When Jim Harlow spotted a classic Carlight caravan standing in a storage yard not far from his Devon home four years ago, he was intrigued. It was up for sale at just a few hundred pounds, and looked as though it hadn’t been moved for some years.
Fortunately, Jim fancied a bit of a challenge. Given that he has a workshop and is a keen caravanner – plus he’s a long-standing reader of Practical Caravan – a vintage caravan seemed a good project to take on. Upon further investigation, it appeared that the original owners had sited the Carlight and had used it less and less; eventually they instructed the site owner to sell the van for them.
Along with his wife, Ann, Jim decided to take the plunge: a cheque was written and he took possession of his project. Once the van was in the workshop, Jim discovered that the Carlight had been letting in water and that the framework at the front and sides was rotten. The interior panelling needed replacing and the chassis required painting, along with a host of other work. Jim’s project was looking like a long-term job.
I had originally met with him and his family at the Practical Caravan Reader Rally in 2010. After that he would update me on the progress of the van each year, so we knew it was no short-haul.
Jim brought the Carlight to the 2014 Practical Caravan Reader Rally, where it went on display: and what a popular caravan it proved to be! Crowds of ralliers came to see the classic caravan, and were amazed at its interior space, solid build and good old-fashioned charm. Jim was kept busy throughout the weekend conducting tours of his van.
So what was the attraction? Apart from representing nostalgia on two wheels, the model does have a connection with modern-day tourers. Jim’s Carlight is the Casetta, a 4.4m-long two-berth with an end kitchen. In other words, it’s rarer than some other classic Carlights.
Launched in 1964, the Casetta was truly innovative: it was built with techniques that are still used on today’s tourers. The exterior panels were GRP finish, with a core of expanded PVC. The interior was melamine, but the sidewalls were one-piece units with no joints; they were strong yet light.
The Casetta was considered to represent a feat of technical construction, as well as being a good-looking van. The build process wasn’t cheap, either. By 1975, and the launch of the model that Jim bought, Carlight had reverted to conventional coachbuilding methods; a decision that was primarily down to cost.
But Carlight remained a name that conjured up sheer quality and luxury. Jim’s Carlight originally had a hot-water supply and a shower unit, as well as a fridge, a full oven, a Carver gas-fuelled space heater and a rather upmarket drinks cabinet! The Casetta was even fitted with an Elsan plastic-unit toilet. The van’s interior was of the highest standard, while solid build, the lantern roof and GRP front and rear panels were also signs of a luxury tourer.
In fact, back in 1975 the Casetta would have cost you a cool £2500; that represented a lot of cash at the time, so you really needed to be in the money to own one. You were looked upon as an elite caravanner: Carlights commanded respect.
With only a handful of dealers selling the brand, buyers were treated as a friend as well as a paying customer. One such dealership was WA Hartley Caravans near Kirkham, Preston (formerly Campbell’s Caravans’ Kirkham branch); this is where Jim’s Carlight had been bought when new.
At major caravan exhibitions the Carlight stand could usually only be attended by appointment, and all models were locked; brochures were only given to genuinely interested buyers, too. Years later, Carlights have become rather collectable, and are considered the Holy Grail of classic caravanning. Prices are firming up all the time, and Jim was offered several thousand for his, but he wasn’t tempted.
Once it gets a respray and further mechanical work is finished, Jim’s Carlight will be back to its original looks. Inside the van, he’s had to replace panels, framework and generally tidy everything up.
After the Reader Rally, and the caravan’s first outing since its restoration, Jim and Ann were thrilled that all their time-consuming work had been well received. Jim is hoping to bring the Carlight, as well as some fellow classic caravanners, to the Reader Rally in 2015. If you spot him, do go and take a look at his piece of British caravanning heritage – you’ll be delighted that you did!
Fortunately, Jim fancied a bit of a challenge