Leisure Line Caravans

By: Lawrence Schäffler


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Producing some 150 units a year, Leisure Line Caravans is one of New Zealand’s largest caravan manufacturers. But you wouldn’t call it a production line environment: success stems from hand-crafted designs penned for local conditions.

Leisure Line Caravans
Leisure Line Caravans

The Hamilton company’s caravan line-up comprises five models ranging from the two-berth 4.2m Elite to the seven-berth 8.9m Elite. Production is spread across three near-adjacent sites – geared to chassis fabrication, framing and cabinetry, and final assembly.

Numerous factors account for the popularity of the Leisure Line range, but fundamental ones are attention to detail, innovative features, stylish but pragmatic layouts and, perhaps most importantly, reliability and longevity.
In the New Zealand context, reliability and longevity mean an ability to perform and survive in all weather conditions. And those features, says managing director and company founder Colin Bates, are a result of techniques developed through years of caravan-building experience – some 35 years to be precise.

Bates stepped into the industry in 1973 as a welder fabricating chassis components for a Hamilton caravan manufacturer, quickly rising through the ranks to factory manager before branching out into sales and marketing.
The broad, hands-on background, he says, proved invaluable for identifying and reacting to customer needs. He eventually bought a share of the company and launched his own dealership. That meant responding to breakdowns and warranty issues – which got him thinking. He was convinced he could improve on what he perceived as design flaws in the models he was selling, and in 1989 he sold the dealership, set up Ohaupo Caravans, and began manufacturing from scratch.

"You could say my initial design – a 6.8m, four-berth model – was an amalgamation of features from a variety of caravans on the market at the time. But the more truthful reality is that it was built for our own use and was simply a response to my wife’s direction: she stipulated – in no uncertain terms – what worked and what didn’t. And as any caravanning couple will tell you, women are generally far more intuitive about pragmatic design."

From the outset, he chose to build in aluminium. Perhaps fittingly for a caravan manufacturer, Bates has always been concerned about the environment, and didn’t like the "chemicals involved in fibreglass production." That philosophy has continued through to today – he makes a point of using "green" materials and runs a finely-tuned recycling programme at the company’s three sites.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), that first caravan was spotted by a Christchurch dealer who immediately offered to buy it, and followed up the purchase with an order for 10 more. A year later he ordered another 20 – and the rest, as they say, is history.

Production expanded quickly – by 25 per cent per year, every year – with new models coming on stream progressively. Today the range comprises a two-berth, 4.2m model, a 6.0m (the smallest of the four-berth caravans), a 6.5m, 7.0m, 8.0m (five-berth) and the 8.9m seven-berth. Leisure Line employs 33 personnel, and distributes its caravans nationwide through five dealers – one of which is the original Ohaupo Caravans.

The busiest outlet by far is the sole South Island dealer (in Christchurch). "He accounts for almost half of our production," says Bates, and attributes this lop-sided ratio to what he calls the superior caravanning infrastructure in the South Island.

"Apart from its majestic scenery, the South Island offers better opportunities for caravanners. It has far more sites than the North Island – they haven’t been sold off for development as in the North Island. They’re typically smaller sites than in the North Island, but still tend to be run by couples who are the owners. They usually offer a more personal experience."

Colin deplores the ongoing closures of North Island campsites, and lauds the Department of Conservation for stemming the tide. "DoC sites are fairly basic, but they’re usually in very choice locations and won’t be sold off. Yes, they often have limited ablution facilities, but we’ve addressed that by ensuring our caravans are fully self-contained."

Besides, he adds wryly, basic DoC facilities might have done the caravanning industry a favour: "By accelerating the adoption of the self-containment philosophy among the manufacturers, DoC has effectively given caravanners greater scope for adventure and flexibility. Today, with self-containment, you can take caravans to isolated places that five years ago were completely off-limits."

The trend to broader independence is extended for Leisure Line buyers through the use of solar panels and built-in power supplies in the caravans. "Virtually all of our caravans are fitted with solar panels and their own 12-volt batteries. We occasionally have requests for inverters, but the vast majority of buyers seem to cope with the solar charging, and as a back-up opt for the small, ultra-efficient and low-emission Honda generators."

Weather-proofing
Attention to detail and innovative design, he says, have contributed to Leisure Line’s success, and that’s particularly evident features such as the weather-proofing strategy. To eliminate any possibility of leaks, the caravans are fitted with a one-piece roof. It’s fabricated from large rolls of pre-painted aluminium (1mm thick), imported from Italy.

Similarly, structural integrity is enhanced by using clear (knot-free) radiata pine framing. "As a plantation species, radiata is a sustainable resource," says Bates, "and we bolster its longevity with an organic solvent treatment which doesn’t contain any carcinogenic components."

While the company produces five standard models, it offers a degree of customisation. "We like to think of our buyers as individuals, with their own preferences and requirements. Because we’re a modestly-sized manufacturer, we have sufficient flexibility to incorporate specific requests into each build – within reason, of course." 

Caravanning outlook
As a member of the NZ Caravan and Motorhome Manufacturing Association, Bates is close to the issues shaping the future of the New Zealand industry. Two are of major concern: the climbing cost of fuel, and low-cost imports.
"Fuel prices are obviously going to impact our industry, and we’re already seeing trends such as the move to diesel- rather than petrol-powered tow vehicles. I think we will also increasingly see people investing in a tow-vehicle they’ll use exclusively for caravanning, and a second family car – rather than trying to meet both objectives in a single vehicle."

While the fuel price is bad news for the industry, he says, it could hardly be as bad as the impact of Muldoon’s infamous "luxury tax" in the ‘80s. "That literally crippled what was a burgeoning caravan industry in New Zealand. At the company I was working for at the time, we laid off more than 100 workers."

Like many members of the Manufacturing Association, Colin is concerned about the quality of (cheaper) caravan imports entering the country. "There are a number of issues – and they all relate to certification. As local manufacturers we are bound to comply with electrical, gas and plumbing standards. Many of the imported models don’t meet those standards and have to be re-wired or re-plumbed – and we’ve seen plenty of first-time caravan buyers get stung. We’ve raised the issue to the government, but no-one seems interested."

Management change
After 35 years in the caravanning business, Colin feels it’s time to retire, and will soon hand over the reins to his son Wayne. Wayne has had the benefit of a good grounding – he has worked at the company for 18 years (initially during school holidays, and then full time).

"It’s a smoothly-functioning operation, and I’ve no plans to change anything dramatically. At the same time, I’m conscious of the need to continually offer the market new, fresh ideas. You can’t afford to be complacent."

When not orchestrating caravan production, Colin and Wayne indulge their passion for classic cars. Both are avid Ford Mustang enthusiasts, and between them have six models. Each car has been lovingly restored to pristine condition, and Colin is president of the Hamilton chapter of New Zealand’s Mustang Club.

And what about, er… the environmental impact of those five-litre V8s? "Well, I like to think of it as a small carbon-trading scheme: we offset the cars’ emissions with the carbon saved in our caravan manufacturing."

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