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.

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