October 25, 2021

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The fine art of fashion

Vintage caravan renovations explode in popularity as COVID-19 restricts summer holiday travel plans

They’re popping up at caravan sites across the country.

Parked alongside flashy modern rigs are a growing number of vintage caravans, with renovations that leave the sticky-beaks lining up for a look.

As COVID-19 puts a hold on international travel plans and Australians look closer to home for their holidays, caravans have been exploding in popularity.

But vintage vans — in original or renovated condition — are in particularly high demand, with many snapped up within hours of going on the market.

Some renovated vintage caravans are being sold for close to $20,000 and on Facebook pages van owners share renovation tips and plan meet ups at caravan parks across the country.

Rosalie and Carl Needham, both designers, paid $200 for a 1965-built van three years ago and named her Piccolo Rose.

The Needhams bought the 10-foot 1965 caravan for $200 and completely renovated it.(Supplied)
A woman and man stand in front of a navy and white caravan.
The semi-retired designers spent just over four months on the renovation.(Supplied)

They completely gutted and rebuilt the 10-foot caravan in just over four months, keeping the original frame, wheels, hub caps and windows.

“People ask me, ‘Is that a new van made to look old or an old van made to look new?’ And I tell them it’s both,” Ms Needham said.

“I lived through the 1970s so I didn’t want something original. If you’re a purist you’re not going to like Piccolo Rose because she doesn’t have the bright blue vinyl seats and all the retro style.

“But it looks exactly as I dreamt it would and she’s really beautiful inside.”

The renovated navy and white interior of Piccolo Rose.
Rosalie Needham says people regularly line up to see inside Piccolo Rose.(Supplied)

The couple lived in the stunning navy-and-white van and say its beauty has been both a blessing and a curse while on the road.

“That was fun initially but after owning her for a few months my husband said, ‘This is crazy, it’s just not fun’.”

While the attention could at times be draining, getting rid of their pride and joy was not an option, so they made a choice to “suck it up and share”.

A man sits outside an aqua and white vintage caravan with a blue Cadilllac parked outside.
Drue Hutchinson’s vintage set up turns heads at caravan parks.(Supplied)

Drue Hutchinson receives the same level of attention when towing his 18-foot 1978 Viscount, called Jeanie. And it has nothing to do with the car towing it — a rare, 1954 Cadillac.

“Usually you go anywhere in the Cadillac [and you get looks] — it’s a very amazing car,” said Mr Hutchinson, who lives with his wife and two children at Uki in northern NSW.

“But you go to a caravan site and people overlook the $100,000, one of the best Cadillacs in Australia, for this old caravan, and it’s not surprising.”

A retro caravan set up with surfboard, beanbags and hammock.
Mr Hutchinson says he feels privileged to be custodian of a piece of history.(Supplied)
Jeanie's interior features padded walls, pressed metal ceilings and a cream and aqua colour scheme.
Jeanie’s interior has been modernised but the layout remains original.(Supplied)
The interior of a caravan with timber kitchen benchtops and curtains separating the living area from the bedroom.
Jeanie was renovated by the previous owners with luxurious interiors.(Supplied)

He bought Jeanie from friends who had already renovated it, keeping the original layout and modernising it with padded upholstered walls and seating, timber floors, and pressed metal ceilings and adding air conditioning.

“Although I didn’t build this van, I feel quite privileged that I’m a caretaker for the time being, so I want to look after it and make sure that she’s certainly around for generations to come.”

The exterior of a renovated 1964 Sunliner caravan with hammock and awning.
Vintage caravans can rent for between $90 and $250 a day.(Supplied: Camplify)

Justin Hales, founder and CEO of Camplify, which is like Airbnb for caravans, said there was a general trend towards caravanning holidays and vintage caravans represented more simpler times.

“I think there’s definitely a big element of nostalgia there as part of it,” he said.

Mr Hales said vintage vans were being rented for between $90 and $200 a night, with top-end restorations going for $250 a night.

A young family stands in front of a Millard caravan at a beachside location.
Diana Lovasi says her Millard caravan was mostly booked out between July and November.(Supplied)

Diana Lovasi, from Umina on the Central Coast, bought her renovated 1976 Millard caravan, Daisy on Tour, for $10,000 in September last year. She has already made back the purchase price by renting it out through Camplify.

“From the July school holidays until the end of November we only had a few weekends where it wasn’t booked out,” she said.

Ms Lovasi said the COVID pandemic had a lot to do with high rental demand, but people found the shape and design of retro vans particularly attractive.

The interior of a caravan with bunk beds and colourful pillows.
Daisy on Tour rents from $95 a day and has already made back its purchase price.(Supplied: Camplify)

The pandemic has also sparked a rush on vintage van sales.

Hornsby couple Julie and Michael Dominish missed out on several before Julie snapped up a 1971 Viscount Valiant they named Olive.

“I actually bought Olive without my husband seeing her which was a bit daring,” said Ms Dominish, who works in health and is also a celebrant.

Julie Dominish poses with a couple on their wedding day in front of Olive the caravan.
Celebrant Julie Dominish (centre) hopes her caravan might play a greater role in weddings.(Leonie Parkes — Don’t Blink Photography Central Coast)

They bought Olive in August for $10,000 and gave themselves a two-month deadline to “freshen up” the van in time to take to a wedding near Dungog in the Hunter region.

They spent around $3,500 on painting the interior, reupholstering the cushions, new screens and replacing the tabletop.

Ms Dominish uses Olive as accommodation and a mobile office where couples sign their pre-wedding paperwork. She also hopes to one day conduct a ceremony under its green-striped canvas annex.

Olive has now travelled with them to two weddings, including one at Nora Head last month where newlyweds Gareth and Christine Llewellyn were so taken with the retro caravan, they included it in their photos.

“The old vans have just got that character … you can really put a mark on them and make them individual and I think that’s what the drawcard is.”