Coachcraft and the Suntor 790

By: David Linklater, Photography by: David Linklater


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The Coachcraft brand is undergoing a comprehensive revitalisation under Kea's ownership. The intention is clearly to evolve the brand rather than preserve what was.

Coachcraft and the Suntor 790
Coachcraft and the Suntor 790
  • The new Coachcraft will be aimed at the retail market, with more personalised one-off vehicles
  • KEA’s experience and manufacturing operation will aid in cost-effectiveness and compete against the imports
  • Plenty of style and attention to detail around the Suntor’s exterior
  • Feeling of luxury and space from cabin
  • Décor’s to be modernised under KEA

Under the enthusiastic ownership and direction of Doug Sheldon, West Auckland-based Coachcraft designed and created motorhomes with a Kiwi flavour for 38 years.

A changing business environment and the loss of a major rental-fleet manufacturing contract meant a sad end to the existing Coachcraft enterprise back in 2009. But the end of one era has also marked the beginning of another, with the purchase of Coachcraft by one of the giants of the industry: KEA. 

The transition

Why does KEA need another brand on its books? "Well, the company went into liquidation about 18 months ago and we purchased its intellectual property – the database, plans and some moulds – with a view to continuing the brand and keeping the name alive. We want to keep the New Zealand thing going – there aren't a whole lot of manufacturers here," says Steve Lane, KEA's national sales manager.

"It's another arm for us. KEA is a rental operator, it's a builder of motorhomes and we also sell motorhomes. But to date our building has been very much focused on the rental fleet. Our retail customers come and buy a version of our rental vehicles with perhaps 10 percent customisation.

"But Coachcraft will be very much aimed at the retail market – more personalised, one-off vehicles. With our manufacturing operation we believe we can do that, be cost-effective and compete against the imports."

When Lane says KEA's Coachcraft-branded vehicles will be personalised, he means it. Buyers will choose everything from the chassis to the layout of the home. Put aside the waiting time for a particular chassis and Lane does not see any issues with increased build time, given the experience KEA has, the use of computer-aided design and the variations it already builds across its range. Six to seven weeks is an indicative wait for the finished product.

However, that's all to come and Lane admits there will be challenges ahead: "It's going to be a steep learning curve. With KEA the customers make little changes, but with Coachcraft we're talking about perhaps 50 percent change over a basic design. It's all very exciting but it's also unknown territory for us and we don't know where the finish line is!" 

The craft of motorhomes KEA's Coachcraft inventory currently totals two: a Mercedes-Benz-based Suntor built by the company's former operation in Henderson, and a just-completed Fiat Ducato motorhome that was built at KEA's Albany factory but is essentially a copy of previous Coachcraft designs.

The vehicles, like the reborn Coachcraft brand, are still a work in progress. The Mercedes-Benz is privately owned and is being sold by KEA on behalf. The Fiat's assembly was prioritised so that it could be used as a showhome, demonstrator and testbed – a base to give potential customers something to work from.

Both vehicles represent some of the strengths of Coachcraft's quality and design, although neither are all the way to what the brand is intended to become under KEA. There's a second KEA-manufactured Coachcraft currently under construction, this time on a Mercedes-Benz chassis: "The Fiat was our first one and basically a copy of existing designs, but for our second home we've started to make some changes.

"Ultimately, what we'll end up building is not a copy of an old Coachcraft vehicle. Some of the designs were great, but some were a bit old-fashioned. We'll modernise those elements."

Eventually KEA hopes to have a huge array of motorhomes under the Coachcraft banner, says Lane: "We'd like to have everything from a smaller van-type vehicle – a mum-and-dad style of home – right through to six and eight-metre motorhomes. But always, it will be totally customer choice, including the base vehicles." 

Living with the Suntor

Motorhomes, Caravans and Destinations magazine borrowed KEA's Mercedes-Benz Coachcraft Suntor 790 for a weekend at the Piha Domain Motor Camp. The opportunity to sleep in the shadow of Lion Rock is not to be missed, but it was also an opportunity to get a sense of what made Coachcraft special in the past and which design elements KEA might carry into future vehicles.

There's an undeniable sense of space and luxury in the Suntor 790: it's a sizeable vehicle for this chassis at 7850mm but still only a four-berth, with a permanent cab-over bed and the choice of two singles or a double at the rear. There is no shortage of living space and while the beige trim and white/black patterned fabrics were not to my taste, the colours did succeed in giving the cabin a light and airy feel.

There were a few quirks for sure – a manual winding mechanism for the satellite dish, on a $230k vehicle for example – but those are the kind of detail touches that will be determined by one-to-one interaction between KEA and potential customers.

Overall we were surprised at how many admiring comments the Suntor received and how many knew the Coachcraft name. Brand recognition is one of KEA's most important acquisitions with Coachcraft and it bodes well for the future. 

Specifications

Engine 3.0l Turbo Diesel
Transmission Five-speed automatic
Power 135kw
Torque 400nm
Wheelbase 4325mm
Brakes Four wheel discs, abs
GVM 4490kg

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