This caravan is a tangible reminder of the immense popularity of caravanning beach holidays in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s. Originally constructed in 1955 as a motorised van on a Model A Ford truck chassis, it was converted to a towed caravan in 1962 by Francis Gerald Rhead and used by his family for holidays in NSW until 1979. The van still contains the original fittings, furnishings, cutlery and plates, cleaning equipment, and caravanning necessities from its use up until the late 1970s.
The idea of the mobile home in Australia had its beginnings with the primitive covered wagons drawn by bullocks or horses which opened up vast outback areas during the early nineteenth century. The covered wagon was also seen on the goldfields and later as part of the drover's outfit trailing behind a mob of sheep or cattle. It is unclear who built Australia's first caravan, but during the first decades of the twentieth century they were used by Ashton's Circus.
Homemade caravans used for holidaying appeared in Australia in the 1920s. Caravanning was cheaper than staying in guest houses and more comfortable than camping in tents. With the upgrade of roads and increased car ownership in the post-war period, local councils built caravan parks at beaches and coastal towns; these parks became very popular for inexpensive family beach holidays, especially in the 1950s and 1960s.
The commercial caravan industry really took off after the Don firm, established by Don Robinson in Victoria, began making caravans as a backyard business in 1934. By the early 1950s there were many manufacturers in several states. Competition was keen and the original plywood vans soon disappeared as sleek aluminium-clad models took over. However, at this time it was probably more common to build a caravan than buy one. The cost of buying a van was beyond the average worker, and any handyman could put together a comfortable caravan to suit his family's needs, with the help of one of the comprehensive publications on the subject that were available. Before the spread of television, there were more 'do-it yourself' enthusiasts with time to spend building vans.
The first caravan show in Australia was held in Melbourne in 1954. There were 22 stands as well as an amateur builders' competition. The show proved so popular it soon became a regular event. By the late 1960s commercial production of caravans by a few large companies was booming. Streamlined production methods, lower cost of the caravans in relation to the average annual wage, and an increase in the popularity of caravan holidays featured in this new trend. Local production peaked in the mid-1970s. Compact caravans developed from the late 1970s, with companies such as Windsor introducing the 'pop-top' to capitalise on interior space.
In the middle decades of the twentieth century, caravans were not only popular with holiday makers but served as retirement and weekend cottages; cheaper 'homes' for itinerant workers; emergency accommodation in time of natural disasters; mobile offices, units and homes for mining and other industries; extra farm accommodation for seasonal workers; mobile laboratories, workers' living quarters and mobile offices for Government departments and commissions; as well as mobile offices, studios and homes for film production crews.
Caravanning went through a decline in the 1980s and 1990s but by the turn of the twenty-first century they regained popularity when large numbers of 'grey nomads' (retired baby boomers) began to tour Australia by van.
Ardini, Ted & Jean, Caravan Handbook, Caravan Life Publications, Willoughby, NSW, 1972.
Caravan Almanac, The Age, Keith Windsor Publications, Melbourne, 1968.
Simpson, Margaret, On the Move : a history of transport in Australia, Powerhouse Publishing, Sydney, 2004.
Curator, Science & Industry