Bryony Symes
Staff Writer

See other Blog articles filed in ‘Me and my caravan’ written by Bryony Symes
   
When Nigel Thomas's parents bought a used 1970s Cavalier caravan in 1986, little did they know that it would last for 30 years – thanks to lots of TLC

Three generations of the Thomas family have enjoyed breaks in this gem from the 1970s – a Cavalier – and despite the full maintenance required on an annual basis, the family intends to keep the tourer going for many more years to come.

It all began with Nigel’s parents Joe and Barbara, who were keen campers, but their tenting career came to a close following a visit from a mole that burrowed under their tent while they were at a rally. They switched to tourers, buying the Cavalier in 1986, and thus began the family’s love of caravanning. 

“My mum and dad were into rallying at the time,” says Nigel, “and wanted a caravan with plenty of seating space for socialising with friends. Mum and I fell in love with the van at first sight, but had to persuade Dad not to go for the  Bailey that he was interested in.

“The Cavalier had a big rear lounge, which was unusual in those days. We think it was built in around 1974 but have never been quite sure.”

The caravan was manufactured by Estuary Caravans of Felixstowe, a company geared towards building tourers for the Continental market, which may go some way to explaining the unusual layout. It came to the Thomas family via Dumb Bell Caravans of Maidenhead for the princely sum of £1200.

This caravan is one of the family

“The van has been part of my life since 1986, and I have been its owner since 1992 when my wife and I bought it from my father for £400; that’s a 30-year history. Our three kids, Kevin, Phillip and Corinne, have grown up with it. The van is part of the family, it’s like a pet.”

Nigel admits that the Cavalier has seen better days: the seating is uncomfortable, the original sealant failed in the late 1980s and had to be replaced by 3M aluminium tape along all the seams, and there’s paintwork damage – just to start the long list of ailments. Nigel’s not even remotely tempted to give it up, though: “Even if we were to go abroad every year, I could never part with the Cavalier.”

Luckily, son Philip is more than willing to help with the van’s maintenance (although this hasn’t always been the case). When I first got in touch, they were spending the day cleaning the van. Philip has a vested interest, too: he has recently bought a classic car – a 1974 Reliant Scimitar – and when things such as overheating issues have been resolved, and the car is up to scratch, Phil hopes to use it to tow the family caravan. The car’s light glassfibre body may yet get in the way of that, because the outfit doesn’t quite fit within the preferred match of 85%. (Get advice on matching a tow car and caravan and use Tow Car Chooser on our Tow Car Awards website.)

The Cavalier is currently towed by a Range Rover Vogue with a 4.4-litre V8 petrol engine; so there’s plenty of oomph for this modest five-berth caravan.

“It has been towed by eight different vehicles since being owned by my family, beginning with a Triumph 2000 TC six-cylinder, which my father, Joe, owned.” However, once Joe had tried towing it with Nigel’s Rover SD1 and loved the power, he bought a Rover SD1 3500 V8 for himself.

Hill-climbs need oomph

Nigel’s latest tow car has proved a better match than its predecessor: “My most memorable journey was the first year of towing with the Range Rover to Cornwall. The previous year we had toiled up Telegraph Hill outside Exeter with our lovely old Mitsubishi Pajero diesel, at a painfully slow and smoky 15mph after getting stuck behind a tractor. But the Range Rover has the capability to steam up it at full bore, with every one of its 300 horses giving it their all. Hearing a 4.4-litre V8 engine at full power is a sound to cherish. The ghosts of the previous year were completely laid to rest!”

The caravan has always drawn a crowd, gleaning interested glances from passers-by on the motorway and admiration from campsite neighbours; some even ask to have a look at the inside. “I always thought that they were laughing at our old caravan, with its unusual white, gold and black colour scheme, which makes it look so different from modern tourers. However, I have begun to think that possibly they were not taking the mickey, but admiring our old van. Apparently,  it is now considered a classic.”

Lashings of TLC

There are a few quirks to it though, and it has needed a lot of TLC: “Every time it breaks, I just repair it. We’re going to have to sort out the 40-year-old foam in the seats soon, because both Catherine and I are getting rather numb in the nether regions when sitting in the van.”

Every year, Nigel diligently inspects the tape along the seams to make sure that the caravan is still watertight, and resprays the bodywork to keep the paintwork fresh. Water ingress has been a problem before, so he is rather wary now.

“In 2005, the kitchen floor collapsed. I opened the door after the winter break, stepped inside and fell through the floor! It had been a little soggy the previous year, but over winter it had finally had enough. To fix it, I removed the entire kitchen floor and replaced it, taking the opportunity to remove the slide-out toilet compartment. The leak was caused by a badly sealed rear number plate, so checking the sealing tape really is one of the most important jobs.”

The long list of maintenance work includes rebuilding the framework of the van’s front offside, replacing a disintegrated skylight, fixing the jockey wheel when it seized, unclogging the gas jet to the fridge and reinforcing the A-frame.

“It doesn’t always go right,” says Nigel. “One example is when I upgraded the spotlights from 21-Watt bulbs to LEDs, which I bought from eBay. Soon after, on a trip, we were reading in the van and Cath noticed that the LEDs were a funny colour. This was the warning sign before they all started smoking and nearly caught fire!”

Another of his yearly checks is to clean out the water system – usually using baby bottle sterilising tablets. There was one year, though, that there were no tablets to hand, so Nigel used TCP antiseptic liquid instead. “That was a big mistake. It took about 10 years to completely get rid of the taste of TCP from the system, and we had to throw away the gas kettle because we could always taste TCP. Even today, we still fill the kettle from a separate water jack because I’m sure I can still taste that TCP!”

Caravan repairs are a labour of love

“My eldest son Kevin was my first ‘apprentice’ helping to repair the van. It is only this year that Phil has taken such an interest: he has garnered a love of all things old. He is now my second ‘apprentice’ and delights in helping me, when he’s not studying for his degree or working on his Scimitar.”

The whole family has loved the trips they take in the caravan. Every year they go to Wyke Down in Hampshire to take part in the Tour de Test Valley bike ride, and every summer they take a two-week vacation. Destinations include Tenby in South West Wales, Dawlish and Dartmouth in Devon and Marazion in Cornwall. “We have a few favourite campsites and, disappointingly, have just found out that one of these, Wyke Down campsite, no longer accepts touring caravans.”

A break from the norm 

The tourer has been used every year since 1986, with a single exception. “Last year, Cath and I took our first trip abroad by plane to celebrate our birthdays. I wanted a rest from all the preparations needed and the towing. Cath is a huge help with the caravan; she is the organiser, tape-measure holder and the person who I bounce ideas off, but unfortunately she would need her B+E licence to tow our outfit.”

It really is a family tradition; Nigel’s brother, Martin, and his wife have a much newer Bailey caravan that will have an outing or two this year, and Nigel’s eldest and his wife will be joining the clan in Hampshire: “We could have up to eight people and two dogs with us this year, so the awning will be put to good use!”

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