Converters developed new forms of roof styles and options to provide better headroom. Several had a moulded section rising vertically, the gap being closed by waterproof fabric or plastic. Other manufacturers cut the whole steel top away and replaced it with a high domed top of moulded plastic in plain or lantern-roof form.
In the Volkswagens, a transverse bed for one child was commonly placed above the rear-mounted engine. Some makes increased living space by folding the kitchen sink and hotplate away, sacrificing convenience in preparing meals and washing up. These units might even have been mounted on a rear or side door and, ideally, were required to be used by the camper standing outside with the door open — even in 2016, we see some rental campervans using a similar layout.
One design that certainly attempted too much was the Mini Wildgoose four-berth motorhome based on BMC’S Mini van. Interior room was found by building out the rear end and fitting a full-area rising top. There can’t have been many motorists or caravanners who did not regard this as just plain ridiculous.
At what size do we regard such vehicles to be motorhomes rather than campervans? During the past two decades or so, here in New Zealand, we have witnessed a popular trend to convert exJapanese minibuses. With lengths ranging from six to 8.5 metres, these types of vehicles convert into very comfortable and easy-to-drive motorhomes. Although they’re popular with the home handyman, there are also many businesses in both the South and North Island specializing in fitting these vehicles out as motorhomes.
As well, there is the relatively new trend to restore old caravans. I’m currently carrying out a retrorestoration on my 1974 Zephyr 380c and throwing originality to the four winds as I seek to modernize the caravan.
1925 — New Zealand’s first motor camp
In 1937, New Zealand was described as ‘unique in the whole wide world in its rich profusion of perfect bathing beaches’ and as ‘the land of a thousand golden beaches’.
Our taste for holidays by the sea advanced as we bought cars, while the Annual Holidays Act of 1944 guaranteed every working Kiwi two weeks’ paid leave.
Young beach-goers in the early 1900s made do with buckets and spades, but, by the ’50s, a beach culture had emerged. Children frolicked with a range of inflatables, and the growing informality of life meant less-restrictive swimsuits. New Zealand’s first official camping ground opened in, of all places, Dunedin in 1925, and this novel form of holiday accommodation quickly caught on. Soon, tents were being widely advertised as ‘an auxiliary to the home, as a summer house, or for holiday purposes’ and ‘camping-out’ was soon established as an alternative summer lifestyle.
Many people returned each year to their favourite spots at such seaside resorts as Mount Maunganui, Waihi, Orewa, Tahunanui, Nelson, Kaiteriteri, New Brighton, Sumner, Taylors Mistake, Akaroa and Caroline Bay, and to lakes such as Wanaka and Frankton Bay.
An overseas visitor in the late ’50s thought New Zealand had some of the finest camping facilities in the world, but, apparently, what impressed most was a ‘wonderful innovation’ that we would recognize as the Zip water heater, introduced in the early ’30s.
Fast forward to 2016, and there are still a few motor camps in the South Island that have had no or few improvements since they were originally developed, most back in the ’50s through to the ’ 70s. At the other end of the spectrum, we have some magnificent camp grounds, such as the Murchison Motorhome Park and Jackson’s Retreat at Jacksons, West Coast. These two camps, both recent developments, are a head and shoulders above most others.
While the majority of the public here in New Zealand chose to own a caravan — the most popular length being in the 4.8-metre to 5.3-metre bracket — the selfpropelled motor caravan was slowly gaining hold.
The popularity of motor caravans for full-length holidays — rather than simply nights and weekends — was further enhanced by the development of special awnings designed to fit the side or the rear end, according to the model, to give more living space and, if necessary, sleeping space. Some could be left standing independently and fully enclosed — like frame tents — when the motor caravan was utilized for day trips. This development made it unnecessary to stow everything away and possible to reserve what would otherwise seem to be an unoccupied motor camp or riverside camp site.
Typical Kiwi ingenuity
In the ’ 70s, many Bedford CF vans were re-powered. A popular conversion was to replace the van’s original Vauxhall 2.2-litre four-cylinder motor with a Holden six — either the 2.9-litre or 3.0-litre (179 or 186ci) unit. Such conversions were successful, although not exactly economical with fuel, but were very evenly balanced and smooth running, particularly the 2.9-litre engine.
Some Bedford vans were also re-powered with 4.9-litre (302ci) Ford V8 motors coupled to a C4 auto box. The North Canterbury Ford agent at Rangiora — Palmer & Doak — carried out this modification for many customers. The same company also re-powered 105E Anglias with the larger 1.5-litre Cortina engine, carrying out mild modifications to the carburettor, exhaust, camshaft, and head.
There are a few of these V8 Bedfords still in existence today — I recently came across a Cf-based Mr Whippy ice-cream van powered by a Chevrolet 5.7-litre (350ci) V8 — a conversion that had been carried out many decades ago.
In more recent times, some of these Holden motors have been replaced with more economical units, such as the Isuzu 3.8-litre diesel. Late-model Holden Commodore 3.8-litre V6 motors, plus matching auto box, are also popular transplants. And, of course, these modern conversions offer far better fuel economy
Spotted at Amberley Beach motor camp, this Bedford camper bus features a wooden ‘front’ door, potbelly stove and ‘whitewall’ tyres — take a photo today, and it wouldn’t look much different to one taken in 1962.
The classic weekend bach was usually built to a straightforward design and was rather simple in construction. Exterior cladding was either roughsawn vertical timber planking — commonly referred to as ‘ board and batten’ — or Durock sidings, their bottom edges cut in a wavy fashion similar to the overlap frilling around the outside of most caravanawning roofs. Many New Zealand state houses built during the ’50s and ’60s were, and still are, clad in these cappings. I now regard houses built with these large fibrolite tiles as real ’50s-style classics.
With that, I’ll conclude my final article on camping, caravanning, and old campervans. I sincerely hope readers have enjoyed reading my travel experiences throughout the South Island over the many years.
From my early childhood days, over many decades to recent years — my, how times have changed. Take my advice, as signwritten on our camper: “Enjoying HAPPY DAYS while we can!” — it’s later than you think!