Ten reasons why the UK's first mass-manufacturer of caravans became industry leaders for over 40 years, including some new insights into the company's early history.
The First and the Largest
Eccles of Birmingham, England was the world's first large-scale manufacturer of caravans and motorhomes, commencing limited production in 1919 and full production in 1922. It remained independent for over forty years before being sold to Sprite in 1960 and becoming part of Caravans International in 1963. During its first decade Eccles was the world's largest caravan manufacturer before being overtaken in the early 1930s by the giant travel trailer manufacturers of the USA such as Covered Wagon and Schult.
Eccles almost single-handedly introduced caravanning as a hobby to the UK. Through personal and corporate exports, it also exported to parts of Europe, Australia and New Zealand. It is Britain's best-known pre-WW2 caravan and motorhome company. Overseas, the first caravan seen by many was an Eccles.
The leading authority on the history of Eccles is British caravan and motorhome historian Andrew Jenkinson, who has written a book on the topic. There are ample online resources telling the Eccles story along with many images of Eccles caravans and motorhomes, so this blog does not seek to duplicate those. Instead we will seek to understand why Eccles was so successful in its early years. In the process we will find some new insights into the history of the company and the people behind it.
1. The Contribution of Arthur Eccles
Eccles folklore has it that the father and son team of W.A.J. ('Bill senior') Riley and his son W.J. ('Bill junior') Riley purchased a failing truck haulage business owned by "H.A. Eccles" in Birmingham in 1919 and turned it into a great success. Thanks to newly digitised newspapers from the period we can now find out a little more about Arthur Joseph Eccles (not "H.A.") and learn that he should be given at least some credit for the early success of the company.
It's perhaps hard to read, but in the text box in the above Dunlop Rubber advert of 1916 is a quote from a certain Arthur Eccles of 'The Eccles Motor Transport, 7 Gosta Green, Birmingham' singing the praises of the Dunlop Solid Tyres fitted to his five-ton 'tractor' (what we would call a truck today) in January 1914.
We read in Eccles histories that the Eccles Motor Transport company was 'formed' in March 1919, but it is now clear that this is the date where Riley senior and junior invested in Arthur Eccles' existing business of that name. We now know that Eccles Motor Transport was in business certainly by 1916, probably by 1914 and possibly earlier. The Rileys were investing in a 'going concern' with an existing brand and customers and established (if primitive) manufacturing facilities owned by someone with connections in the transport industry. They were not starting from scratch.
Andrew Jenkinson refers in his detailed history of Eccles to an advertisement in a local Birmingham paper being the start of the Eccles story. This was too good a research challenge to miss, so here is what is almost certainly that advert. It was the second of two partnership offers in the Birmingham Daily Post of 2 October 1918:
The advert was placed by Arthur Eccles and responded to by Bill senior. The rest, as they say, is history.
Arthur Eccles continued to be actively involved in the running of the company for at least two years after the Riley investment in 1919. As well as being the office manager, Arthur Eccles had some engineering ideas of his own. Of the five known patents associated with Eccles, three (all applied for in 1920) are credited jointly to Bill senior and Arthur Joseph Eccles. These are explained in more detail in 'Eccles Innovations' below.
One caravanning idea of Arthur Eccles that was apparently not patented is an Eccles motor cycle camping trailer built in 1921:
According to a review of this trailer in the Dundee Evening Telegraph of 9 May 1921, "The motor cycle trailer is a light, collapsible caravan, weighing two hundredweight. It is constructed of weatherproof Cape cart hood material, and can comfortably accommodate two persons. The inventor is Mr. Arthur J. Eccles, London."
Although we should suspend judgement for now on whether this is the first-ever motor cycle 'caravan', it is certainly one of the earliest.
Later in 1921 we find Arthur Eccles heading off into a different field of leisure. He received council approval to establish a 1,500 seat cinema at 7-9 Gosta Green, establishing for the purpose Gosta Green Pictures, Ltd. in January 1922 with a sizeable capital of £50,000. Since Eccles Motor Transport remained at Gosta Green until the late 1920s, the cinema could not have been built there. The Delicia Cinema at 12 Gosta Green was opened in 1923, so this is most likely the one that Arthur built.
What is clear is that by 1922 Arthur Eccles and the Rileys had decided to go their own separate ways into different parts of the growing post-war leisure industry. But we should at least pause to acknowledge the forgotten contribution of Arthur Eccles to the creation of the UK's most successful caravan company.
