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