Over the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to pay a visit to quite a few of the UK’s major caravan manufacturers, but for some reason I’ve never had the opportunity to take a look inside the Coachman Caravans factory in Hull.
That all changed last month, when I headed up to Sutton Fields Industrial Estate to collect our new long-term test van, a Vision 450 Plus, and managing director Elliot Hibbs offered to show me around.
Now Coachman may be a ‘small’ manufacturer by the standards of fellow East Riding of Yorkshire resident Swift, but last year more than 2100 vans rolled through the doors of its factory (the first time that the brand has made more than 2000 tourers in a calendar year).
And while Elliot has plans to grow the business, it’s reassuring to hear that he has no intention of turning it into another mass-production specialist to the detriment of quality.
These vans cost more than some rivals, but a wander around the factory is enough to see where that cash is going: there’s real craftsmanship going on here.
Where your money goes
There are a few key differences between Coachman and some of the industry’s big boys in the way the caravans are put together.
For a start, it’s less automated – but by no means does that mean it’s backward.
Here, furniture is built from scratch rather than made up from a kit of parts, and caravans make their way along the production line by hand, rather than on a conveyor belt.
It’s impressively quick, though. And, as ever, my favourite part of the process is the magic point where the vehicle goes from being a chassis with a few ancilliaries to a nearly-finished caravan.
A sticky situation?
At Bailey, for example, that’s done by building the interior first, then popping on the sides and roof.
Here, the furniture is constructed in-unit with the walls, then a part-built chassis is rolled in and a special machine lifts the sides into place – rather majestically – before the furniture is then fixed to the floor and through the roof. If you’re struggling to see what I mean, check out the video above.
The other thing that amazed me was the glue. Now I don’t know about you, but I initially struggled with the idea of caravans being glued together – and of course that’s not just an approach favoured by Coachman Caravans, but now an industry standard.
Yet when you see just how much glue is used in the construction of one of these vans, you start to feel rather more reassured – though I couldn’t help but notice Elliot flinching at the cost of all that bonding agent!
The personal touch
But my abiding memory of the factory tour wasn’t the caravans, the production methods or the bricks and mortar, but the people.
Plenty of companies talk about having a ‘family feel’, but here they aren’t making it up – and it comes from the top down, too.
Elliot’s predecessor in his current role was … his dad, Jim! And Jackie, the marketing administrator, is married to Steve, the finance director – and their son is an apprentice on the factory floor.
There are uncles, brothers, nephews and nieces, fathers and sons – even three generations of the same family in one case, all working together. Elliot is convinced that it helps maintain quality.
And the fact that you rate their tourers so highly, with Coachman Caravans gaining Silver awards for both new and used caravans at our 2017 Owner Satisfaction Awards, with 83% and 84.9% satisfaction ratings respectively, means the company must be doing something right.
Plenty of companies talk about having a ‘family feel’, but here they aren’t making it up