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When Did Motorhome Conversions Become Popular In The UK?

Motorhomes are one of the most fascinating vehicles on the road because they are a perfect example of parallel evolution. 

Even though the core idea of an affordable vehicle you can comfortably live in is the same, the way that motorhome conversions evolved here compared to the United States and elsewhere has led to some truly different machines.

When you think of a British or European motorhome, you think of a relatively compact van that makes the absolute most of every inch of potential space to create a home away from home. In America on the other hand, the RV is a somewhat larger machine.

Even though the first RV was British, it took a surprisingly long time for motorhomes to become successful, with people opting for caravans instead.

What caused this to change was not just the launch of the most recognisable campervan ever made, but also a combination of the second most popular van in the UK, a tax break and fortuitous timing.

Two Defunct Companies, One Eternal Idea

After the Second World War, there was a boom in leisure travel and by the 1950s, companies were starting to take utility vehicles and convert them for the leisure market, with the most famous example being the Westfalia Camper, a conversion of the Volkswagen Type 2/Transporter light van.

However, in the UK, the evolution of the motorhome came about largely by accident thanks to two companies that no longer exist, at least in their original forms.

The first was Bedford Vehicles, known for making light commercial vehicles such as the CA, the CF and later became the manufacturer of European versions of Suzuki and Isuzu vehicles such as the Bedford Rascal/Suzuki Carry. All three vans would be massively popular conversion projects.

In 1952, they launched the Bedford CA, a very popular forerunner to the Ford Transit van and the definition of a vehicle that could do basically anything from being a fire engine to an ice cream van.

One of the biggest converters at the time was Martin Walter of Folkestone, a coachbuilder who had existed for nearly 200 years at that point, having been established as a harness maker in 1773.

They were already developing ambulances using the CA as a platform and had successfully converted the Bedford into a very capable minibus for the time, complete with windows and seats.

This was initially done with the assumption that the relevant local authorities in charge of licensing vehicles at the time would treat it as a van still, but instead, the tax authorities insisted that the mini-bus was, in fact, an estate car, which meant it was subject to passenger car taxes that vans were not.

After fraught negotiations, Martin Walter managed to come to a compromise where they could sell the van tax-free as long as they included “life support equipment” built into the van, which included clothing storage, cleaning and cooking apparatus.

This switched the purpose from a minivan to a motorhome that people could afford, and it became so popular that the “Dormobile” became, for a time, a generic term for other light commercial vehicles converted in the same way.

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