Car­a­van crafts­man

Marlborough Express - The Saturday Express, Marlborough - - CARAVANS FAYE LOUGHER -

Al­ton Har­ri­son deserves to put his feet up and re­tire but his skills as a car­a­van re­storer are in­creas­ingly in de­mand from a new gen­er­a­tion.

In the 1970s, Levin was one of the main play­ers in the car­a­van in­dus­try, with sev­eral com­pa­nies em­ploy­ing hun­dreds of peo­ple.

Al­ton’s fa­ther, Bill, had for many years built car­a­vans as a back­yard hobby and this ex­pe­ri­ence led to him be­ing of­fered work with Hurst Broth­ers car­a­van builders when the busi­ness ex­panded, and Al­ton soon joined him.

Af­ter Hursts sold the com­pany, Al­ton and his fa­ther left and set up their own car­a­van-build­ing busi­ness, Ox­ford Car­a­vans.

They built two to three car­a­vans a week but were soon build­ing 35 car­a­vans a week be­tween their Levin and Hast­ings fac­to­ries, and em­ploy­ing more than 220 peo­ple.

In the early 1970s, Ox­ford’s third part­ner, Lockie Fox, de­cided he wanted to get out of the car­a­van busi­ness and, as Al­ton’s fa­ther was get­ting on, the com­pany was sold to the New Zealand Mo­tor Cor­po­ra­tion. Al­ton stayed on as man­ager but says that, within about seven months, it ran the com­pany down and sold all the sur­plus stock to Crusader Car­a­vans in Otoro­hanga.

Al­ton says he had two choices – leave with his share of the money or ask to be re­leased from his con­tract and per­suade Crusader to al­low him to con­tinue in the in­dus­try un­der the name Pi­o­neer Car­a­vans. He hand-picked 14 for­mer Ox­ford staff and started off small, mak­ing just one or two car­a­vans a week.

‘‘We soon had about 70 staff and were do­ing seven car­a­vans a week un­til Mr Rob Mul­doon [then prime min­is­ter] put the sales tax up.’’

Mr Mul­doon im­posed a 20 per cent sales tax on car­a­vans in May 1979, and the North Is­land car­a­van in­dus­try col­lapsed within months.

‘‘We dropped down to five peo­ple do­ing one car­a­van ev­ery sec­ond week but it was re­ally a nogo. It re­ally up­set us and I would never vote for National again. We had about 130 to 150 car­a­vans sit­ting out the back and we had to sell them at the prices we quoted be­cause we had sold the tradeins.’’

Al­ton re­fused to let his sup­pli­ers down even though he stood to lose ev­ery­thing he and his wife, Leah, had worked so hard to achieve.

‘‘We sold up ev­ery­thing so we could pay all our bills and gave our house to the fi­nance com­pany.’’

The Har­risons be­gan cre­at­ing fur­ni­ture from re­cy­cled tim­ber while Leah re­turned to nurs­ing. Al­ton had al­ways had a pas­sion for old mo­tor­cy­cles and ve­hi­cles and de­cided to set up a bike mu­seum and cafe at Waitarere.

‘‘I had amassed a col­lec­tion of mo­tor­cy­cles, I had about 190 and against the ad­vice of oth­ers who had tried this, we thought we would be OK.’’

Un­for­tu­nately, the ven­ture was not suc­cess­ful and it even­tu­ally closed.

With time on his hands, Al­ton re­vived his in­ter­est in car­a­vans and he’s be­come the go-to man for those with the in­cli­na­tion but not the skills to restore an old car­a­van.

‘‘The hot rodders are right into it and it’s breath­ing new life into the car­a­vans. With the advent of th­ese older car­a­vans with the retro cars, they are cre­at­ing a new era,’’ he says.

Al­though Al­ton is thrilled to see so many old car­a­vans be­ing re­stored and taken on the road again, he ad­mits he does not have a road­wor­thy one him­self.

‘‘I have a car­a­van I’m go­ing to do up. It’s an Auck­land Car­a­vans one. I en­joy the 60s and 70s car­a­vans the most. I like the fi­bre­glass car­a­vans, they are unique, but if I come across a good Pi­o­neer or Ox­ford, I’d buy it and do it up.

‘‘If I buy some­thing, I’ll def­i­nitely turn it into a New Zealand car­a­van.’’

Al­ton says his restora­tion work is more of a hobby than a busi­ness.

‘‘It’s some­thing to do. You don’t make money, it’s the fun of do­ing it.

‘‘I’ve al­ways been into hot rods and some of th­ese car­a­vans can be a piece of art. I’m pleased to see the resur­gence of Ki­wis hol­i­day­ing in car­a­vans. It’s great.’’

Fair­fax NZ

Kiwi camp­ing: Photo: FAIR­FAX NZ

A pi­o­neer of the car­a­van in­dus­try in New Zealand, Al­ton Har­ri­son is in de­mand to­day as a car­a­van re­storer.

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