INTERVIEW: Vintage caravans, the history of Cheltenhams and more (part 2)
In part one of our three part series, Cecil Gardner, son of Cheltenham Caravans founder Arthur Gardner, told us about blowing up the family tourer, leaking loos, and doing 100 miles before breakfast. Have a look at what Cecil has to tell us this time...
What was the furthest you ever toured?
“The furthest that they went was the international in Israel. They had some fun there. They were told that petrol was difficult to get in that part of the world. The caravan had a tank underneath for the bath; it was underneath the offside bed – a full-length rubber bath. So they decided to fill that tank with petrol.
“In those days, you were lifted up in a net to load onto the ship to travel. I wasn’t there but I heard that it went slightly askew, and the petrol started to come out. Luckily it wasn’t discovered.
“Anyway, they got there and suddenly thought ‘how do we get the petrol out of the tank?’ The only way was through the bath. Of course, they hadn’t allowed for the fact that if you’ve got a bath that size, the petrol fumes virtually knocked you over.
“So they had to retreat and, as the container was made of rubber, the petrol reacted with it. By the time they’d delivered the caravan, it had got no bath!”
How did you compare to other manufacturers of the time?
“In the days when we were first getting well known, we were the only manufacturer that was based on touring far and wide. I mean, lots of other makes went abroad, but most of the caravans were taken about 50 miles to a caravan site and stopped there. It was really a different approach as far as we were concerned. If it couldn’t stand up to going 1000 miles then it was no good.”
What age did you join the company properly then?
“I was about 20 I suppose. Or 21, in fact. When I joined, I didn’t know what I was doing, to be honest! I’d been to Dartmouth and trained as a naval officer. When I joined, after a couple of years, I did the interior design of the caravans. My father did the chassis and the outside.
“I was still a bachelor in those days. And I’m a lousy cook. I found that the conventional caravans at the time had small, pokey little kitchens and I couldn’t put any pots and pans down anywhere. So, I designed a caravan to suit myself, which was the Sable. It sold straight away!”
Did you end up running the business?
“Yes, after my father died. That was about 30 or 40 years ago. I’m afraid I’m one of those people who blocks out memories that I don’t really like…”
So was it still a growing business then?
“I wouldn’t say it was growing, but it’d changed. Of course, before the war, Eccles and ourselves were the only ones building caravans in any quantity. We even had a night shift on to try and keep up with demand. It was healthy then; we bought a bigger factory.
“You think about Cheltenham [the place], for instance, Siddall, who used to work for my father, he started up. Then Haven Caravans came into Cheltenham; Cotswolds came in; Adams did… All the manufacturers came into Cheltenham. Then, of course, the place to be changed to Hull.
“But the first people in big competition were Berkeleys. They were building for the Ministry of Aviation, and suddenly all the orders were stopped for aircraft and they got masses of plywood, aluminium and god knows what in stock, which nobody else could get because they had it for war stuff, so they were the first people to introduce caravans in a big way.”
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