John WickershamSee other Advice articles filed in ‘General caravan advice’ written by John Wickersham
I recently advised first-time caravanners about the benefits of buying pre-owned caravans and drew attention to the way caravans have changed in the past 30 years. I purposely focused on external details, such as the introduction of lightweight chassis, changes in wheel sizes, and the construction of well-insulated living quarters. These are things you need to know before buying a used caravan.
This time, let’s review the changes that have taken place inside modern tourers.
Fabrics, fashions and layouts
Whenever we look at photos taken a few years ago, we may smile at the way things have developed. It’s the same when looking at caravan interiors. Fabrics that were once popular suddenly appear out-of-date.
For instance, there was a period when many caravanners were impressed by heavy velvet curtains, deep-pile fitted carpets and seats adorned with a fanfare of flowers.
Needless to say, preferences are linked to the age of a buyer and it’s also relevant that caravanning attracts people from all walks of life.
Then there’s the matter of practicality. Some owners enjoy passive leisure and are content to relax in soft-cushioned comfort. Others are active, leap on a bike or happily take treks in their wellies. There are also dog-loving owners and parents with young children who want interior features that are not overly precious.
This raises the matter of layouts. Understandably, the needs of a family with children are quite different from what elderly couples demand in a floorplan. The type of beds, the size of a washroom and the extent of the kitchen are all matters of personal preference.
There’s also the issue of floor coverings.
As an outdoor enthusiast, I used to complain bitterly that most UK caravans had permanently installed carpets, while imported brands combined a vinyl floor covering with a loose-fit, removable carpet. Eventually that trend reached this country, too. This provides a hitherto unachievable versatility. On winter trips, a carpet-covered floor is splendid, but for sandy beach holidays and wet weekends, smart carpet is best left home.
So let’s look at layouts and changes in style.
One of the interesting differences between UK caravans and many produced abroad is the kitchen. There are contrasting views about cooking in a tourer and it’s suggested that many Continental users either prefer to go out for meals or to set up a barbecue. That’s why many imported models have no oven or grill and typically lack enough worktop for preparing big meals.
Many UK caravanners expect better provision. For example, toast is easy to prepare with a grill and we expect a hob to have more than two burners. So, while many imported vans are normally well-built, their kitchens are often modest affairs. In some instances, they’re reminiscent of the kitchens found in caravans built 40 years ago.
When you're viewing secondhand caravans for sale, you may spot broken items, so I've also written about sourcing spare parts for caravans.
In the early 1970s, few caravans were equipped with fridges, whose cooling-unit chemicals could be circulated using heat supplied by a gas burner. That process achieved cooling; in early Morphy Richards models, the burner had to be lit with a match.
Caravan refrigerators were also introduced by a division of Electrolux via its UK base in Luton. Spark ignition was then developed to replace the need for matches and models were subsequently introduced that had alternative heating provision using 12V and 230V electrical elements. Automatic electronic ignition to light the gas burner was developed in the 1980s but was only fitted in upmarket models.
Known as three-way fridges, they were frequently criticised by caravanners for their surprisingly complex control panels. Years passed before the fascias were simplified.
When the large Electrolux UK base started to close in Luton, an independent company was formed and, from 2001, some caravan refrigerators began bearing the US brand name Dometic. Simultaneously, other products continued bearing the Electrolux name until the licence expired in 2004.
Until this time, few competitors produced three-way refrigerators until Thetford introduced its Norcold refrigerators in 2002. These are now fitted by UK manufacturers and carry the Thetford name.
In essence, Dometic and Thetford refrigerators employ similar cooling technology; when correctly installed, they are efficient and reliable. Both manufacturers specify that their refrigerators be given special servicing every 12 months.
Toilets and washrooms
Whereas kitchens tend to be disappointing in Continental caravans, their washrooms are often quite stunning. In the event, the provision has improved enormously in UK models, making it hard to believe that my 1960s van had a ‘bucket and chuck-it’ toilet.
As its nickname implies, this consisted of a tall plastic bucket topped by a simple plastic seat with a hinged lid. It wasn’t for squeamish users and spillage catastrophes were not unusual.
Fortunately, an American manufacturer invented portable toilets whose effluent was hidden inside a detachable cassette and whose bowls could be flushed with fresh water. The company was Thetford, which took the name of the Michigan town it called home. This name soon became synonymous with the fixed toilets that used removable holding cassettes that it introduced shortly afterwards. From that point, lavatorial luxuries in caravans improved with panache and are now almost as good as they are at home.
If your pre-owned caravan bargain needs some repairs in the washroom, check out our advice on how to use and fix caravan toilets.
Space and water heaters
Descriptions of the many types of caravan space heaters and water heaters fitted over the years could fill a book. However, an important safety feature was introduced when gas-operated heaters designed for caravans drew their air for combustion from outside the caravan and similarly vented the exhaust gases back outside.
This type of system is now an obligatory feature and modern heating appliances are described as ‘room-sealed’ products. In consequence, you don’t see naked flames as you did in old caravans; nor do you refer to heaters as ‘gas fires’.
If, when you're viewing a pre-owned caravan, it looks like more of a restoration project than a trouble-free tourer, don't despair. In Practical Caravan we have plenty of practical advice on such essential topics as keeping caravan water systems safe and how to improve waste water pipes so the sink drains better, how to upgrade the caravan lighting, and more.
Many readers have restored very old and neglected caravans and turned them into their pride and joy, so for inspiration, we hope you'll enjoy our regular Practical Caravan 'Me and my van' features.