|This mid-1920s Thomson, in entirely original condition, was still in use in Cornwall a decade ago.
|An experiment in streamlining of the early 1930s, Note the primitive ball hitch, dating this 'van at around 1932
| A two-berth Thomson 8-footer of 1930 vintage - penny-a-mile caravanning!
|The first caravan I ever towed was home-made, loaned by a proud handyman who probably served his apprenticeship making pillboxes. With a body length under 11ft it weighed a ton - indeed 23 ½ cwt. It tore the heart out of my Ford Popular, and almost broke mine.
'So this is caravanning,' I thought, as I changed down to second for the slightest gradient, into first if there was a bend. The top gear was superfluous - I never got up enough speed.
That might have been my last tow but for a friendly soul who had a near heart attack helping me to shift the thing. He explained about weight ratios, revealing that my home made-caravan was twice as heavy as it need have been.
I was reminded of the incident when talking to David Thomson. head of the Thomson T-Line group, who grew up around the yard where his father started making caravans before World War 1.
Daniel Thomson, country joiner and Cartwright, set up at Carron, Falkirk, in 1908, making custom-built caravans for the fair-ground people, whom he had met when they brought their roundabouts and helter-skelters in for repair. Other sidelines in the early days ranged from farm equipment to coffins.
The travellers' 'vans were real heavyweights with half-inch mahogany panelling, all hand-dressed, lots of carvings, large mirrors, and packed with furniture, including, in one case, a piano. Others were lighter, with a hooped canvas roof: but the last horse-drawn Thomson left the works in 1925.
They were mobile, of course-very ponderously-behind horses buckling at the knees. Not much better were the first motor caravans just after the 1914-18 war, built on lorry chassis. They could pelt along at 10mph, not counting stops for breakdowns. Solid tyres precluded punctures.
Most early caravans had a wooden chassis, until Daniel Thomson designed his own in steel, buying lengths of angle iron which he bolted together in 'Y' form. To the chassis he fitted semi-elliptic springs and a beam axle carrying pressed steel disc wheels.
His son David joined the business in 1924 at the age of 14, serving his apprenticeship as a joiner and coach-builder, attending night school and technical college for his diploma.
He was one of a team of eight men and boys making 'timber boxes on old car axles'. The curved roof had projecting eaves at either end, and the door was in the rear end. Inside was a sink and a paraffin cooker.
One of these vintage models, with barrel sides and lantern roof, was recently reported still in use in Cornwall, nearly fifty years after it was made.
The weight problem was not vital in those days because cars were much more heavily built, engines had massive flywheels and tremendous bottom-end torque. And towing distances were much shorter, not to mention the overall 20mph limit, which continued to apply to caravan outfits after it had been removed from solo cars in 1930.
But there were lightweight models, too, epitomised by the often grotesque stream-lining experiments of the late 1920s and 1930s which even went to the extent of using coated canvas on a frame in place of plywood and aluminium. By this means Car Cruiser built a flyweight ten-footer that even the Austin Sevens could tow, and Thomson's offered a tiny two-berth that was equally suited to baby cars of 8hp and less. One Thomson owner recalled a 1000-mile tour with a Morris Minor in 1930 on 22 gallons of petrol at 1s 1d a gallon, at an all-in cost of 1d a mile!
When war came in 1939, the Thomson hiring fleet of 42 Almonds and others were called into active service never to return to Falkirk.
Other versions of the Almond, up to the Mark VII, continued until 1957, when it evolved into the Glenalmond, which is still with us. This was when Thomson gave up the practice of naming his caravans after Scottish rivers and adopted the 'Glen' prefix-pronounceable in any language, and with a supply of glens to last forever.
Now there are ten touring models in the T-Line, and the only one that breaks the rule about names is the Mini-glen, designed for the car of that name, down to the 10in wheels interchangeable with the car.
Daniel Thomson died in 1963, the same year the distinctive T-Line shell made its debut, though David had taken over long before that, and the little country joiner's shop had grown phenomenally. Just after the war when the present sales director and joint managing director, Robin Traill, joined the company, Thomson was making six caravans a month. In those early post-war days, of course, all materials were on a ration, with the building industry hungry to build homes for returning heroes, butby1950 output was ten 'vans a week - 547 for the year to be precise, with 190 sold in Scotland, 345 in England, and a dozen going for export.
By 1957 - or 'Glen-year' - the Scottish outpost was making its mark on the British caravan market. In the boom that followed, production multiplied nearly six times in as many years - from 600 'vans in 1957 to 1715 in 1963 when the old man died. Just after the last war Thomson designed a camping trailer, a real lightweight, which scaled 8ft 6in and weighed 6cwt. It cost £175, and the rear end lifted to form a canopy, while inside were two berths and a folding table.
But the classic caravan, not much more expensive in the smaller sizes, remained as best seller and it tended to weigh 1 ½ cwt per linear foot.
Right through the 'fifties, Thomson were making caravans up to 22ft capable of being towed, mostly luxurious lightweights like the 1951 Braemar which scaled 36cwt. This one pioneered the separate bedroom and had a bathroom with plastic bath.
Like other manufacturers, Thomson had the problem of how to get the weight down without sacrificing rigidity and strength - the much-treasured joiner-built tradition. But techniques were improving, and the Gleneagle, introduced in 1957, was a good example.
This replaced the 17ft Annan which weighed 23cwt. Only six inches shorter, the Gleneagle weighed 18cwt. Since them the largest T-Line model has stretched to 17ft, but it has kept within the one-cwt-per-foot ratio.
The most famous Thomson Caravans, and the longest runner in British Caravan history, was the Almond, introduced in 1936. Early models are still identifiable by the V-shaped roof, though somewhat myopic by today's standards with their small windows and interior gloom.
A few years ago one of the Thomson sales managers bought back a pre-war Almond from a minister, and the trade-in brought the owner more than the 'van cost new.
Since then the T-Line group has increased output threefold, making today more than 5000 caravans a year, and claiming second place among British tourers, with nearly 15 per cent of the market. The Thomson Owners' Club, founded in 1964, is now the second largest one-make club of its kind with more than 700 members.
The group, which went public in 1967, consists of six companies under the parent, Thomson T-Line caravans. The subsidiaries are mainly suppliers of timber, hardboard, and soft furnishings, but there is a joint company, Thomson-York ltd of Toronto, which markets in Canada.
The youngest company is Thomson T-Line Homes Ltd, which will make residential caravans, chalets and sectional buildings. The factory is currently going up alongside the main Carron works, only a short walk from Skaithmuir Mill where Daniel Thomson started it all.
T-Line Homes was partly inspired by the planned £200,000 development at Kincraig, Fife, a 200-acre site for a model holiday park. The hillside park for 75 tourers is already in operation, to be followed by a development at Shell bay for 400 static caravans, and later a complex of 1400 chalets with shopping and recreational centres.
As chairman David Thomson said: "Manufacturing caravans is different from making other things. They are not just production units. I share people's joy in a carefree holiday."
Modern Caravan September 1971
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