Lilliput Caravan: good things come in small packages

Photography by: Supplied


They may be small, but the iconic Lilliput Caravans have a big following in New Zealand

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A 12.6 Special and three 10.6 Lilliput Gazelles at Lake Rotoiti, St Arnaud

Many readers will be familiar with the gorgeous little Lilliput Caravans created during the early 1960’s by Bruce Webster, a wrought iron engineer of Hillsborough in Auckland. After building a few standard-sized caravans to order in the mid to late 50s, Bruce decided to make a caravan for himself.

It was much smaller than those he built to order, at just nine feet long and 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.

Upon returning from the first ever trip in the van, the family was followed home by a stranger who stopped them and insisted that Bruce should sell it to him – which he did.

Buoyed by this immediate success, Bruce then set out to build more of these small vans, both in 10ft and 12ft sizes, mainly out of marine ply with aluminium cladding and fibreglass roofs- all being constructed in the basement of the Hillsborough house ( the height of
the doorway governing the height of the vans.).

Over the ensuing 20 years or so Bruce, and his successor for the last three years John Rolfe, made around 300 of these small voyagers, until the unannounced introduction of a crippling sales tax in 1979 put paid to a lot of the caravanning industry – sadly including the Lilliput business.

Lilliputs were, and still are, very popular given their small size and exquisite design – especially with the later models being mainly of fibreglass – which makes towing and handling very convenient and easy.

In 1988, around eight years after the last van was made, 50 or so keen owners got together in Taupo for an inaugural rally, and the Lilliput Caravan Club of New Zealand was born.

It is the only ‘one make’ caravan club in New Zealand, and accordingly has attracted a keen following by owners and admirers alike. The club has existed ever since, albeit only very few of the original owners are left.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the club in 2018, club members decided to commission a book to ensure the significant motoring and caravanning history of these beauties was captured for all time. Three years later the 455-page hard-copy One Man’s Dream – The Unique World of Lilliput Caravans was launched at the Club’s AGM in Taupo.

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Rob Carthew with his Lilliput Sybil and matching 1951 Bentley Mark VI

It was originally planned by life member and past secretary/treasurer of the club, Margaret Larsen, but sadly Margaret passed away during the early research stages, and another club member, Rob Carthew, bravely took up the mantle and completed the book after three years of intensive research and having interviewed nearly every Lilliput owner in the country. With its coloured pages detailing some 250 caravans and 30 years of individual van and Lilliput history, the book is tribute to an endearing symbol of a Kiwi way of life.

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Rob Carthews book

Whilst researching the book, Rob noted there had never been an ‘official’ Lilliput Rally from the north to the south in the club’s 30 year history, so last year several club members worked incredibly hard to put together the club’s first ever official North to South Island rally – this being done in conjunction with Hospice South Canterbury – for whom it was agreed funds would be raised by the club during the journey to support the Hospice annual Rock and Hop Rally in Timaru.

Accordingly a ‘Rock and Hop Rally’ of around 20 Lilliputs from as far away as Auckland, Thames, Matamata and other northern regions set off from Havelock in early March of this year.

The rally travalled the West Coast and down through Haast as far as Dunedin, then turning north, ready to lead the Friday night parade through Timaru at the commencement of the Rock and Hop event itself.

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Lilliputs travelling through Haast

The plan was to set up camp at Caroline Bay, in the midst of the Rock and Hop gathering of classic cars and caravans, and finish the two week rally at Geraldine. With the help of local radio stations, traffic police, and local council administrative staff along the way, public interest in the vans, and their reason for the rally, was strong.

Many turned out to see and enjoy Lilliput parades in towns such as Havelock, Westport, Hokitika and Wanaka. Van inspections in holiday parks, street collections, and sales of the Lilliput book earned considerable funds for Hospice from a generous public.

Sadly, like many wonderful events recently, towards the end of the rally the Rock and Hop itself was cancelled at short notice due to Covid-19, but the Lilliputs were fortunate enough to find alternative sites in Timaru, and were able to conduct their own ‘Rock and Hop’ to the delight of all participants.

Fortunately, all those from the North Island were able to return home before final Covid-19 Lockdown – albeit by way of the last ferry to leave. Several South Island-based Lilliputs were able to join in the rally on its way through the South Island, and as a result there is now a new southern division of the club.

This should see further gatherings of these vans in a variety of locations once the current difficulties with travel are finally overcome. Further good news is that Hospice South Canterbury has already announced dates for 2021, and who knows – the Lilliputs could well be back! We’ll keep you posted.

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The Lilliput and Rock & Hop logos

To find out more about these cute caravans, visit www.lilliput.org.nz

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