Classic caravan rallies are more than a chance to be impressed by the restorer’s craft or the stark difference between today’s tourer amenities and those of yesteryear.
These gatherings of a special breed of enthusiast also slide open a window on the history of a fascinating industry.
Take the caravan owned by Roger Williams and his partner, Barbara Bissell, who attend as many rallies as they can with their stunning 1961 Stirling 12/2.
Each took a different route in developing their interest. Roger has always had an eye for vintage caravans and cars. His parents, who were keen caravanners, had owned a Car Cruiser, a Sprite, a Welton and other makes. Roger toured with his own family in several vans through the years. Sprites were a favourite; he even towed one of them with an Austin Metro 1.3.
Barbara was once married to Bob Bissell, who owned the luxury maker Ensor Caravans. She was involved with the business until it shut in 1973.
She and Roger met through the Historic Caravan Club and discovered that they had a lot in common. After a few years, they decided to buy an old tourer together.
A charmer on wheels
“We wanted a two-berth luxury model, one that we knew had been given some attention,” Roger recalls. The Stirling had been restored years before so, when it came up for sale, the couple snapped it up: “It suited our needs and we loved its feel.”
Among its many charming details are funnels that capture rainwater from the gutters and send it down the drainpipes, and gas lights that still work. Its genuine wood veneers and mollycroft top (popularly known as a ‘lantern roof’ ) have helped to make it popular in classic caravan circles.
Legacy of quality
That characteristic roof defined the brand, which started with a self-build project by a Mr Stephens in 1935. After 10 years of using the van for family holidays, he sold it – and got £145, a tidy sum at the time.
This prompted him to go into business. He started a company, Stephens and West, joined the booming caravan market and, in 1949, produced his first commercial tourer.
He extended this to two models, named the Conway Castle and the Caernarvon Castle, and continued adding to the range until, in the mid-1950s, Stephens and West started using the Stirling name.
As its sales increased, the company diversified into manufacturing small boats and, in 1963, a brand of mid-priced tourers – Cygnet.
Despite big changes that started gripping the industry, Stephens and West kept building heavy, high-quality tourers as it had since 1949. This may have led to a decline in sales in the late 1970s. Production ceased in the early 1980s.
Two former employees, Dick Harding and Tony Biggs, set up Stirling Caravan Services to repair and refurbish old Stirlings, Cygnets and Winchesters – S&W added that marque to its catalogue in 1960. They kept it going for just a few years, leaving the task of keeping the legacy alive to individual restorers.
Cool kit, cold water
Roger and Barbara’s Stirling has many of its original features, but it is sparsely equipped by today’s standards. The sink in the end kitchen has only a cold tap, and the water must be pumped by hand from an eight-litre container in a lower cupboard. That’s where you’ll also find the solitary gas cylinder.
Cooking appliances are limited to a twin-burner hob and gas grill – both original. A chute is included for rubbish disposal.
Gas and 12V fixtures provide the lighting. The washroom is a small compartment without the cassette toilet that people expect today. Roger has fitted a drop-down basin and a Porta Potti.
He and Barbara have tried to keep the Stirling’s appearance as close as possible to how it looked when it left the factory. The upholstery, for example, isn’t original but was chosen to resemble it.
To complete the look…
They started out pulling the 12/2 with the Land Rover Freelander that Roger bought last year to tug their modern Vanmaster – nothing but the best for this couple. But Roger – who has owned a 1930s Austin, a 1970 MGB GT and a 1968 Jaguar – was inspired to buy a classic tow car.
A contemporary Rover would have been an ideal choice for the owner of a new Stirling, so he hunted around and found a P4 that had been exported to South Africa in the late 1950s and was returned to the UK years later. The Rover needs a bit of extra throttle to tow, says Roger, but it still does a good job.
The Stirling offers Roger and Barbara a compact yet spacious tourer. The front lounge seats four with ease and is ideal for socialising with friends. At night, it can be converted into twin beds or a roomy double.
The van is just as accomplished for storage. The central chest and nearside dresser have plenty of drawers, plus there’s a big wardrobe and overhead lockers.
From another standpoint, this is a head-turner: a new van with this standard of craftsmanship would probably cost more than £30,000. The Rover is a splendid match for it and, together, they make a great outfit that tugs at the nostalgic heartstrings.
10 top facts about Stirling and its caravans
- Stirling used to build its own chassis, rather than buy them ready-made from a contractor as is standard today.
- A dealer towed a Stirling at over 100mph in Italy in 1965.
- Stirling’s parent company, Stephens and West, bought Winchester, the manufacturer of luxury tourers, in 1960 and produced the brand until 1982.
- A Stirling 10 was towed by a 295cc Isetta ‘bubble car’ up Sutton Bank — a 1-in-4 gradient — in 1958.
- The Stirling Owners’ Club was founded in the 1960s.
- Double-glazing was introduced as an option in 1969.
- Stirlings and Cygnets were sold to Canada in the 1970s.
- In 1973, the company launched one of the first end-washroom models — the 16 Special.
- In 1974, Stephens and West bought Cheltenham Caravans, but it never started production.
- Stirling Caravan Services was set up in 1982 near Swindon.