Andy JenkinsonSee other Blog articles filed in ‘Our man in the industry’ written by Andy Jenkinson
Cast your mind back to 1986: the economy was in boom mode, and so was the public’s enthusiasm for buying caravans.
It was a period when new tourer manufacturers were emerging following the recession that had hit the early 1980s.
One of these was Coachman. And 30 years later the company has ridden the often choppy waters of the caravan market to establish itself as a maker of prestige tourers.
Back to the beginning
The firm’s roots hark back to the early 1960s – another boom period, when caravan holidays were popular and the demand for tourers led to a manufacturing explosion centred around Hull.
One of these new producers was Ace Caravans. Following 10 years of tourer production, in 1972 it joined forces with near neighbour Belmont Caravans, a holiday home manufacturer, and became known as ABI Caravans. It was to become a major force within the UK tourer industry.
It was within this company that three employees honed their knowledge and experience: Jim Hibbs (financial director), John Cobb (general works manager) and George Kemp (managing director).
By the mid-1980s, the trio had decided to leave ABI and set up a new caravan brand. A fourth person, Clive Bradfield, who had been sales director for Manchester-based dealer Lynton Caravans, also joined the venture.
Coachman Caravans is born!
The aim of the quartet was to make solid, well-equipped, high-quality tourers, while remaining competitive on price with the larger manufacturers. They called the new firm Coachman Caravans.
Cash was limited, so they had to get it right first time to make an impact on the UK tourer market. In late 1986 the prototypes were built, with four layouts covering two-, four- and five-berth formats.
The exterior profile was distinctive, with three-piece windows in a moulded GRP front panel and bonded side panels, the body riding on a galvanised Al-Ko chassis.
Inside, they were given a generous specification that included a shower, an oven and a fridge. In that first year, production was between 400 and 500 units.
The firm wasn’t aiming to become a mass-producer. Instead, it wanted to be seen as a builder of affordable yet luxurious caravans, with production being kept to a few thousand a year.
The opening line-up
The first range comprised four layouts: the 570/5, a twin-axle with a double dinette; a pair of two-berths; and a single-axle family model, the 440/4.
In February 1987, the NEC show gave the brand its first public showing: more than 40 units were sold and 20 dealers signed up.
Practical Caravan gave the new models good reviews, too, emphasising their quality and detailing.
And Coachman’s caravans soon began to take sales from some of the more established tourer brands.
Offering a broader range of caravans for sale
In 1988, the company expanded its line-up with a more luxurious range, the VIP.
And in 1989 it introduced an entry-level range in the Mirage, which offered the same build quality in a value-for-money price bracket.
The three models were all family tourers, with the 500/4 featuring an MTPLM of just 1000kg. The Mirage was popular with first-time buyers looking for low weights and a good specification.
The reputation of Coachman Caravans had grown quickly and the workforce was expanded to meet demand, with management listening to what its customers wanted.
Moving into the 1990s
The new decade brought an extension to the factory, along with new machinery and more staff being taken on.
Production had doubled and the network of dealerships had increased. Coachman the brand was by now well established.
The manufacturer developed its first dealer-special model in 1990, based on the Mirage, for Campbells Caravans. The Oasis was given new graphics and its upgraded spec included a shower, hot water, flyscreens and blinds, plus a glazed entrance door.
The Oasis led to other dealer specials, and the Mirage was also the basis for the Hylander, whose exports to Europe played a big part in Coachman’s success.
In 1992, Coachman phased out its standard range and introduced the Genius line-up, which boasted some of the best end washrooms in its market sector. There were further upgrades for the VIP, too, while the Mirage range continued to offer good value.
Rallying, awards and a takeover
The Coachman Owners’ Club was formed in 1993, and held its first rally in Rutland – the club now holds 25 rallies a year.
That same year, the Mirage 520/4 won Practical Caravan’s Top Tourer for Under £9000 Award, the first of many such gongs that the company would add to its trophy cabinet over the years.
Smart lines and luxury interiors typified the Coachman offering, with the brand going ‘trendy’ for 1996. This was a show-stopper at the NEC show.
Again based on the Mirage range, the Concept offered bold interior colours while retaining a decent specification. It was produced for just two seasons, but it showed the company’s ability to think outside the box.
After several years of sales success, in 1997 Coachman Caravans was bought by The Explorer Group.
New models joining the portfolio included the Amara, launched for 1998 to replace the Mirage, and the twin-axle Laser, which was packed with a host of luxury kit including a CD player and air-conditioning.
The 1990s finished on a high with the Amara leading the way for value and the factory remaining in Hull, its owners being in County Durham.
A new century dawns
The millennium brought the new Pastiche, which replaced the Genius to much acclaim, giving Coachman three strong ranges.
The firm also took control of its own destiny with a management buy-out and £1.5million-worth of investment.
There were improvements in customer care and build quality over the following decade, including the introduction of a three-year warranty in 2004.
Wider bodies for the Laser, Pastiche and VIP ranges increased the perception of luxury and created a broader choice for dealer specials.
During the first decade of the new millennium, Coachman caravans picked up many awards – the company even featured in the book Made in Britain, looking at successful UK industries.
By 2007, further expansion plans brought in new machinery and advanced production methods, while investment in aftercare improved spares supply.
But in the same year disaster struck, as severe flash flooding hit the factory. To keep up with orders, the workforce had to work flat-out to get the factory dry and cleared so that production could restart.
In spite of this, and the severe downturn in the UK economy, Coachman caravans remained in high demand and weathered the financial storm to which many contemporaries succumbed.
Advanced Body Construction
One of the biggest bugbears of caravan ownership has always been water ingress, and over the ensuing seven years the major manufacturers all developed new construction methods in an effort to eliminate damp.
Bailey offered Alu-Tech; Elddis, SoLiD; and Swift Group, SMART. Coachman, collaborating with Bostik Adhesives and the University of Hull’s engineering department, came up with ABC – Advanced Body Construction – with glue replacing screws and polyurethane in place of the traditional timber frame.
The ranges were given a shake-up, too. The Amara got a complete makeover: its nine layouts and improved interiors made the entry-level van a hit.
By 2014, however, it was in need of a revamp; enter the all-new Vision, with a sleeker design, a more contemporary interior, additional kit and lighter weights, making it accessible to a wider range of tow cars.
Another feature adopted by the bigger manufacturers to give their vans’ exteriors a more contemporary look is the front panoramic sunroof.
Added to the VIP, Laser and the Pastiche – and from 2017 as an option on the Vision – it made Coachman’s ranges some of the best-looking tourers on the market.
The revised look, along with Alde heating and a new spec, gave the Pastiche in particular a new following among caravanners.
Looking to the future
Since that first launch back in 1987, Coachman has developed from a small business into one of the larger producers, yet retains the same principles of quality construction, great new layouts, style and customer service.
Founder Jim Hibbs’ son Elliot joined the company in 2012, and took the helm earlier this year in a management buy-out.
Further expansion in Coachman’s production facilities should help this much-respected maker meet the many new challenges that lie ahead.