Inside the Collection

It’s holiday time…lets go caravanning

Aged graphic sign that reads" Propert - Patent Folding caravan - 765771. Old South head Road Vaucluse N.S.W - Phone 37.2692"
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

For many people growing up in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s Christmas holidays meant four weeks at a beachside caravan park. The Museum has two caravans from this period with wonderful original interiors.

Following the end of wartime petrol rationing, the 1950s was a time of increased car ownership in Australia. Many Australians had access to a motor vehicle for the first time, and they had the disposable income and leisure time to enjoy it. Caravanning was cheaper than staying in guest houses and more comfortable than camping in tents. With the upgrade of roads local councils built caravan parks at beaches and coastal towns for inexpensive family beach holidays.

While the newly-released Holdens and powerful American cars were able to cope with the weight of large caravans, these cars were beyond the financial reach of many during that era. For many families who could only afford relatively low-powered English and European sedans, folding caravans and vanettes were a means of taking part in the trend for cheap, self-contained holiday travel. Many of the folding caravans of the period were little more than tents on trailers; in contrast, the cleverly designed Propert folding caravan offered large van security and comfort in a compact form.

Back view photograph of a Folding Caravan
Collection: Powerhouse Museum
Side view of Folding Caravan
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

The Museum’s Propert ‘Overlander’ folding caravan was built after 1952 by the Propert family business, Gold Seal Products, of Vaucluse, NSW, a firm that had formerly built bus bodies. The van was purchased second-hand in 1979 by the donors, Vic and Cheryl Perry, who used it for weekend trips, for extended holidays to places such as the Snowy Mountains, Victoria and far north Queensland, and as a temporary on-site home while they were building a holiday house.

Notebook open with photos of caravan being towed and notes about where it is
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

The commercial caravan industry really took off after the Don firm, established by Don Robinson in Victoria, began making caravans as a backyard business in 1934. By the early 1950s there were many manufacturers in several states. Competition was keen and the original plywood vans soon disappeared as sleek aluminium-clad models took over. However, at this time it was probably more common to build a caravan than buy one. The cost of buying a van was beyond the average worker, and any handyman could put together a comfortable caravan to suit his family’s needs, with the help of one of the comprehensive publications on the subject that were available. Before the spread of television, there were more ‘do-it yourself’ enthusiasts with time to spend building vans.

Front view of sleek aluminium-clad model Caravan
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

The Museum’s other caravan was built by the donor’s father, Francis Gerald Rhead in 1955 for his family’s own use. It was initially built as a motorised van, constructed on a Model A Ford chassis and included a Coleman petrol stove, home-made ice chest and a battery lighting system. The motorised van was converted to a tow van in about 1962 and was simultaneously converted to run on electricity, powering two lights, a stove and the refrigerator. Apparently the van was not built to any particular design, other than featuring the ‘Queensland’ style of construction comprising marine ply and painted canvas.

Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator

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