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Made in Stroud: a brief history of the Safari caravan

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From the 1940s to the early 80s Stroud was home to one of the country’s premier caravan manufacturers, Safari. The company was founded in 1946 by Jim Pearman and operated from a workshop in Cainscross where the Co-op store now stands.

The original workshop in Cainscross where the Co-op now stands. Picture courtesy of Brian Miller.

In the early days the company produced just one model, the Minor, a nine-foot two-berth caravan. The company moved from Cainscross to Bowbridge in around 1957 or 58, to a 23,000 square-foot site at the former Eagle Brewery (behind the British Oak pub on London Road), as former employee Mike Lane recalls: “I started there in December 1958 and the company hadn’t been there very long.

The spray shop where the caravans were painted. Picture courtesy of Brian Miller.

“I worked as a polisher – it was the best place I ever worked – we had fun, they were a good bunch of lads and we earned good money, too.”

Safari caravans earned a reputation as a quality product, and the hand-made construction was carried out to a high standard. The interiors were made by skilled craftsmen: “Fittings were built on solid oak frames and doors were either oak veneer on plywood or solid oak,” said Mike.

Working on the interior of a caravan. Picture courtesy of Brian Miller.

Brian Miller, who runs the Classic Safari Caravans group on Facebook, which has 990 members, said: “They are great caravans, always in the top three of British caravan manufacturers.

Michael Lane worked at Safari Caravans from 1958 to 1982. Picture: Matt Bigwood.

“At their height they employed 40 staff and were producing seven caravans a week. It’s the only classic caravan with real style – the distinctive mollycroft roof design – the raised section – started in early railway carriages and carried on to showmen’s caravans. Safari was the last manufacturer to use that style.”

Fitting a roof. Picture courtesy of Brian Miller.

“They were the best in the world,” said Mike, “The 17/S model, a 17-foot four-berth caravan, is the ‘Rolls-Royce’. It was the most expensive (it cost £8,129 in 1982) and had an end bedroom. It had thick carpet, good upholstery – all top-notch stuff.

“Safari was all coach built, so it was twice the price of a Bailey caravan.”

The main assembly area. Picture courtesy of Brian Miller.

However, the industry was changing and by the 1960s and 70s many smaller makers were being bought out. “Sprite started buying lots of independent manufacturers,” said Brian.

“A company called Cosalt bought Safari in 1968 for an estimated £180,000 and production continued in Stroud until 1982 when operations were moved to Grimsby. By 1985 all the traditional manufacturers had been taken over by big operations.”

Finished caravans await collection in the yard at Bowbridge. Picture courtesy of Brian Miller.

It’s estimated 6,000 Safari caravans were produced between 1948 and 1982. The classic Safari design was replaced in 1981 by the XL range, a Safari in name only. The last caravan to carry the Safari name was launched in 1985, built on the lines of an Abbey Executive caravan.

The Eagle Mill Close housing development was built on the site of the factory in the 1990s, and there are now very few clues it ever stood there.

A glass etched with the Safari name. Picture: Matt Bigwood.

There is still a solid fan base for Safari caravans: “I’d suggest around 500 still exist,” said Brian, who compiles a register of the serial numbers of existing Safaris. “There are a couple in Australia, exported by English owners, and also caravans in New Zealand, the USA, Canada, Sweden, Belgium and Holland.”

Until the pandemic struck there were regular classic caravan shows around the country, and also mainland Europe, with Safari caravans featuring prominently.

Fitting the floor to the chassis. Picture courtesy of Brian Miller.

Brian’s Facebook group provides advice and support for owners, as well as a wealth of historical information about Safari, and the number still used and loved by their owners is testament to the quality of the caravans, the youngest of which is fast approaching middle age.

Safari caravans have a reputation for style and quality. Picture: Matt Bigwood.

See how a 1970s Safari is being lovingly restored: stroudtimes.com/video-restoring-an-iconic-stroud-design

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