Whoever coined the expression ‘shabby chic’ was onto something. It’s generally used to describe furniture or accessories that have a homely and retro sense of age, without necessarily being an antique.
It’s the perfect description for ‘Polly’ the 1973 Thomson Mini Glen. The name was coined by entrepreneur Nicki Cuddy, and her compact two-berth tourer is quickly working its way into people’s hearts.
Nicki’s story starts with her long-time love of all things vintage. The Lancashire resident decided that an old tourer would be a perfect fit for her interest. She planned to give it a makeover in her favourite vintage style, but the finished van was never going to pass its days sitting in her lovely garden overlooking the Ribble Valley. No, Nicki intended to turn her hobby into a business by hiring out her vintage caravan, towing it anywhere heads were likely to turn at the sight of it.
Polly’s story starts at a factory in Falkirk, Scotland, where the highly regarded Thomson company manufactured tourers through the mid-20th century. In the 1960s, production shifted into high gear for exports.
Thomson named its models after Scottish glens and, in 1967, introduced its Mini Glen. The 2.92m-long van weighed 458kg unladen, rode on Mini car wheels and sported a front-corner washroom. Designed for owners of small cars – and Minis in particular – it filled a niche that turned out to be surprisingly large, and it sold well.
In the early 1970s, British rivals embraced new design ideas and production techniques. For example, they started using sandwich floors, while Thomson stuck with tongue-and-groove flooring, which was heavier and provided little insulation. Sales were hit, quality suffered and by 1982 Thomson had gone. Many of its tourers have perished over the years, but those that survive are supported by the Thomson Owners’ Club, established before the company had ceased trading.
In 2012, Nicki began searching online for a small caravan and spotted an ad for the Mini Glen. The seller got it from a couple who had bought it new at a Cheshire dealer for £465. It had a Carver gas space heater, a gas-operated fridge – both still working after more than 40 years – and several other extras.
She fell for the Thomson’s looks and before long had handed over a cheque for £600. She affectionately christened it Polly and began tidying it.
A local bodyshop gave the faded white body a respray in white and pale blue. A thorough service covered the gas system, the brakes and lights. The only part that had to be replaced entirely was the jockey wheel.
Nicki, a married mother of three, then set to work on the interior, painting over the worn wood-effect veneer in cool pale blue. She removed the old carpet and intended to lay down fresh lino, but was stopped by the sight of its tongue-and-groove wood floor. So she sanded it down to make it a feature in its own right. Overhead lockers at the rear came out to make Polly feel more spacious.
Soon Nicki was dressing her classic caravan with vintage items to create its endearing interior: a metal sign advertising Camp coffee here, an Oxo tin there, and old magazines between the seat benches.
The 1.95m width may be tight by today’s standards, but the Mini Glen doesn’t feel cramped, even with the extras she’s dotted around inside.
After spending a few hundred pounds and a couple of months bringing the little Thomson up to scratch, Nicki took Polly to its first events: parties at which she served afternoon tea. After several ‘gigs’ on the circuit, Polly was a hit. Christmas street fairs, local shows, weddings and photo shoots were added to the list of engagements.
“People want to see Polly. They may have owned a Thomson and love to tell you how they spent their holidays and how caravanning has changed,” Nicki says.
The business, which is very much on a roll, has a website describing the wide range of services Nicki and Polly offer, and she is open to new ideas: “The idea is for Polly to pay for herself over the next 12 months, and I am on target.”
Polly seems to have inspired other people to start similar businesses. Old Sprites and other retro caravans are being turned into shabby-chic trailers. Like Polly, they are no trouble to store, tow and set up – all important characteristics for Nicki, who hits the road with the Mini Glen alone. Her tug is a BMW, so she forgets that she is towing.
“At one show I attended, I pitched in the wrong spot,” she recalls. “The organisers told me to move Polly. A chap on a stall opposite just sat there, waiting to see me struggle, but Polly – being so small and light – was easy to put in place, much to his disappointment!”
So if you see Polly, say hello, have a brew and admire the vintage items. Who knows? It may start you on a career that’s not too shabby, but very chic.
The idea is for Polly to pay for herself over the next 12 months, and I am on target