Images for this blog have been sourced courtesy of Richard Roberts of The Richard Roberts Archive, the largest private archive of print advertising in the UK. The newspapers, magazines and periodicals of this archive are from all periods, but its publications of particular interest to RV historians are from the period prior to 1933, when The Caravan magazine was first published. Before The Caravan appeared, it was left up to other automobile publications such as The Motor to cover developments in the caravan and motorhome world. Many thanks to Richard Roberts for uncovering these stories and images.
The post-WW1 years between 1918 and 1930 saw a boom in camper trailers in America as new national parks and other wilderness areas were explored by auto campers, often in their first Ford Model T.
In contrast Britain remained wedded in the most part to the solid-walled caravan, replacing pre-war horse-drawn versions with the early automobile-drawn caravans of Eccles, Hutchings and Piggott Bros. Camper trailers nearly always involved canvas, and canvas did not sit well with wet and windy British weather. The idea was too close to tent camping for comfort.
In the late 1920s a few British manufacturers experimented with camping trailer hybrids that tried to adapt to British conditions. As lightweight, low-powered automobiles became more affordable, lightweight caravans were needed, and the camping trailer for a brief period competed with the small caravan. With few exceptions (the main one being Rice) British camping trailers lost this battle for reasons we shall explain, but it is still important to document these fascinating, short-lived vehicles so that we can better understand how the solid-walled caravan came to dominate British RV history.
1. The "Roama" Portable Camping Hut (UK 1928)
This unusual camping trailer is a wonderful example of the period of experimentation that took place in RV design around the world in the 1920s. It is also indicative of the mixed feelings toward canvas in Britain, demonstrated here by use of both plywood for walls and a canvas roof in this hybrid camping trailer. It is also unusual in that it is the only known RV made by British aircraft manufacturer, the Blackburn Aeroplane Co., Ltd.
The text in the advert reads:
""ROAMA" PORTABLE CAMPING HUT
Strong, light and comfortable. Bunks upholstered: externally ventilated larder. Can be used as garden Summer house & stored in a corner of any garage. Folds into its own floor. Weighs 5 cwt. Erected in an hour. All panels interchangeable. Made of double-skinned three-ply 1" thick. Price complete with trailer £62. Without trailer £45. Trade enquiries solicited. Full information from The BLACKBURN AEROPLANE Co. Ltd., 12, Norfolk St. Strand, London WC2. Can be inspected at 205 Great Portland Street, London*."
The Motor, 15 May 1928
*The address at 205 Great Portland Street was at the time the showroom of Coppen Allan Auto-Distributors, Rover distributors for London and the south-east of England. It had capacity for 70 cars.
The links between the aircraft and RV industries of the 1920s are well known, the most important of which was a shared interest in lightweight construction methods and materials. But it's not clear why an aircraft manufacturer would want to diversify into RVs (unless of course you were Glenn Curtiss).
This is the only known appearance in the media of the period of the Roama Camping Hut, so it's likely that it was not a success. Why? Well, given the hut's components seem to have been stored in the trailer as elegantly as as jigsaw in a box, the claimed one-hour construction time may have been optimistic. Its ability to keep out the British weather may have also come under question since there is no discussion of how the assembled 'hut' could be made waterproof.
At a time when British caravan designers were trying to overcome multiple issues of wind resistance, safety, waterproofing, weight, storage and affordability, the 'Roama' was probably trying to solve all of these issues at once. In doing so, it probably addressed none of them sufficiently well to convince consumers to buy the oddly-named camping hut.
2. The "Collapsivan" (UK 1929)
A second camping trailer solution appeared in The Motor in 1929. The accompanying text read as follows:
"A NEW TRAILER CARAVAN
"A caravan that is different" are words applicable to one now coming on the market, for its roof and sides are collapsible, its weight and price are attractive details, and it has the desideratum of low centre of gravity.
The floorboards are not above 10 ins. from the ground, and in normal use fully open, the standard body is 7 ft. long by 6 ft. high by 6 ft. wide. It can be closed down to be 3 ft. deep and 4 ft. 3 ins. wide, with the length unchanged from 7 ft., so that when being "trailed" in closed condition the weight is low and top-heaviness avoided.
The full weight, including body, wheels, sleeping berths for two or three people, oil stove, and full equipment of utensils for three, is 4 1/2 cwt. There is nothing heavy or intricate, no jacking or screwing apparatus for opening or collapsing the van, the design simply being one in which ordinary hinges are used, and change-over is effected in less than five minutes.
As in sunshine saloon cars, the Collapsivan roof is removable wholly, or it can be opened in separate halves. There are four windows in the sides, thus permitting abundant ventilation. Two berths afford plenty of comfort, but three are quite feasible; they measure 7 ft. by 2 ft. 4 ins.
Electric-light fittings are provided, illumination to be obtained from the car. The five cupboards include a clothes chest with two drawers.
The weight makes it possible to tow it behind a 7 h.p. car or even a motorcycle sidecar outfit. When at home the caravan body can be withdrawn from the chassis and, measuring then 4 ft. by 3 ft., it can be stored against the garage wall or in the house.
With internal-expanding brakes, the van in use on hilly roads or in traffic is efficiently controlled. Wire wheels are fitted with 27-in. by 4 in. pneumatic tyres.
Gaboon mahogany is used for the body, and other well-seasoned timber for the frame. The service equipment for meals is remarkably complete, and can be used either inside the van or used en plein air for picnicking. Indeed this outfit is packed into a suitcase, which can be used by the party for a boating excursion or taken into the car itself whenever the trailer-caravan is not required. This is but one illustration of the thoroughness with which detail has been thought out. The price of the van with complete outfit is £95, or minus the culinary equipment £85.
The company's registered office is 253, Deansgate, Manchester, and the London office is 14, St. Stephen's House, Westminster. Arrangements are being made for the Collapsivan to be exhibited this week and the week following at Gamage's, Holborn, E.C."
A Collapsivan owner would have faced fewer hurdles during assembly compared to the Roama above, since its hinged panels provided limited construction options. But it's likely that the Collapsivan suffered the same fate as the Roama because it was undecided whether to be a caravan or a camping trailer. In an increasingly crowded marketplace, this indecision would have been fatal.
3. Other Camping Trailers (UK 1931-33)
All images courtesy of The Richard Roberts Archive
A number of other camping trailers appeared in the pages of The Motor in the early 1930s. Some of these are shown above. They are from left to right:
The Dixon-Bate Shooting and Fishing Tender (from The Motor, 20 Oct 1931)
The Adaptable Trailer Company camping trailer (from The Motor, 3 May 1932)
The County Tent Trailer (from The Motor, 3 May 1932)
The Ensor Trailer Bungalow (from The Motor, 2 May 1933)
The Larkworthy Campkarrier (from The Motor, 3 May 1932)
The Wayside Camping Trailer (from The Motor, 14 Feb 1933)
The Whippet Camping Trailer (from The Motor, 10 Oct 1933)
Little is know about these camping trailers, although the names County and Ensor are familiar as caravan manufacturers of the 1930s. Charles Ensor in particular was a creative caravan maker with several patents to his name including a three-wheeled caravan. The other makers are likely to have been local garages or body shops seeking to take low-risk advantage of the significant growth in British caravanning during the 1930s.
Perhaps the best-known maker of British camping trailers was Cecil Rice, responsible for a range of camping trailers called the Rice Folding Caravans. Cecil's contribution to British caravanning is sufficiently important for him to warrant his own blog later this year.