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 £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 £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.
The true caravanner is likely to be a third-ager with time on their hands and a yen to hit the open road. 'People who buy caravans are 50-plus, whose prospects have gone up over the past five years and have released the equity in their houses,' says Richard White, marketing and sales director of Swift Group.
The baby-boomer generation has hit retirement with more money and leisure time than ever before, and so the market for Charismas, Conquerors, Lasers, Pastiches, Mirages, Everglades and Strathmores is bigger than ever. It would seem that the caravanning Easy Rider possesses a true sense of adventure, tempered only by terracotta-coloured soft furnishings, laminated kitchens and woodblock-effect vinyl flooring. More than 2,500 Brit caravanners travel to southern Spain to winter in the sun.
MT met Roger Rix, a recently retired management consultant from Malvern, and his wife Janet earlier this year at the caravan industry's biggest trade fair at the NEC, Birmingham. 'We're looking at a way of using our freedom on retirement,' he explained, having spent the day trawling the stands to find the caravan of his dreams. Tempted by the Swift Challenger, he was told that his Honda CR-V wouldn't be able to cope with the weight.
'It's back to square one now.' He was left nursing a cappuccino and fingering a stack of caravan catalogues.
To those whose knowledge of caravanning comes from Carry On films and childhood holidays spent touring les campings, the new models are not the sardine boxes they once were. Inside, tourers and statics now have separate bedrooms, showers, dishwashers, sound systems, microwaves, fitted carpet, air conditioning, double-glazing and central heating. The chintz remains, but the furniture is Italian.
David Vaughan, chief executive of Park Resorts, the holiday homes park operator that was bought by ABN Amro Capital last year for £165 million, says: 'The quality of caravans has improved dramatically over the last few years, and it's one of the reasons behind this mini-boom. It's not Sid James with a loo at the bottom of the field any more.' Indeed, 'Challenging views, changing opinions' is the Caravan Club's slogan.
Swift, which operates the largest caravan manufacture plant in Europe, employs 1,000 people in Hull and claims to hold a 35%-40% share of the UK market. Winner of the 2004 Orange National Business Award for its organic growth strategy, Swift produced 15,000 tourers, statics and motorhomes last year. The Challenger, its mid-range tourer, costs about £14,000, although its top-of-the-range motorhome can set you back nearly £40,000.
'All three sectors have enjoyed double-digit growth,' according to White.
Happy days - indeed, with more cash available, the company has chosen to invest in new technology. 'We're moving into more high-tech, more engineered products,' he adds. What many once considered a cottage industry has become a sophis- ticated industry of scale.
Compared with Swift, Coachman is a small business that supplies only the upper end of the tourer market - its award-winning Laser costs around £18,000. 'We haven't got the critical mass of the large firms, so we can't buy products at the same price,' says Hibbs. 'Two-thirds of the production costs are materials, so quality is our ethos.' Coachman relies on repeat business and word-of-mouth recommendations.
The company employs 130 people and produced 1,650 caravans last year.
That's one cara- van every 56 minutes, with 14 being worked on at any one time by hand around the factory floor. Last year showed a turnover of £16.2 million and profit of £1.1 million. In 2000, profit was £327,000 on a turnover of £11.6 million. Business has become so good that a second factory is being built, at a cost of £250 million, to increase production to 2,500 units a year by 2009 and enable longer models to be made. The company halted its export operation last year to cope with UK demand.
Hibbs used to work at ABI - in the 1980s, the largest caravan firm in the region. The Beverley-based business was formed in 1972 by a merger between Ace and Belmont Caravans. But an MBO in 1988 and flotation on the London stock exchange two years later did little to stave off receivership in 1998.
The business was bought by Klesch Capital Partners. Another MBO, led by CEO Mel Copper, in February last year, valued the company at £20 million.
ABI had quit the tourer market in 2001 - erroneously believing the sector was in decline - to focus on the rapidly growing caravan holiday home market. A second production line was opened in November 2003 to give 30% extra capacity, and last year a staff of 380 was kept busy producing 4,000 units.
ABI has a strong young family following and employs designers in their twenties briefed to improve the mobile homes' kerb appeal, as Copper puts it. 'We're working hard to change their external appearance. Most are rectangular, but some of the more modern ones have a hexagonal end that slightly breaks the mould.'
But given this country's sorry tradition of losing homegrown manufacturing to countries with a low-cost manufacturing base, can this industry break the mould? Of course, insists Coachman's Hibbs. 'The transportation costs to ship a unit - $3,000 for a container, that's £800 a caravan - is prohibitively expensive. The labour costs to build a caravan is 12.5% of its price, and it's a very skilled process. It does not lend itself to semi-skilled labour because it's a quality product. What may happen, however, is the outsourcing of more components.'
So will the caravan cross into the slow lane? 'We've boomed over the past 18 months, we're at the top of the market now and we're going to have a slow-down,' admits Peter Nevitt, MD of Cosalt (turnover £60 million a year). 'Every five years there's a balancing act, and with stagnant house prices, things will start slowing.'
Graham Beacom, the National Caravan Council's director general, agrees.
'There is a slight pause to see what will happen, but I believe the industry has a good future.' The dogs may bark, but the caravan moves on.
1884: Gordon Stable builds the first modern-style caravan, the horse-drawn Land Yacht Wanderer. It takes time to catch on - the Caravan Club isn't formed for another 23 years.
1939: Eccles, the world's largest caravan manufacturer, launches the first affordable tourer, the National, costing £130. It soon faces stiff competition from rival manufacturers Alperson, Bailey, Berkeley and Sprite.
1949: There are now 215 manufacturers in the UK, producing 3,000 caravans a year.
1950s: A cluster of caravan manufacturers grows in Hull, including Willerby, Cresta and Astral. Alperson develops mass-production techniques. In 1959, the first international caravan show attracts 80,000 visitors to Earl's Court.
1964: Swift is founded. Based in a shed in Hull, it makes mid-price tourers. It is soon joined by Ace Caravans.
1971-72: Annual production of touring caravans approaches 45,000. Ace Caravans and Belmont merge to form ABI, number two in the market behind Newmarket-based Caravans International. Hull becomes the hub of manufacture.
1974: VAT on caravan sales and the energy crisis result in dramatic price rises. Production falls 40%.
1980s: A new high-tech bonded construction technique allows manufactures to create lightweight tourers for smaller cars.
1989: The revolutionary self-contained cassette loo is fitted as standard. Exterior design becomes racier, sometimes with go-faster body stripes.
1994: Swift buys the Sprite Leisure group, moving production to Cottingham, near Hull.
1998: Elddis, founded 1965, rebrands itself the Explorer Group. After acquiring Compass, it is second in the market behind Swift, whose aerodynamic designs take caravanning into the new millennium.
2004: Yearly production for tourers and mobile homes reaches 65,000. The UK caravan industry is now worth £3bn a year.