Alastair Clements
Group editor

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The UK’s most popular foreign marque celebrates its half-century in 2015 – Group Editor Alastair Clements takes a trip to Slovenia to trace Adria’s origins

Adria caravans hold a special place in the British market today. Although it remains a relatively small player in terms of overall sales, the efforts that the Slovenian marque has made to tailor its tourers to our tastes mean that it can proudly take a place alongside the UK’s ‘Big Five’ manufacturers, rather than being relegated to the ranks of the ‘niche’ builders.

As well as being the only Continental maker to currently build its vans with their habitation doors on the nearside to suit British buyers, Adria also benefits from an impressive weight of history: in 2015 the firm celebrates its 50th anniversary, and incredibly it also marks 45 years of continuous sale in the UK, an unassailable record in a market where ‘foreign’ makers have always struggled to gain a foothold against the might of the home brands.

Adria Mobil’s state-of-the-art factory in Novo Mesto, Slovenia churns out more than 9000 caravans, motorhomes and panel vans each year, with holiday homes produced on a separate site, and takes its production inspiration from methods pioneered by Toyota in Japan; it’s a far cry from the firm’s humble beginnings in the same town in 1965, in what was then Yugoslavia. In an attempt to ride the wave of post-war interest in caravanning and the great outdoors, engineer Martin Sever of Industria Motornih Vozil (IMV) created the prototype Adria 375 tourer and unveiled it at the caravan fair in Stockholm under the slogan: ‘A light and well equipped caravan at a realistic price.’

Export or die?

The first half of the name was derived from the Adriatic Sea, along which Slovenia has a (very) small piece of coastline, and the second half denoted the new caravan’s 3.75m length. It sat on a chassis of the company’s own design, with generous kit levels, including double-glazed windows.

An enthusiastic reaction to this first van – not to mention an order for 500 units – prompted IMV to develop a second model, the egg-shaped Opatija, then from 1967 to launch a three-strong range of handsome tourers, the 305, 380 and 450, featuring seven interior layouts. This gradually expanded to three trim levels – Europe de Luxe, Exquisit and Superior – and some 30 separate models.

From the start, export sales were key – and that remains true, with a tiny percentage of Adrias remaining in their homeland. After Scandinavia came West Germany, the Netherlands, France, Belgium and, from 1970, the UK, initially via importer John Tennant Caravans in Staffordshire and later by the manufacturer itself from a new base in Bedfordshire.

In the same year, Adria caravans adopted the ‘blue band’ for which they would become synonymous, while their acrylic-coated aluminium sides hid polystyrene insulation. The 1971 UK range was launched at the Caravan Show at Earls Court, making up for their relatively strong price-tags with their high spec and distinctive looks, not to mention the promise of year-round touring thanks to their double-glazed windows, space heaters and insulated floors as well as sidewalls.

While many manufacturers struggled in the mid-’70s due to the fuel crisis, Adria defied the odds and continued to grow, opening a new factory in Belgium in 1972, along with a second in Slovenia, and celebrating its 10th anniversary (plus 20 years of parent firm IMV) in 1975. It also showed its compassionate side by sending caravans to provide temporary accommodation for refugees whose homes had been devastated by earthquakes in its homeland and in Montenegro.

Substance plus style

The second-generation range of Adria tourers arrived in 1978, known as the Deluxe and the Grand Deluxe in the UK market, with a more balanced shape thanks to similar designs for the front and back panels. It sat on a chassis designed by Al-Ko and made under licence by Adria, and featured blue-tinted glazing and a more integrated gas locker. Production peaked at a whopping 26,757 caravans in 1980, in part thanks to a 500-strong dealer network across Europe, and in the same year Adria UK launched the Comfort to satisfy the demand from British dealers for a lighter, cheaper tourer.

Just two years later there was a small revolution in Novo Mesto, as the Mistral range (designed by Frenchman Joel Bretecher) ushered in a new, more streamlined era of Adria tourers, with pioneering use of striped graphics and up-to-the-minute bonded ‘sandwich’ construction. Another break with tradition for 1982 was the arrival of the very first Adria motorcaravans. Based on the Renault Master chassis, the Adriatik 420 and 450 were to prove a great success for a brand that has since become synonymous with motorhomes – today, they account for more than 50% of Adria’s sales.

The British market continued to thrive, with the first dealer special, the Optima-based Exclusive, offered by Broad Lane Leisure, and the Adria Owners’ Club being formed in 1983. By 1987, there were four ranges on offer in the UK, but back home in Yugoslavia storm clouds were gathering. As the decade came to a close Adria Caravan separated from parent firm IMV, while the country as a whole was also beginning to break up. On 25 June 1991, Slovenia joined Croatia in declaring independence from Yugoslavia and, against a background of war, strikes and financial instability, the directors of Adria wrote an open letter to the Slovenian public to ask for help in saving the company.

Yet, just as Adria Caravan slipped into bankruptcy, Adria Mobil rose from the ashes and, with incoming general manager Sonja Gole taking the helm in 1996, the firm entered a new period of stability and product development, spearheaded by its first panel-van conversion a year later. Under Gole, the workforce would become shareholders in the firm, and her leadership has always been characterised by modesty as much as managerial success.

Bespoke for Britain

There was a directional shift in the UK market, too, as the parent firm’s importer closed in 1995; fortunately for British marque enthusiasts, Stuart and Jenny Cook formed Adria GB to re-establish imports and expand the brand in Blighty. Adria’s presence grew at the major shows, the marque gained respected NCC approval, quality was enhanced by more modern polyester finishes – and, crucially, smooth rather than stippled sidewalls – while niche products joined the line-up, such as the funky compact Action of 2005.

As ever, a big part of the UK success came from thinking about the customers rather than inflicting Continental tastes on our buyers, and British-market vans got ovens as well as bespoke layouts and nearside habitation doors. The now-familiar Altea and Adora joined the range in 2004, and the firm acquired a 50% stake in Suffolk-based Fleetwood caravans, where Adria Concessionaires would make its new home in time for the launch of Adria motorhomes in the UK.

Back in Slovenia, Adria Mobil marked its 40th anniversary with a move into a new €34m factory in Novo Mesto... just in time for the economic downturn of 2007 to set in. Fortunately, the efficiency of the new 150,000sq m site helped the firm to weather this latest storm, and Adria has emerged from the recession fighting – bullishly launching not only bargain-basement tourers, but also glamorous, aspirational vans, such as the Astella Glam Edition, introduced in 2012.

On 12 May of this year, Adria held a special event to celebrate its birthday in its hometown. “The brand has gone through its high points and low points during the past five decades,” said Sonja Gole, “from its establishment in 1965, considerable growth in the ’70s, a period of maturity in the ’80s and a rebirth in the ’90s, to searching for new opportunities in the new millennium.”

Today, Adria has moved into new territories, such as Australia, Japan, Korea, China, Israel and Russia, yet remarkably its number one market remains Sweden, the nation that first took the brand to its heart.

As for the UK, Adria’s fifth-largest outlet, the lure of these Slovenian tourers remains the same today as it has always been. No, it won’t appeal to traditionalists after British home comforts, but it remains a brand beloved by families looking for plenty of space, value for money and a clean, modern interior.

And judging by the fact that Adria has been a consistently high performer in Practical Caravan’s annual Owner Satisfaction Survey, taking the top spot for the past two years, it is clearly doing something right.

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