If you’ve ever attended any of the big motorhome shows around the country, you will have no doubt been as enamoured as I was with the display of gorgeous Lilliput caravans – complete with matching retro and vintage accessories.
One of those caravans, a 1975 Lilliput Gazelle known as ‘Sybil’, is owned by Rob Carthew. Over the past four years, Rob has painstakingly gathered facts, figures and fascinating stories from other Lilliput owners around the country.
The result is One Man’s Dream – The Unique World of Lilliput Caravans. The book, published in time to celebrate the club’s recent 30th anniversary, has been a long time in the making.
It was originally planned by life member and secretary/treasurer of the club, Margaret Larsen. Sadly Margaret passed away during the early research stages of the book.
Rob bravely took up the mantle in 2015, and spent the next four years knee-deep in all things Lilliput. “I started with a computer and a list of people, and then wondered what I’d gotten myself into!
The next four years were spent ringing, researching, and interviewing every Lilliput owner we knew of in the country.” With more than 400 pages detailing some 240 caravans and 30 years of Lilliput history, this outstanding book is tribute to an endearing symbol of a Kiwi way of life.
The Lilliput Caravan Club
The Lilliput Caravan Club of NZ was established in 1988 and is dedicated to the preservation and passion of the iconic caravans. The club has members all over New Zealand, plus a couple in Australia.
The club holds a rally in the North Island every February, and next March is looking forward to holding its first ever gathering in the South Island at the Caroline Bay Rock and Hop in Timaru which is expected to attract caravan enthusiasts from all over the country.
To find out more about the club, and to order a copy of the book, visit lilliput.org.nz.
Sometimes small is better
Lilliput caravans were originally designed and built by coachbuilder Bruce Webster, who, after building a few standard-sized caravans to order after the war, decided in 1962 to make a caravan for himself.
This one was much smaller than those he built to order, at just nine feet long, six feet wide. The caravan was named ‘Lilliput’, as suggested to Bruce by his young son Paul, who at the time was reading Jonathan Swift’s classic tale Gulliver’s Travels, and is believed to be the first of the brand ever built.
However, Bruce didn’t have the caravan for long. After stopping at the local dairy on the way back from holiday, Lilliput in tow, a local fisherman saw the caravan and demanded to buy it.
It was just the encouragement Bruce needed to start building more of the little caravans. And the rest, as they say, is history. Although you’ll need to grab a copy of One Man’s Dream to truly appreciate what an amazing history it is, we’ve included a short excerpt from the book on a couple notable Lilliputs.
This is one of the 10.0ft aluminium-over-plywood models bought as a shell. The only thing known regarding its early times is the buyer is understood to have been a cabinetmaker.
As a result this van, with its rear dinette pattern, has arguably the best layout and cabinet work of any Lilliput of that era. It is finished in rimu plywood and the design maximises the small space well.
The dining table folds down to a double bed, and the front single seat/bed can be converted to a double bunk for children. The bench folds out each side to provide ample space for preparing meals.
In 1982 the van was bought from a Paraparaumu-based dealer by Ron and Ede Fannin of Upper Hutt, and they had it for three years until selling to their son Fred and his wife Jean in 1985 for $1300, but not before they had reupholstered the squabs and installed a fridge.
At some stage Ron managed to lose the big roof when travelling north of Taupo, and replaced it with plywood, glassed over, and with a small wind-up vent in the centre.
Fred and Jean owned the van for 12 years, towing it around the country with their little Mitsubishi Mirage Panther before selling it for $2000 to Mt Maunganui caravan traders Marsh Ewald Limited in 1997.
During that time the only major maintenance they undertook was to change the back lights. Fred and Jean went on to own other Lilliputs, and still have one of these (330TQ) at the time of writing.
It is not known who Marsh Ewald sold to, but 15 years later it was known to be in an unrestored state and for sale in Tauranga. It was bought by Chris of Howick who, by late 2014, had completed a major restoration and promptly sold on Trade Me to buyers in Oamaru.
The Oamaru buyers, whose names are not on record, undertook a camping trip or two and upgraded the power supply to RCD, but in fairly short order decided the van was a little too small for their family requirements, and in December 2014 sold it to today’s owners Richard and Tina, who chose to call the van Mason.
Richard and Tina are very enthusiastic and knowledgeable Lilliput owners, having had three other vans of this marque. This one has featured at the Auckland Covi Caravan Show and on television, and they continue to enjoy Lilliput Club and other activities, while towing the van with their matching 1954 Mark One Ford Zephyr convertible.
A hot rodding sensation!
Originally this was a front dinette model Gazelle, bought by Keith and Roxanne of Tauranga in August 2011 from a dealer in Morrinsville. Keith is internationally renowned for his involvement with custom refurbishment of hot rods, and over three months stripped the van down entirely and completed a stunning rebuild, just in time to attend the Stragglers hot rod club annual show in Cambridge that year.
New retro guards were made and a continental kit was added to hold the spare wheel. The windows were replaced with tinted and toughened glass, new fibreglass moulded window shades were fitted, and a 152mm drop axle was installed in place of the original and fitted with 13-inch mag wheels.
The interior was built in a style to match the exterior. A burgundy silver metallic paint was used both inside and out with pin-striping and lace effect. Nobody in the New Zealand hot rod scene had ever customised any make of caravan in this manner before, and the Lilliput not only caused a sensation but also started a revolution.
The couple had a number of interesting vehicles available with which to tow the van, the most used being ‘Roculater’, a 1972 Ranchero ute. Keith also thought the overall effect might be enhanced if he created a tow car which was painted to complement the van, and in the pursuit of this, a matching paint job was applied to a 1965 Cortina.
This car, named ‘Smokeless’, was quite deceptive in appearance as under the bonnet was an aluminium 350 Chevrolet Corvette engine delivering 420hp, somewhat more powerful that a Hillman or Humber 80 or similar, which the Gazelle was originally designed to be towed by.
Both the car and van were retained for the personal use of Keith and Roxanne for some three years or so. In 2014 ownership of S24E passed to Ian and Christine of Whangarei, who added some extra features of their own – such as the ability to channel Bluetooth sourced music through external van speakers.
The Cortina was not sold with the van, and Ian, being a very keen caravanner and collector of van memorabilia, decided he and Christine should find and appropriate a towing vehicle of their own, which turned out to be a 2005 Chevrolet Super Sports Roadster, a limited edition model made in the USA.
This astonishing van has appeared in a number of magazines both in New Zealand and overseas, and on TV news channels more than once.