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Museum shows caravans tug Aussie heartstrings

June 17, 2005
Museum shows caravans tug Aussie heartstrings

Australia's love affair with caravans is a feature exhibit at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.

Now curator, Denis Shephard, says there is more to come as conservation work gets under way on a Propert 'Trail-a-Cabin' van. 'It is not definite yet whether the Trail-a-Cabin will be going on display, all being well it will. But those decisions are aways off yet the gallery concerned won't be opening until 2008', he said.

The museum already has a former showroom model of the Propert, Bondwood caravan in an interesting exhibit on the travelling habits of Australians at the magnificent museum in Lawson Cres, on the Acton Peninsula.

Straight from the fifties the Propert three-berth caravan's interior is a testament to a time of laminex fittings, anodized aluminium kitchenware, vinyl coverings, Mexican-pattern curtains and a taste for 50's dcor of cream, red, fawn and black.

Coach builder, Thomas Propert took his Vaucluse, Sydney company from building car bodies to caravans in the 1930's in response to a downturn in the economy and changes to the car assembly industry.

Propert also built a Trail-a-Cabin folding model to a 1952 patent. GoSeeAustralia, in company with National Museum Curator Australian Culture Society, Denis Shephard, enjoyed a guided visit to the warehouse world of museum conservation to see the van. It was bought new in 1950 and used by a family for holidays until it ended its working life as on on-site van at Eden, in NSW, in the mid 1980's.

Denis Shephard says there is plenty of conservation work to be done on the cleverly designed Propert Trail-a-Cabin, van but it is in relatively good condition and comes with an advertising poster display, one of which shows the tow vehicle as an early model VW.

Dennis Shepard CuratorThe high standard of craftsmanship shines through tired paintwork on the little van despite the years

The museum has made contact with vintage caravan enthusiast, Werner Ebert, of Mt Evelyn, Victoria who is a Propert owner. Werner Ebert says that the van shows great workmanship and pride in the product. He says the production of the little van continued until 1972.

The Propert is a great fit for the Australian National Museum of Australia which since it opened in 2001 has worked to tell the stories of Australia and Australians. Director, Craddock Morton says

'The National Museum explores Australia's past, illuminates the present and imagines the future.'

The museum is an architectural landmark on a beautiful peninsula. It wraps itself around a remarkable garden and cultural area called the Garden of Australian Dreams. It has to be seen to be fully appreciated. The National Museum opens 9am to 5pm every day except Christmas Day. Entry is free.

Australians have a long-standing love affair with caravanning. The Manager/Curator of the RACV's Heritage Collection, Davina Gibb, says that 'Vans took off in the 1930's with people keen to build their own caravans; it was a major move away from camping and tents, which until then had been used. The Auto Club's archives include pictures of a Bondwood caravan built in 1947. 'This image was printed in The Radiator, RACV's magazine, in September 1947', Davina said.

The caption in The Radiator article reads: 'Above is a photograph of a caravan made by a member of the RACV...The caravan has four inner sprung beds which can be used either as double beds or as bunks. The sink is of stainless steel and the roof of Bondwood, while the floor is also of 1/2 inch Bondwood all glued and screwed, no nails being used. The materials used cost 170 pounds. (The owner) Mr Brewer has already made a 750 miles tour along the Grand Ridge Road, Bulga Park and Tarra Valley.'

Propert Advertising MaterialThere were few professional caravan builders so Australian motorists, who wanted to take their home into the country, went DIY.

Stories from overseas of great caravan adventures fuelled their interest and when five young men crossed the Victorian Alps with a caravan their exploits drew great interest. The Great Depression of 1929 cooled the enthusiasm, but many Australians still saw a way to escape the financial gloom and kept on caravanning. But the country was deep in Strugglesville and it was not until the end of the Depression that Australians rushed back to the road. By 1935 Australia was the world's fourth biggest user of motor vehicles (per capita) behind the U.S., New Zealand and Canada.

At the end of the Depression, The Radiator, now RoyalAuto helped the rush to the great outdoors by reprinting DIY articles from Popular Mechanics on building a 'comfortable family trailer'. Some members also built motorhomes by putting living quarters on truck chassis. The Australian tradition of 'have a go' and do-it-yourself, is not dead either. Davina says that when the RACV carried a Centenary feature in May, 2004, which included items on 1937 build-it-yourself caravans, she was surprised to get four to five calls seeking a copy of the plans.

On GSA linked websites like enthusiastic members trade ideas and information about restoring an amazing range of caravans from builders like Don, Propert and Sunliner. Don offered specially built lightweight caravans for the popular 10hp cars of the 1950's as well as bigger vans to be pulled by more powerful vehicles. Their craftsman based, professional marketing thrust pioneers the current product messages of the major caravan builders of today. The interesting vintage caravan site has pictures posted by its members of Australians caravanning which date from about 1927.

Editor's note:

GoSeeAustralia acknowledges with thanks the assistance given in compiling this feature from key sources which include

Australian Capital Tourism
The National Museum of Australia
Members of the vintage caravan website (
Caravan builders: Coromal, Roadstar, Compass, Windsor and Jayco. For more information