Vantastic explores NZ caravan history

ON THE ROAD AGAIN:: Hamilton author Don Jessen, with his publication Retro Caravans, Vantastic Kiwi Collections.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN:: Hamilton author Don Jessen, with his publication Retro Caravans, Vantastic Kiwi Collections.

Hamilton author Don Jessen has found himself busy mining a thick seam of nostalgia - and almost by surprise.

Four thousand copies of his first publication Retro Caravans, Vantastic Kiwi Collections hit the bookshops in July and will be followed by his second book, a history of his family business, Liteweight Caravans, due out in March next year.

But Jessen has interests ranging from classic cars to old airplanes, and publishers Bateman's have him busy on a series of books. "It just started as a hobby. I never expected things to go this way. I started only intending to do a history of Liteweight Caravans and one thing led to another."

Jessen was introduced to the caravan-building business when his dad Tek launched Liteweight Caravans in 1946 to take advantage of the booming post-war demand for "vans as New Zealanders took to enjoying the outdoors".

The venture survived the infamous 1979 imposition of a 20 per cent sales tax by then Prime Minister and Finance Minister Robert Muldoon which destroyed many other companies making caravans and boats.

Jessen worked at his father's business for 23 years until it finally closed its Riverlea Rd factory in 1990.

His own re-acquaintance with vintage caravans and his family history began eight years ago while driving back from Te Awamutu when he spotted an early Liteweight in a field. "I saw a dilapidated example of a ‘Kiwi' - a Liteweight model, in a nursery near Te Awamutu. I stopped to talk to the chap who owned the place and it turned out he'd owned it for 18 years. Before than it had been used as a bach. It turned out to be chassis No 82. We got it back and restored it in three months, that was in October 2006."

Chasing vintage caravans has become something of a fixation and has had its high and low points - Jessen has fully restored the oldest known Liteweight - but missed out on another gem. "It was in a field on a farm near Waihi. One of only 28 14ft 9in [4.5m] models built in 1958-59. I found the farmer and called him about it - but he'd burned it about half an hour before."

Dressed in pastel colours and designed by Cheryl Smith of Macarn Design, Retro Caravans, Vantastic Kiwi Collections is a tour of 50 Kiwi caravans from the mid-1930s to the mid-1980s, many lovingly restored and towed by classic cars.

Retro caravanning has become one of the big things among automotive memorabilia enthusiasts. An initial display of vintage vans at the Whangamata Beach Hop four years ago attracted 12 entrants. This year's saw 85, including vans still in the hands of original family owners.

"People come into retro caravanning from different angles. Many have hot rods or classic and vintage cars and they are keen to find a van to suit the era. Others have been caravanning all their lives. Then there are younger people who think the old vans look cute and then get a classic car to tow it. The whole thing has become unbelievably popular."

But Retro Caravans is only the beginning of Jessen's labours. Next, and planned to be released at the Whangamata Beach Hop in 2015, will be A Great Indoors for the Great Outdoors - Liteweight's slogan and the history of the Hamilton-based caravan building company.

But there is more. Following his passion for old cars, caravans, boats, motorcycles and vintage airplanes, Jessen has Ladies of the Lake planned for release in September 2015. The book will feature 90 classic and vintage launches, yachts, speedboats and runabouts found on North Island lakes - the oldest built in 1885.

Jessen is also busy writing his first novel with the working title of Across the Bleeding Sky. It follows the true story of a World War I German fighter pilot.

Waikato Times