INTERVIEW: Vintage caravans, the history of Cheltenhams and more (part 3)
In part two of our three part series, Cecil Gardner, son of Cheltenham Caravans founder Arthur Gardner, told us tales about caravanning to Israel, the 1000-mile tow test, and how Cheltenham used to be the home of caravans. This time, in the final instalment: wartime touring and more…
At the end of the war, they didn’t need any more aircraft, so did you crank up production?
“Well, we were a bit lucky in a way because we’d had a load of aluminium and, in those days, it all came in by train. One of these trains had never arrived and was lost for the whole of the war. Then, about six months after the war was over, this wagon-load of aluminium arrived so we could get going!
“The aluminium’s used in the side panels. It used to be masonite, you see. In the old days the roofs were canvas and white lead with gloss for protection.
“My father was a great believer in not patenting things. Among other things, there was some argument about who was the first to start off using corner props. With any idea though, he said that patents are so easy to get around that there’s no point in going to the expense of doing it. Rightly or wrongly, that was his view.”
Was he a trained engineer? Or were people just more practical in those days?
“No, he wasn’t trained. He was just good at engineering and mathematics. Before he built caravans, he was shot by 18 machine gun bullets in Mesopotamia during WWI. It was the usual story: he put his age up by a few years and volunteered. He never forgave the Turks.
“I’m surprised he was alive! That’s why building caravans was a relatively safe procedure by comparison.”
There’s the Cheletnham Fawn, the Springbok, the Kudu… How did the names of the vans come about?
“It was a customer, pre-war, who thought of it. In those days, the caravans were just called the 47M or the 47L, that kind of thing. A customer came along who was keen on antelopes. My parents thought it was a good idea, so that’s how it started. The factory was even called the antelope workshop.”
You travelled a lot to test your caravans, but did you have any customer interest from further afield?
“There was one time that a letter arrived from New Zealand asking if we’d send a catalogue out by airmail. In those days airmail was quite expensive, so we were a bit reluctant in going to all the trouble. In the end, we did.
“To our surprise, we received a phone call shortly afterwards asking what it would cost to deliver a caravan to Gretna Green in Scotland. We received a cheque for the caravan, I delivered it to the place and we never saw the buyer!
“We sold plenty abroad though. We supplied caravans to Canada, and I went to one of the shows in Toronto. We were on the stand in Toronto and a customer pulls up on the hitch, saying: ‘You’ve got a hell of a noseweight on that thing!’ But, of course, the legs were down!”
With so many people in the Cheltenham Owners Club having your caravans in near mint condition, do you see that as a testament to all the hard work that’s gone in over the years?
“Well, yes. People used to say that they were expensive caravans but they were, in fact, not expensive enough. With the curved sides, there’s nothing standard. No two Cheltenhams are identical. As a result of the curvature, you can use different materials.”
And what about the people?
“Well my father was a member of the Junior Car Club and he enjoyed the camaraderie, which is why he wanted to start the Cheltenham Owners’ Club. Of course, it had other advantages too because you’ve got your customers there so that if you have any complaints or problems then you’ve got good feedback so you can put the thing right. Otherwise you’d build 100 of them all with the same trouble!
“We had the first rally in Cheltenham and it was so successful, apart from the weather. It was so wet that the entrance was bogged down and we had one of the first Land Rovers that I was driving. We had to tow in every caravan that arrived so that people didn’t get stuck!
“One owner said: ‘You are not touching my caravan. I’ll get it in myself.’ So he got halfway through and became bogged down. We said we’ll have to tow him in after all and he said: ‘You’re not touching my car. You give me the rope.’ So he tied the rope very carefully around his bumper, hooked it up to the Land Rover and, as soon as we started, off came the bumper!
“You can laugh now but it wasn’t funny at the time! Luckily, a lot of people came to help."
• For more information about the Cheltenham Owners’ Club and the history of Cheltenham Caravans, visit cheltenhamownersclub.co.uk
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