2. W.A. J. Riley, Motorcycle Enthusiast
Another interesting snippet uncovered during the research for this blog was one announcing the formation in 1914 of a new company, S.A. Newman, to take over an existing cycle and motorcycle manufacturing business. This was more likely a financial restructuring necessitated by the onset of war, since the previous company was also owned by S.A. Newman and S.B. Newman. A director of the company was W.A. J. Riley. Bill senior is already known as a local councillor, but his interest in motorcycles has not been previously recorded.
S.A. Newman manufactured the Ivy motorcycle from 1913 to 1931. Graces Guide has further details on them here. Whilst Bill senior's pre-war interest in motorcycles may be only of passing interest, when combined with Arthur Eccles' motor cycle caravan idea of 1921 it illustrates a common interest between Arthur Eccles and Bill senior and may explain why motor cycle caravans were an important part of the Eccles product line up during the 1920s.
3. Inspired by Ambulance Trailers
One of the joys of researching the early history of recreational vehicles is the clues that are sometimes found as to how and why the hobby started. As the home of Dr. Gordon Stables, the UK was familiar with the idea of using a horse-drawn caravan to go on holiday, certainly from the early 1880s and possibly earlier. With the advent of the automobile around 1900, the caravan hobby movement in the UK split into two groups: the horse-drawn traditionalists, led by the gentlemen gypsies, and the modernists, led by a small group of wealthy individuals who commissioned bulky, noisy and often uncomfortable motorhomes to take them on holiday.
The idea of replacing horses with an automobile and a hefty wooden caravan with a light trailer was probably first thought of by Frenchman Emile Levassor in 1895, but the combination of under-powered automobiles, fear over how trailers would impact performance and poor roads prevented the 'automobile and trailer' idea from gaining traction in leisure circles in Europe until after the First World War.
4. The Eccles Char-a-Bancs
While searching for the motor haulage partnership advert, I also came across the following advert published some eight months later in May 1919:
It was known that Eccles Motor Transport had a small fleet of haulage trucks, but char-a-bancs have not been mentioned in Eccles histories. This is notable because it suggests that the Rileys were involved not only in motorcycle manufacturing but also in the tourism business before they started building caravans.
Char-a-bancs are mentioned on page 22 of Recreational Vehicles: A World History 1872-1939 as being important predecessors of the recreational vehicle along with the bathing machine. Char-a-bancs are buses (invariably open-topped) used for group tours. Their horse-drawn ancestors originated in France in the early 1800s. Motorized versions became popular forms of transport for staff and public outings in the early twentieth century, with a favourite destination being a pub. It was not uncommon for local garages to own their own char-a-bancs as an additional revenue source. The Eccles char-a-banc(s) would have given the Rileys a useful insight into the leisure needs of local customers.
As well as the char-a-banc(s), an Eccles motor coach called 'Blighty' was in use in 1921 as the following advert shows. For soccer fans, the 1921 FA Cup final was won by Spurs who beat Wolves 1-0 (the return fare, by the way, is not £126 but one pound, two shillings and sixpence):
From these insights we begin to see that Eccles Motor Transport was a more diversified company than first thought. Some of these tourism and leisure transport ideas will have arrived with the Rileys, but others may have been earlier.
5. Suffragette Support
Eccles folklore suggests that Bill senior, who had built a basic motorhome together with his gardener in 1913, thought that motorhomes were the future of road-based leisure holidays, whilst Bill junior favoured the car and trailer concept. One of each was displayed in a garage near the London Motor Show of 1919 and, because passing Viscountess Rhondda decided to buy the trailer, Bill junior's ideas were indulged by his father. It should be noted however that Eccles continued to build motorhomes alongside caravans for many years, so this was more of an opportunity given by Riley senior to his son to explore the potential of caravans alongside rather than instead of motorhomes.
Lady Rhondda is mentioned in Eccles histories as being a wealthy industrialist, which she certainly was, but no-one so far seems to have stopped to ask why she would want a caravan. The answer possibly lies less with her wealth and more with her politics.
Lady Rhondda was a prominent campaigner for women's rights, and although we don't know for sure why she bought the first-ever Eccles caravan, we do know that a number of horse-drawn caravans were used in Suffragette campaigns across the country. So it's interesting to speculate (and worthy of further research) whether Lady Rhondda, in buying the first Eccles motor drawn caravan, was seeking to bring the Suffragette caravan fleet up to date. If so, should we be acknowledging Lady Rhondda in particular and the Suffragettes in general as important early patrons of the British motor-drawn caravan industry?
6. Creative Advertising
The first task of the Rileys at Eccles Motor Transport was to try to revive the fortunes of the existing Eccles haulage business. In the immediate aftermath of war this was challenging. So in 1919 Bill senior gave Bill junior the freedom to try out his caravan idea. It turned out to be the right idea at the right time, but would only work with the right sales pitch.
