Ever since the 1930 Road Traffic Act, which abolished the 20mph speed limit for cars but kept it for those pulling trailers, caravans have been vilified as “sheet-metal slugs” and “human snails”. It doesn’t help that they have traditionally had such unsuitably speedy names as Sprinter, Hurricane, Rapide and Cyclone. Or that they all come in that ponderous, semi-bulbous shape - ironically, a product of the discovery of aerodynamic streamlining in the 1920s.
Yet your chances of being stuck behind a caravan are surprisingly small. They mainly come out in the summer months, and their favoured habitats are the holiday roads like the M5 going down to the West Country, or the narrow lanes of South-West Wales and East Anglia, where caravan sites cluster on the coast.
The man chiefly responsible for this seasonal swarm is Sam Alper, who built his first caravan in 1947 entirely out of wartime salvage, using the undercarriage from a Spitfire and a roof made from barrage balloon material. A year later he designed the classic Sprite, an affordable (£199) caravan light enough to be towed by a small saloon. Alper’s talent was to recognise that postwar families were companionate enough to make do with less space and fewer partitions. The Sprite pioneered the bunk bed for children, an obvious space-saving idea that soon caught on in homes.
Alper may have domesticated the caravan, but his own adventures in it were quite intrepid. He fearlessly dragged his Sprite across continents, keen to prove how well it performed over long distances on terrible road surfaces. In 1951, he won an intercontinental rally from Frankfurt to Florence, clocking up 4400 miles in 11 days. Still more inspiring was his sprint around the Mediterranean the following year, covering 11,000 miles and 25 countries in just over a month – cannily, with a newspaper reporter in the passenger seat. In the Sahara, tribesmen attacked their Sprite, while more affable ones helped them dig it out after it got trapped in the sand. As well as turning Alper into a celebrity, the trip achieved its main aim: however cheap and flimsy it seemed, the Sprite had to be taken seriously. Another great caravanning evangelist was Alper’s friend, a swashbuckling, high-society dentist called Ralph Lee, who in 1958 steered his caravan through Norwegian dirt roads all the way to the Arctic Circle – and founded the Order of Bluenosed Caravanners for those who achieved the same feat.
Caravanning truly became a mass activity in the 1960s – a decade when the Caravan Club’s membership doubled and Sprite’s famous Alpine, with its distinctive green waistband, became the bestselling model of all time. Apart from the rise in car ownership, a key factor in this success was the decline of arable farming, which meant that it was often more profitable for farmers to grow caravans than crops. Caravanning introduced mass tourism to far-flung parts of Britain like Devon and Cornwall for the first time. By 1970, caravans made up one-fifth of all holiday accommodation in the UK, a figure that has remained broadly the same ever since.
Soon, though, the caravan-baiters seemed to have history on their side. The OPEC oil crisis of 1973, the introduction of VAT and rising inflation hit caravan sales hard. The seasonal nature of the industry had already forced Alper to diversify into other businesses like the Little Chef roadside café chain – and in 1982 his firm, Caravans International, went bust. In the era of cheap flights and last-minute package deals, caravanning seemed plodding and stay-at-home. As cars became ever more powerful and motorway speeds crept up, trailers were too slow even for the slow lane.
In the 1990s, when everything from speed cameras to traffic cones fuelled the modern motorist’s persecution complex, caravanners were caught in the crossfire. The Anti-Caravan Club, formed in 1992 after an advert in Private Eye, demanded that these “eyesores” be stored in already despoiled areas like power stations and sewage works. It called for a compulsory road test for caravanners and a daylight curfew so that they could only drive their trailers from dusk until dawn. At its peak, the ACC had 27,000 members.
But the anti-caravanning lobby seems to have gone rather quiet lately. Outside of the motoring programmes, few car drivers can muster up any resentment towards their trailer-towing cousins. Modern-day caravans, which have sorted out the traditional problems of under-braking and snaking, nip along at a fair old pace. And in any case, we seem to be rediscovering the virtues of slowness and localism over speed and distance.
Caravanning will probably never be trendy, because its devotees are creatures of habit and tradition. One reason that those dinky, rake-backed caravan “pods” have never really caught on is that the market is buyer-led. Caravans are only built when a client orders one, and caravanners are practical sorts who want the headroom. There has always been an uneasy relationship between the conventional “tuggers” and the parvenu “chuggers” – the camper van drivers who have somehow managed to nurture a reverse public image as hippyish free spirits. Caravanning seems to be perennially caught between the camaraderie of an exclusive club and the egalitarianism of mass consumerism.