Caravan Comeback

Article excerpt

In contrast to the plodding, middle-of-the-road image of their output, Britain's mobile home producers are showing the rest of British industry the way. Emma de Vita reports.

Known best for its brutal post-war architecture, as the home city of poet Philip Larkin and the constituency of straight-talking deputy prime minister John Prescott, Kingston upon Hull is also the setting for an unsung pounds 3 billion British business success story. The caravan-making industry has made this north-eastern corner of England its pitch, riding a boom that projected two of its leading northern lights into the Sunday Times Rich List last year. Against all odds and in spite of Jeremy Clarkson's best effort to rid the world of them (anyone for caravan conkers?), these much-derided vehicles have persisted, and even made a comeback.

A cluster of caravan production plants employing 16,000 people now hug the banks of the Humber, having fed originally on a glut of skilled craftsmen brought in after the second world war to rebuild Britain's third most-bombed city. In the 1950s, when a caravan was little more than a shed on wheels with a dig-it-yourself toilet (nowadays it's a fully-flushing, onboard WC with 180-degree swivelling bowl), the port was the centre of Britain's timber trade, with easy access to European export markets and a local expertise in mobile home production. By the 1970s, if you opened a Hull Yellow Pages, you'd have found 70 entries under 'caravans'.

The Hull caravan enclave is the kind of unplanned manufacturing cluster phenomenon that Professor Michael Porter identified in his seminal book On Competition. Jim Hibbs, managing director of touring caravan manufacturer Coachman, has worked in this highly competitive and incestuous industry all his life. Known by insiders as 'the father of caravans', Hibbs set up his family business in 1986 (he employs both his ex-wife and current wife). 'I'm a great believer in being part of a cluster,' he says, explaining that Hull was the logical place to come to because of its pool of skilled labour and well-established supply chain, which helped give him a head start.

For the past three years, British caravan manufacturers have been running to capacity, struggling to keep up with domestic demand for their tourers and 'statics'. Swift Group is the market leader, with a turnover of pounds 127 million; Atlas Caravans, Willerby, Burndene Investments, ABI, Coachman and Cosalt Holiday Homes are East Riding neighbours. At least three of them are planning to expand their factories to increase production, or have already done so.

Last year, 32,421 tourers and 32,553 statics were produced, compared with 21,050 and 29,750 respectively in 2001. The UK now comes second only to the US in terms of market size. Things haven't been this good since Margaret Thatcher ruled the roost.

According to the National Caravan Council, the trade body that represents caravan manufacturers, this surge in demand is unprecedented, with year-on-year growth for 2004 reaching nearly 12%. The Caravan Club, which represents 336,000 caravanning families and runs 200 UK caravan sites, reckons that there are more than 1.6 million enthusiasts in the country, including cabinet minister Margaret Beckett and such minor celebrities as designer Wayne Hemingway, broadcaster Rowland Rivron and a gaggle of ex-EastEnders actors, including Patsy Palmer. The club insists that 78% of its member families are ABC1 - more Hyacinth Bucket than Shane Ritchie.

'The typical caravanner will own a well-cared-for, top-of-the-range vehicle, be aged 35 to 64 and have a high disposable income,' claims the club's brochure, the front cover of which features an expensive, mean and sleek BMW 5 Series Tourer cruising through the mountains with what looks like a white plastic box in tow. The driver seems a well-heeled man of the world, who in reality probably wouldn't be seen dead with a caravan. …