A view of the vantastic
Hamilton author Don Jessen has found himself busy mining a thick seam of nostalgia – and almost by surprise.
Four thousand copies of his first publication Retro Caravans, Vantastic Kiwi Collections hit the bookshops in July and will be followed by his second book, a history of his family business, Liteweight Caravans, due out in March next year.
But Jessen has interests ranging from classic cars to old airplanes, and publishers Bateman’s have him busy on a series of books.
‘‘It just started as a hobby. I never expected things to go this way. I started only intending to do a history of Liteweight Caravans and one thing led to another.’’
Jessen was introduced to the caravan-building business when his dad, Tek, launched Liteweight Caravans in 1946 to take advantage of the booming post-war demand for ‘‘vans as New Zealanders took to enjoying the outdoors’’.
The venture survived the infamous 1979 imposition of a 20 per cent sales tax, which destroyed many companies making caravans and boats.
Jessen worked at his father’s business for 23 years until it finally closed its Riverlea Rd factory in 1990.
His own re- acquaintance with vintage caravans and his family history began eight years ago while driving back from Te Awamutu, when he spotted something in a field.
‘‘ I saw a dilapidated example of a ‘Kiwi’ – a Liteweight model, in a nursery near Te Awamutu. I stopped to talk to the chap who owned the place and it turned out he’d owned it for 18 years.
‘‘Before than it had been used as a bach. It turned out to be chassis No 82. We got it back and restored it in three months. That was in October 2006.’’
Chasing vintage caravans has become something of a fixation and has had its high and low points – Jessen has fully restored the oldest known Liteweight – but missed out on another gem.
‘‘It was in a field on a farm near Waihi. One of only 28 14ft 9in [4.5m] models built in 1958-59. I found the farmer and called him about it, but he’d burned it about half an hour before.’’
Designed by Cheryl Smith, Retro Caravans, Vantastic Kiwi Collections is a tour of 50 Kiwi caravans from the mid1930s to the mid-1980s, many lovingly restored and towed by classic cars.
‘‘ People come into retro caravanning from different angles. Many have hot rods or classic and vintage cars and they are keen to find a van to suit the era. Others have been caravanning all their lives.
‘‘ Then there are younger people who think the old vans look cute and then get a classic car to tow it. The whole thing has become unbelievably popular.’’
Motor mad: Hamilton author Don Jessen, with his new publication Retro Caravans, Vantastic Kiwi Collections.