Mike Le Caplain

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As the 2016 launch season kicks off, join Practical Caravan's Test Editor Mike Le Caplain on a trip down memory lane, courtesy of Westfalia

The very latest in European caravan and motorhome machinery may not reach the general public until the October NEC show at the very earliest, but the 2016 model year has already kicked into life for we ladies and gentlemen of the press.

As I write, I’ve got a couple more events to attend this year – both in deepest France – but I’ve just got back from my first one of this launch season, this one in Germany. In fact, it was Westfalia’s 2016 model year press launch, and it’s brought back some vivid memories.

Back in 1997 or so, one of Practical Caravan’s senior (and, it must be said, long-since departed) managers decided that the best way of attracting people to our NEC show stand would be to populate it, not with the latest shiny offerings from the likes of Swift or Bailey or Coachman, but a collection of continental caravans. And the lucky person tasked with making this happen was me, who had all of 18 months of experience under my belt.

Today, this would be the work of but a moment. Put in a few calls to companies such as Adria, Hymer, Hobby and Knaus, book a few suitably hefty tow cars and Bob really would be your uncle.

Back then, though, caravan imports were rather fewer and farther between. You’d occasionally spot a Tabbert from its trademark beige bodywork, and it wasn’t unheard of for someone to pitch up next door to you with a Freedom Jetstream or even an Eriba Puck. But on the whole, the mainstream caravan market back then was pretty much dominated by home-grown products.

Faced with this colossal undertaking, I hatched a plan. Drawing on my best schoolboy French and German, I fashioned a round-robin begging letter asking each of the big companies if I, someone they'd never heard of, could toddle over from the UK and borrow one of their caravans for a couple of weeks. Oh, and could we pop it onto our show stand for a week or so? And yes, we would want the Great British public to be able to clamber all over it for the duration.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my request was met with a wall of silence. Days passed. Then weeks. I began to fear that our stand would be populated by nothing more than a tatty secondhand Tabbert lifted from the classifieds and a Freedom notable only for its body being bolted to the chassis the wrong way round (to keep its entrance door on the ‘UK’ side – remember those?).

Then, out of the blue, a letter appeared in my in-tray, bearing unfamiliar franking marks. Tearing it open, I was astonished to read that German manufacturer, Westfalia, was not only prepared to loan me a caravan, but also to allow us to park it on our stand. The only catch was that I’d have to collect and return it myself. Again, here in the GPS-enhanced 21st century, this would be no problem. You’d simply bash Westfalia’s Rheda-Wiedenbrück address into your sat-nav, find a cheap ferry crossing, and off you’d go.

Only this was the late 1990s. With sat-nav still very much in its infancy, I had nothing to fall back on other than a five-year old road atlas of Europe and my notoriously woeful sense of direction. And yet, despite getting briefly (if magnificently) lost in the cat’s cradle of motorways around Duisburg – and having nowhere pre-booked to stay overnight – I made it there. The caravan was waiting for me and I got it back to the UK in one piece. And a week later, I returned it to Rheda-Wiedenbrück following a wholly uneventful journey from the UK. Mission accomplished.

I’ve never forgotten the complete and utter trust Westfalia put in Practical Caravan, way back then, so returning there, 18 years later, was a genuine pleasure.

As for Practical Caravan’s show stand that year, well, it was a resounding success. You might even remember it. It didn’t do much for Westfalia’s caravan sales, though – today, the company only builds motorhomes!

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