Some of our cousins were keen caravanners in 1924, having converted a Ford "plain van" by adding cupboards and tents. Through overestimating the robustness of their Model T engine they were stranded in the Cotswolds on their first day, but thereafter had several happy touring holidays in remote places. If their engine stalled and was hard to restart, they would jack up a back wheel.
My father hired an Eccles caravan to tow behind our Armstrong-Siddeley 18. We got as far as Ullapool, in spite of the fact that the slightest incline brought the Armstrong down to 15 m.p.h, and any kind of hill reduced it to an 8 m.p.h. grind.
A few years later we tried again with a lighter van and a yellow Hupmobile Straight Eight tourer. This time our progress was more rapid. We braved the West Highland ferries and camped on the golf course at Broadford in Skye. Our worst trouble was the horrible presynchromesh noises that we made when changing gear, for normally the Hupp was a one-gear car.
Thirty years on, with myself now as paterfamilias, we start again. What are the differences? In spite of the great increase in traffic, towing is vastly easier. Using an A55 to tow a 12ft. Thompson Caravan (bought by my brother to go behind a Volkswagen), we stride at 40 m.p.h. up hills that would have brought the Armstrong down to her grind. It is even possible to reverse, using the neat little lever provided to cut out the brake, and a good deal of imagination and presence of mind. We could go faster if it were legal, but the prewar vans set their own limits by prancing about at 25 or 30 m.p.h.
Hitching and unhitching, thanks to a ball hitch and a jockey wheel (see that it is securely raised after use), have become a one-man job. Formerly, highly skilled and dramatic teamwork was needed in getting two holes lined up for a pin to fall into. A built-in sink (provided that you watch the drain bucket) and Calor gas for cooking and light certainly add to the amenities.
The biggest improvement to the comfort of caravanning, however, seems to me to be that made by plastics — polythene water carriers, Melamine plates, polythene bowls and mugs and buckets, plastic macs. Neither these nor modern detergents can make the sun shine, but they do make camping easier.
But the basic needs and pleasures remain the same. See that the caravan wheel nuts are tight and the tyres well inflated and sound. See that the brake is off and all the jacks up when you drive away, and watch your stern! Wing mirrors and the windscreen mirror are essential to see what is happening to the van and, if your car is tall enough, to see through it. Do not pack more than you know you will need. Get the beds made up early, but get up when you choose.
Published in The Guardian 28 Oct 1963