Rebuilding a retro caravan
Words and photos: Lee Davey
With uncertainty surrounding overseas travel, the ‘staycation’ has boomed this year with sales of new and used caravans reaching an all-time high. In some areas, demand outstripped supply which not only affects availability but pricing, too.
However, should you wish to buy a caravan without spending loads of cash, there's another option.
Seeking increased levels of comfort, a caravan allowed us to go ‘camping’ without having to camp, which led to caravanning trips across thirty countries, restoring a vintage caravan that spent 20 years in a hedge, and buying our latest caravan project for just £5.99.
The best part about buying a budget caravan is knowing that it’ll need work.
Does it suffer from water ingress? Probably.
Does everything work as it should? Probably not.
This price point means unscrupulous sellers are unlikely to disguise faults and many issues are likely to be visible.
Our £5.99 1977 Bailey Maru had been used as a child’s playroom for several years and was adorned with stickers and wall-based crayon drawings.
Glass half full, stickers and crayons don’t adhere well to damp surfaces which made it easier to spot problem areas and plan our work.
A few years ago, my (then) nine-year-old son and I bought our first caravan restoration project on a whim, after researching 1960s caravans on eBay.
What began as an exercise to find the differences between modern and vintage caravans, ended with me submitting a cheeky bid for a 1967 Bailey Maestro.
Restoring the Maestro was a steep learning curve, but it was a fantastic father/son project. Both of us learnt a vast amount as we replaced acres of rotten framework, floor, and wallboard, before refinishing the exterior in its original coach enamel.
We also hid a few modern caravanning items behind the period fixtures and fittings, maintaining the comfort levels to which we’d become accustomed.
Using the knowledge gained on Project Gladys (as we called her), we’ll be taking you on a step-by-step journey to show you how caravan restoration on a budget is within easy reach, requiring a small selection of tools and a modicum of DIY knowledge.
Our latest project – the 1977 Bailey Maru EK, or Mabel as she’s now known – has all the issues you’re likely to find in a caravan of the period and we’ll be tackling everything in easy-to-follow, bite-sized chunks.
I don’t have an indoor workspace or unlimited funds, so we’ll be working outside and on a piggy bank budget.
Where to buy
There are plenty of reasonably priced caravans to be found. eBay is an obvious option and was where we found our first project, but Facebook groups such as the Retro Caravan Club are a great place to look, as is Facebook Marketplace and Gumtree.
We spotted a Facebook advert from a family who needed the Maru removed from their garden before the completion of their house sale a week later. The lady said we could collect the caravan for free, provided it was gone before the arrival of the removal lorry. The least I could do was buy a bottle of wine (£5.99) for them to enjoy in their new house.
Our initial inspection revealed few surprises. Opening the door, an obvious rotten patch of wall meant a wibbly-wobbly door frame and stepping inside revealed a section of spongy floor.
Tide marks on the opposite wall suggested another area requiring woodwork, a problem likely caused by a leaky window and weather-worn exterior bodywork joints. The fridge, gas locker box and offside bed/seating area were also missing.
However, looking beyond the faults, we have a caravan that’s light enough to be towed by a huge variety of cars (and B-licence holders), is blessed with its original, eyewatering 1970s carpet, has an intact kitchen and terrifying ‘bucket-and-chuck-it’ loo, and a layout that proved so good, it’s still used in caravans today.
Yes, there would be problems but nothing we hadn’t overcome before.
What to buy
Whatever the age of the caravan, two things determine its suitability – budget and layout. Two berth caravans are generally cheaper than family-sized caravans.
Our 1977 Bailey Maru is a two-berth, but we’re planning to add a little something to make it suitable for us to use as a family.
What to look for
Damp, or water ingress. If you find a budget caravan that’s free from damp, be sure to buy a lottery ticket at the same time.
Instead of asking yourself if it’s damp, ask how much is damp. Bodywork – aluminium is a hardy material but look for any sections that are separating from the inner framework.
Bulged bodywork usually indicates severe damp – not a great first project. Structurally sound – Is the caravan listing to one side? Has the chassis and/or A-frame rusted through? Caravans that require major structural repairs aren’t first-timer-friendly.
Tyres, chassis, and brakes – Budget for a new set of tyres and don’t be tempted to tow it until the tyres have been changed, the chassis has been checked and the lights and brakes function as they should. Transport it on a trailer.
Broken windows – Traditional glass windows are relatively easy to replace but missing, or broken, plastic windows can be expensive.
In the next instalment, Lee will be showing you how to assess the damage and create a plan of action. You can read this in the November issue of Caravan magazine