Full credit must be given to Bill junior for travelling widely with his caravan to drum up interest in the caravan concept and for appointing a small network of dealers to sell his product. The geographic breadth of early Eccles adverts is testament to his hard work.
The first Eccles adverts in mid 1920 indicate the uncertainty over what to call this new form of transport. The headline in the advert above calling it 'The Eccles Trailer Motor Caravan' covered all the bases but was a bit of a mouthful and left consumers none the wiser.
A second advertisement a week later indicated a change of tack. Rather than focus on what it was (although "luxurious" it was almost certainly not), the emphasis was on what it did – it solved 'the holiday problem'. Eccles was no longer selling a product, they were selling a solution.
The 'holiday problem' in 1920 was a post-war boom in demand for short holidays to recuperate from the deprivations of war, leading to a shortage of hotel rooms and an increase in hotel prices that was not matched by improved food and service standards. The caravan avoided the need for hotels and, as long as you had a car, provided a cheap holiday. The first models were advertised for sale at between £90 and £200, the latter for 'luxury' models being about half the price of a small car. The Eccles advertising approach was a direct challenge to the British hotel industry, but it worked.
Experiments in Eccles advertising continued into 1921 with what is probably the cheekiest claim ever seen in caravan promotion:
The claim that "Caravanning will add Ten Years to your Life" would today invoke a large fine if not a short jail sentence, but showed that the Rileys were now seeking to use their products to promote health and well being, something begun by the heath seekers of America as well as Dr. Gordon Stables and others. Selling solutions instead of products.
Despite the claimed life-extending properties of the caravan, initial sales were hard to come by, since the first steel-built caravans were not very attractive and most people still didn't understand what they were for. But following a more encouraging response to a revised caravan design that used plywood instead of steel and shown at the British Industries Fair of 1921, Eccles started significant caravan production in 1922. The company promoted their caravan through street tours, leaflets and free inspections. Another advertising masterstroke was the early use of 'advertorials' – newspaper and magazine articles about Eccles products that looked like editorial reviews but were in fact advertising.
Cheeky Eccles adverts continued into the 1930s with the above advert, for example, offering on the face of it free storage of your caravan during winter. The fine print however makes it clear that your existing caravan will only be stored if you placed an order for a new one to be delivered the following spring...
Later on celebrity endorsements were another marketing tool used to great effect by the Eccles. They were one of the first British caravan and motorhome companies to do so. An Eccles caravan was given to scout leader Lord Baden Powell in 1929, towed by a Rolls-Royce. Association with a more upmarket brand is always a good sales tactic for the owner of the lesser brand. Stars such as Gracie Fields and Nora Swinburne were photographed with Eccles caravans during the 1930s.
7. Selling a Lifestyle
Caravan hire was an Eccles masterstroke, and goes some way to explain relatively swift acceptance of the hobby in the UK. The early history of recreational vehicles worldwide is replete with examples of builders who came up with a good RV product and then sat back and wondered why it didn't sell. They hadn't realised that this was a completely new lifestyle which needed selling as hard as the product itself. Hiring was an ideal way for consumers to try out this new hobby without a large capital commitment.
The Rileys were also clever in their use of dealers to manage the hiring side of the business. It was labour intensive, needed plenty of caravan storage space and required investment in crockery, cutlery and camping furniture as well as the vans themselves. These would become the burden of the dealers. The Holiday Caravan Company and the Lancashire Touring Caravan Company were just two of the dealers using predominantly Eccles caravans in their hire business.
A final touch in the lifestyle category was a subtle move in the 1920s to make Eccles caravans look more like homes on wheels. The Eccles Jacobean model for example had a lantern roof, bay windows and external walls designed to look like a Tudor mansion. The placement of an Eccles caravan in front of a Tudor home or country cottage in Eccles advertising of the 1920s and 30s was further reinforcement. These design flourishes and sales messages would help eliminate all uncertainly among consumers as to the purpose of an Eccles caravan.
8. Eccles Innovations
Eccles are not widely know for their innovative caravan and motorhome designs. Over time they became better known for their ability to produce similar designs to Bertram Hutchings (of Winchester fame), Shadow, Car Cruiser, Cheltenham and others at lower prices. This is not to say that they didn't have some good design ideas of their own, as we will see below.
Most of Eccles' innovation however was in production. The above side-by-side comparison of an early Eccles caravan and motorhome shows little difference between the two. A steel box built to sit on one axle could also sit on two. There were many shared components between Eccles caravan and motorhomes. As manufacturing expanded at Stirchley in the late 1920s (see below and the factory drawing at the top of this blog), production was separated into departments that became in effect a slow-moving caravan production line, allowing significant cost savings to be made compared to competitors.
