New Zealand Motorhomes of the 1930s

All images, except where otherwise stated, by kind courtesy of the New Zealand Herald (© NZME) sourced from the Papers Past website of the National Library of New Zealand.


New Zealand, unlike many other countries, has never lost its fascination with the motorhome. Even when caravans and travel trailers were taking over the RV world in the 1930s, New Zealanders continued to use motorhomes (or 'motor caravans' as they are called there) for vacations and even overseas trips. It is probable that motorhomes have retained their popularity in New Zealand because they were easier to use on the country's narrow roads. Here is a gallery of some New Zealand motorhomes from the 1930s as reported in the New Zealand Herald.


In the early 1930s New Zealand motorhomes were basic but functional, as this first image from 1931 shows:


Mr and Mrs Darlow of Birkenhead (New Zealand Herald, 20 Aug 1931)

The accompanying text reads, "Aucklanders set out on a tour of New Zealand by Motor-Caravan. Mr. and Mrs. W.B. Darlow, of Birkenhead, beside their motor-caravan, in which they commenced a combined business and pleasure tour from Auckland to the Bluff yesterday afternoon. The interior is fitted with many of the conveniences of a modern home."


By 1932, motorhomes were getting larger and were used for a range of purposes:

An angler's camp at Lake Taupo (New Zealand Herald, 11 Feb 1932)

The accompanying text reads, "Caravan Holidays more popular than ever this season. An Angler's camp at Lake Taupo, where the temporary housing problem is effectively solved by means of this large and roomy caravan."


Although unusual, it was not unheard of for women to travel together in a motorhome, such as this party of lady golfers from 1932:

Lady golfers at South Auckland (New Zealand Herald, 7 Oct 1932)

The accompanying text reads, "A Novel Idea for Touring Lady Golfers. These four Rotorua players with their motor caravan attracted much interest at the recent South Auckland ladies golf tournament in which they competed. A wireless equipment is attached to the caravan."


New Zealand has always had a strong tradition of the self-built RV. The accommodation section of motorhomes were also self-built by enterprising holiday-makers, and judging by its appearance, this vehicle from 1933 was one such example:

Motor tourists at Lake Waikaremoana (New Zealand Herald, 14 Jan 1933)

The accompanying text reads, "An Ideal Method of Spending the Summer Vacation: A Motor Caravan in the Waikaremoana District. Motor tourists and their caravan at the camping ground at Lake Waikaremoana. The tour to Lake Waikaremoana over the road through the Urewera Country from Rotorua is proving one of the most favoured routes with holiday motorists this summer."


Self-builders became more ambitious in the mid 1930s, with ventilation and shade options incorporated into motorhome designs:

Mr. E. Sutherland's self-built motorhome (New Zealand Herald, 6 Mar 1934)

The accompanying text reads, "Novel Type of Motor Caravan built by an Aucklander in his Leisure Time. An adjustable roof which can be raised for ventilation purposes is one of many innovations which have been incorporated into the motor caravan built during the last two years by Mr. E. Sutherland, of Green Lane."


It's not clear whether the next vehicle was designed as a motorhome, but it was certainly striking in appearance and may have reflected an impending sense of doom as political tensions increased in Europe in the late 1930s:

A home-made caravan in Hamilton (New Zealand Herald, 1 Dec 1936)

The accompanying text reads, "Cause of Considerable Conjecture in Hamilton. This home-made caravan attracted much attention on its arrival in Hamilton. Many passers-by were of the opinion that a tank or an armoured car had visited the town."


By the late 1930s motorhomes had become fairly sophisticated:

Mr and Mrs G W Allsop of Auckland (New Zealand Herald 24 Feb 1937)

The accompanying text reads, "Aucklanders to Make an Overseas Tour in a Luxury Caravan of Local Design and Construction. Designed by Mr. G.W. Allsop, a retired Auckland architect, this caravan embodies every essential for comfortable travelling and camping. Mr. and Mrs. Allsop, who appear in the photograph on the left, will shortly undertake a tour with their caravan in Australia, South Africa, the United States and Canada."


The Allsop family clearly had enough confidence in their vehicle to take it overseas:

The Allsop motorhome being loaded onto the Wanganella (New Zealand Herald, 2 Apr 1937)

The accompanying text reads, "Aucklanders to Tour Abroad by Motor-Caravan. The caravan designed by Mr. G.W. Allsop being swung on board the Wanganella yesterday. It will be used by Mr. and Mrs. Allsop for touring in Australia, South Africa, the United States and Canada."


Caravans and motorhomes found important uses outside recreation from the birth of the hobby. Spreading the gospel was a common use for caravans from the mid nineteenth century onwards. New Zealand was no exception:

The Church Army van and caravan, Auckland (New Zealand Herald, 3 Jul 1937)

The accompanying text reads, "New Church Army Vehicles for Work in North Auckland; Dedication Today. The Church Army's van and new trailer caravan, which will be dedicated by Archbishop Avery this afternoon. It is the first outfit of its kind in the Auckland Diocese. The vehicles will leave next week for North Auckland where they will be used in mission work for two years."


Further examples of early New Zealand caravans and motorhomes can be found in the New Zealand chapter of Recreational Vehicles: A World History 1872-1939 including some examples supplied by members of the New Zealand Motor Caravan Association.


With thanks to the New Zealand Herald for their consent to use the images in this blog and to the National Library of New Zealand for making these early newspaper reports and photographs freely available online.


Andrew Woodmansey

April 2022