Launched at the Earl’s Court Motor Show in 1951, Britain’s first double-decker caravan was a star attraction thanks to its upstairs bedroom, rooftop patio and cutting-edge interiors by mid-century modern design icons John and Sylvia Reid. But the paucity of post-war construction materials meant the bulky tourer wasn’t built to last.
When Tim Mitchinson rescued it 10 years ago, the last surviving Berkeley Statesman was a rotting hulk on the point of collapse. He bought it for £1 because he couldn’t bear to see it scrapped and, following a decision driven by what he calls “English eccentricity and insanity”, he and his friend Mark Cranfield embarked on a sensational £70,000 restoration.
The vintage van, which was the first off the production line, is now for sale with RM English estate agents for £40,000. Tim reluctantly put it on the market to make way for an extension on the side of his home in York.
A vintage car enthusiast, he first heard about the “elder Statesman” when he rang the Historic Caravan Club to ask if it knew of a micro caravan that he could tow with his Austin Somerset soft-top car.
“They told me they had the Berkeley Statesman but it was far too big for what I wanted. When I next spoke to them, they told me they had five days to find it a home or it would have to be scrapped because the air museum that was storing it wanted it out. Then it was about extinction which makes me very upset, so I said I’d take it.”
Getting the decrepit 22ft long and 12ft tall caravan on to the strip of land at the side of his house was a squeeze and it was in a far worse condition than Tim first thought. It slipped off the low loader with a collapsed chassis, burst frame and broken windows.
Building materials were rationed when it was made in the post-war era 66 years ago, so the chassis was poor-quality iron and the frame was hardwood. It was clad in hardboard that was painted in green and cream oil paint.
“I’m not sure how many were produced but I think it was probably about 150 and one of the biggest issues was the cladding. That’s what killed them off because to stop it from rotting it needed to be repainted every year and that rarely happened,” says Tim.
“Luckily for this one, someone clad it in aluminium in the early 1970s and it acted like a big bandage.
Another nail in the Statesman’s coffin was the cost. When new it retailed at £1,065, the same price as a terrace house. Its colossal, two-tonne body was also difficult for the average car to tow.
While it was marketed as a touring caravan, the manufacturer also had other uses in mind. There was a housing shortage and caravans were being used as temporary accommodation. A number of Statesmans were also bought for use as married quarters on American Air Force bases.
Tim adds: “Ours was bought by a builder who was repairing bomb-damaged houses. Families would move out into the caravan while he and his team worked on their property.”
It was a real home from home and maybe even better. The Statesman sleeps seven and was luxurious inside with all mod cons and even a working coal fire. At the front was a kitchenette approved by the Good Housekeeping Institute. It had a full-size gas cooker and ingenious storage solutions, including a set of wall-hung weighing scales.
The living space included the fire, a sideboard and two armchairs that folded down into beds. Beyond this was a tiny shower room that led to a twin bedroom with a hammock “for a small child”.
Upstairs was a double bed, a dressing table and wardrobes, while the other half of the top deck was a patio. The cooker and lights ran on bottled gas. When the builder had finished with the van, it was used to house labourers working on the M1.
They painted it white and dubbed it “Moby Dick” because it looked like a giant whale. Redundant by the mid 1970s, it was then bought by a couple in Bedfordshire who used it as a playhouse for their children.
The family had it in their garden for 35 years by which point it was derelict. They were on the verge of demolishing it when a friend suggested they contact the Historic Caravan Club, which took it in.
Tim, a potter with a degree in 3D Design, was in two minds about restoring it when he got it to York and realised that it had “woodworm and every type of rot going”. A local priest, Father Stephen Robson, persuaded him to have a go.
“He remembered the caravan from his childhood and thought it was wonderful. He suggested we get a TV crew in to film the restoration. I didn’t think there was any chance of that and jokingly asked him to pray for it. Unbelievably, the next morning I got a call from a film-maker who had heard about the project via the Historic Caravan Club. I felt it was a sign I had to do it. I was on a mission from God,” he laughs.
Sticking to the six-month filming schedule was arduous. Tim and a team of joiners finished the bulk of the rebuild and the How to Build a Caravan documentary regularly appears on the Quest TV channel.
The chassis was rebuilt and a new timber frame installed. It was insulated and then covered in super-strength marine ply clad in aluminium. Tim wanted the interiors to remain as faithful as possible to John and Sylvia Reids’ original but, as they were all but destroyed, he had to rely on old photographs.
He found two old 1950s gas ovens being sold for scrap and used the parts to build one working oven for the Statesman. Tim also found an antique fold-away handbasin from a 1950s train.
“I had to make some concessions to modern living. The shower was just a hose and bucket and there was a chemical loo. Now there is a modern shower and a flushing toilet that came from a boat.”
The built-in furniture has been replicated and the rest is vintage via eBay. The flooring is red linoleum, which is more inviting than the original brown.
Apart from a trip out to the Goodwood Revival Festival, the Statesman has been used as guest accommodation, but says Tim: “I need to sell it so the house can be extended but I will miss it terribly. I am really proud of rescuing what is a valuable piece of social history.”
* This Berkeley Statesman was first off the production line on September 17, 1951 and is now the last in existence. Completely restored, it is for sale with RM English for £40,000.
It has a kitchen with gas cooker, a sitting room, shower room, twin bedroom and a double bedroom upstairs plus rooftop patio. It is plumbed and wired and can connect to the mains.
James Burley, of RM English, says: “It’s an amazing property and very unusual but we think it will be of interest to a wide range of buyers.”
Owner Tim Mitchinson believes it could be used as a garden office/guest accommodation, a holiday home on a glamping site or would suit conversion into a coffee bar/cafe.
For details contact RM English, tel: 01904 697900, www.rmenglish.co.uk