evidence has been found to date to support the claim that either Rankin or Caravan Park manufactured caravans in their own name before the Second World War. Pre-WW2, Caravan Park was first registered in 1937 as a caravan sales and hire company. It sold and hired caravans made by Tom Propert under the Mobile Home brand as well as 're-badged' foreign caravans from the USA (Covered Wagon) and UK (County). In that sense, before WW2 Caravan Park was a caravan dealership, not a manufacturer.
This revised version of the company's history appears consistent with R.J. Rankin's background as a used car salesman and with the name of the company. Rankin may have envisaged 'Caravan Park' as a national caravan dealership that sold caravans manufactured by many different companies, as suggested by the range of caravan shapes displayed in the 1938 logo at the top of this blog. Rankin's sales yard would resemble a caravan park.
This update has two important consequences. Firstly, it appears that the original version of Caravan Park's history has masked a significant role played by the Propert family (especially Alf and Tom) in the manufacture of RVs before the Second World War. This omission has been rectified in a separate blog dedicated to Propert pre-WW2 RVs.
Secondly, this means that Caravan Park was not Australia's first caravan manufacturer. Another blog is dedicated to the search for a new owner of this title.
This research, along with additional photos, is summarised in my forthcoming book, Recreational Vehicles: A World History 1872-1939, to be published in early 2022 by Pen & Sword Books of the UK.
My sincere thanks go to Richard Dickins (of Vintage Caravans), Richard Potter (of Our Touring Past and the National Caravan Museum) and Bill Propert, a descendent of the Propert family that made the renowned Propert Patent Folding Trailer in 1952, for their collaboration in this research project and for some of the photos and documents included here.
The digitisation of old Australian newspapers by the National Library of Australia and the state libraries of Australia and the amalgamation of these documents into a single online source called Trove has been a revelation to historians and researchers. Our sincere thanks and appreciation goes to all involved in this ongoing project.
Sydney, February 2021