The number of patents issues to an individual or company is not always an indication of creativity, not least because many inventors chose the more magnanimous path of not applying for a patent, encouraging instead open use of their ideas across their industry in the hope that the industry as a whole would grow. But taken together the five known patents related to Eccles products are a good indication that they were creators as well as manufacturers. The Eccles-related patents are:
GB159728A applied for by William Albert Josebury Riley and Arthur Joseph Eccles on 9 Oct 1920 and accepted on 10 Mar 1921. The patent relates to a motor caravan (i.e. a caravan towed by a motor) with a removable floor that is lowered between the caravan's wheels to improve headroom inside the caravan. The wheel arches of the caravan are then used for seating and the space below the floor is used for storage. The caravan has a sheet metal exterior, plywood interior and felt insulation between the two.
GB159733A applied for by William Albert Josebury Riley and Arthur Joseph Eccles on 9 Oct 1920 and accepted on 10 Mar 1921. The patent is for a leaf spring connector between tow vehicle and trailer designed to absorb vertical shocks when going over bumps. The invention may have been an improvement over the fixed steel pole connection used on early trailers but was soon outdated due to improvements in trailer hitch technology.
GB160044A applied for by William Albert Josebury Riley and Arthur Joseph Eccles on 9 Oct 1920 and accepted on 17 Mar 1921. The patent is for upholstered wooden seats that could be converted into beds.
GB295883A applied for by Eccles Motor Caravans and William Joseph Riley on 3 Dec 1927 and accepted on 28 Aug 1928. This patent is perhaps the most significant contribution by Eccles to caravan safety, being the 'over-run brake'. A brake was automatically applied to the caravan's wheels in the event that it became disconnected from the tow vehicle. In highly modified form the concept is still in use today.
GB685028A applied for by Eccles (Birmingham) Limited and Jack Howard Robinson on 7 Sep 1951 and published on 31 Dec 1952. The patent relates to a hybrid folding seating and bed arrangement.
The full patents are available to download below:
A later blog will determine whether we can give credit to Eccles (especially Arthur) for building the first motor cycle caravan in 1921.
9. Building 'Specials'
The term 'special' was short for 'special order' and in Eccles terminology meant any order for a caravan or motorhome that was out of the ordinary. Eccles was one of the first companies to realise that the market for leisure caravans and motorhomes fluctuated sometimes wildly from year to year and from season to season. Recessionary conditions were generally not good for selling caravans (although a significant bonus after the Great Depression in the USA as the unemployed downsized to travel trailers), nor was the British winter.
Most of the 'specials' manufactured by Eccles were for business use. These generated important sales during slow times in the leisure market and kept the company going through difficult times. The breadth of vehicles made by Eccles in the 1920s and 30s was quite staggering and included missionary vans, mobile showrooms, motorhomes and caravans for circus folk, ambulances, Red Cross vans and mobile dentistry vans.
Wartime production was shifted into caravans that supported the war effort, such as mobile army HQ units. As a result, unlike some of its competitors Eccles was able to survive the war period and build production again thereafter.
10. Selling Overseas
The reputation of Eccles as Britain's foremost caravan and motorhome manufacturer of the 1920s and 1930s spread well beyond the UK. Most Eccles caravans and motorhomes were exported overseas by private owners on long-term holidays or making permanent moves overseas, but there were also bulk sales to overseas buyers and some attempts made at establishing a local Eccles dealer in Australia in the late 1920s.
In 1932 Eccles entered a Hillman Wizard car and 4-berth caravan in the Monte Carlo Rally, finishing sixth of the 35 British entries. In 1934 an Eccles caravan was towed by a Humber through the Sahara desert. The publicity gained from such public relations events helped to increase sales both at home and overseas.
Why is it necessary to add a few more facts and names to events that happened around a British caravan manufacturer over a hundred years ago? Because it helps us understand how and why the hobby came into existence. Some of the reasons behind Eccles' success may even be of use to a few RV manufacturers today.
The Rileys invested into a going concern with an owner whose knowledge and contacts helped to grow a new business. Bill senior was generous enough to allow Bill junior to try out a new idea. Bill junior repaid the favour by working hard to sell the idea and build a dealership network from scratch. The company was smart enough to diversify quickly, sell its products at affordable prices and market them as solutions rather than products. Hiring allowed consumers to try out a new hobby at minimal risk. Eccles factories were efficient and fast-moving, dividing construction into specialist areas and sharing many components.
Finally, we should take the opportunity to say a belated thank you to Arthur Eccles for his modest but not insignificant contribution to the birth of the British caravan industry and to prominent Suffragette Lady Rhondda for buying the first Eccles caravan in 1919.