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The history of motorhomes in South Africa

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The story of the motorhome industry in South Africa opens in 1974, when the Jurgens Caravan factory in Kempton Park launched the Autovilla, built on a Volkswagen Kombi chassis which was specially reinforced in Germany before being shipped to SA as a chassis cab.

The Autovilla was nicknamed “skilpad” because of its rounded shape and its rather slow progress up hills.

Jurgens Autovilla

The motorhome body on this chassis was very similar to the Jurgens caravans of the time, with the same white and grey colours outside, and a dinette/double bed in the rear.

In 1977, the Autovilla underwent a change, with Jurgens adding an additional small double bed over the cab, called a Luton bed. The outside colours changed to all white with green striping on the side, a plastic orange insert in the waist and roofline beadings.

These vehicles had 1800cc engines, and a few had automatic gearboxes − which, because of the vehicle weight, became problematic and were discontinued.

In 1979, Volkswagen launched the all-new T3 shape Kombi, this time with a 2000cc engine. Now the motorhome bodywork became bolder and more spacious inside, and some had a small bathroom.  But, until 1982, the outside still had the round front Luton as well as a more rounded rear-end.

In 1983, the Autovilla motorhome bodywork was given a much more modern shape and colouring, with a front Luton and rear-end that were both more square.

For various reasons, such as heavy import taxes, importing the Volkswagen chassis was no longer a viable proposition, thus bringing an end to these Volkswagen Autovillas. Because these vehicles were underpowered by SA standards, many conversions were done by various garages, mostly by fitting a Ford V6 engine.

Also in 1983, Jurgens imported a number of CF Bedford chassis/cabs from England, with 2300cc 4-cylinder (Vauxhall) engines. On the single rear-wheel chassis they built the Autovilla Prospector (a 4-berth), and on the double rear-wheel chassis they built the Autovilla Pioneer, which was a five-sleeper. Both had bathrooms with a slide-away chemical toilet and tip-up basin. The Pioneer also had a hot-water gas geyser and shower.

Both had quite a large double bed over the cab, and two opposing single seats at the rear which made a single dinette/bed. In the rear, one could either make 2 single beds, or a large double bed by utilising the table.

Both models were 2.4m wide, much more spacious, and had a handy luggage compartment outside rear, as well as lots of packing space in overhead lockers, and under the bunks. The colour was white with burgundy and silver for the Prospector, and white with bronze and silver on the Pioneer.

Motorhome Hire Companies such as “Auto Deutch” and “Campers Corner” (both now redundant) also started to operate, and purchased quite a number of these motorhomes.

In 1985, the era of Autovilla came to an end when the Kempton Park factory was sold and Jurgens production ceased for quite a while.

In 2009, Jurgens re-launched a modern Volkswagen Autovilla, but this was short-lived due to the appeal of other Jurgens products. However, it is interesting to note that, to this day, many people refer to any motorhome as an Autovilla, in very much the same way that people today refer to any dishwashing liquid as Sunlight.

 WJ MOTORHOMES AND THE ENTERTAINER

In Europe and the United States, various size chassis that were designed to accommodate a motorhome body were available from most truck-manufacturing companies; but, as import taxes and levies imposed by the South African Government made it impossible to import these, the motorhome industry in SA had to rely on manufacturers who still had to make use of − and completely rework or rebuild − locally available truck chassis before they could start building a complete motorhome.

It was no mean task for a truck chassis to accommodate a water tank, grey tank, black tank, gas tank, bottles, batteries and a generator.

Therefore, in the early 80s, a new company, Rec Vee Industries, was formed by Kennis Motorhomes and WJ Motorhomes, to develop and supervise the construction of such chassis.

WJ Motorhomes in Vereeniging was owned by architect Wildrich Gronewaldt, and Jack Rawes, an electrical engineer. Wildrich became sole owner within a short while.

WJ had already started building the Entertainer motorhome in 1979, based on a Mitsubishi Canter chassis with either diesel or petrol engine.  The Entertainer was a 6.5 x 2.5m motorhome with the entrance towards the rear, and the kitchen across the back.   They were mostly custom-built for customers, usually with a large double bed over the cab and a pull-out couch or three-quarter bed behind the driver.

Because the engine on this truck was situated under both front seats, getting from the front into the back of the Entertainer was a problem.

In 1985, the Mitsubishi chassis was replaced by the Nissan Cabstar, with a much more powerful engine, but production ceased in 1987.

THE COMPANION

In 1985/86 the Companion and Companion S motorhomes were launched − both models with back door only, and with two single beds length-wise. The Companion SE, with a side entrance, was launched in 1987. The SE was a 4-berth with two double beds – one over the cab and the other in the rear. The small kitchen was behind the passenger seat.

WJ Companion

From 1988, the Mitsubishi L300 engine changed to 2000cc, and the new SE5 was born, a five-bed with a bathroom, including a hot-water shower and flush toilet. The original WJ outside-colours of white and red, with yellow and black stripes and red skirting below the floor line, were now changed to white, silver and black.

These motorhomes became very popular with private buyers, but were also very popular with several rental companies which had sprung up in the meantime. Kennis Caravans and Motorhomes sold over 500 of these units, and Ci Caravans also launched an equivalent, called a Ci Explorer

In 1994, the manufacturing rights were taken over by the Jurgens-Ci factory, from WJ Motorhomes and from Ci Caravans.  From then on, the model designation was called JSE 5 and they were built in large numbers to Motorhome Industry standards, until the year 2000.

THE ELITE

Back in 1983, WJ had developed a flagship model called the WJ Elite. This was a class A motorhome integrated like a bus, so that one could easily move from the front to the rear.

WJ Elite

Initially built on the Mercedes Benz 508 chassis, most of them had the 4-cylinder diesel engine, later replaced by a 5.7L Ford V8 engine and automatic gearbox. A type of power steering with a hydraulic ram was also fitted.

These were good-looking motorhomes with bright outside colours – white, with red, yellow and black stripes.  In the B model, both driver and passenger seats could swivel, and with the two additional swivel chairs and a table in the middle, made a comfortable lounge. The kitchen was in the centre, and the pull-out couch and bathroom in the rear. Another double bed could be lowered in front, above the steering wheel.

All these were custom built, mostly “full house” with one − or even two − air conditioners on the roof, and with an on-board generator, TV and a spacious bathroom with flush toilet and “sitz bath”.

From 1984, the Mercedes 508 was replaced by the 613, now with a powerful 6 cylinder diesel engine and automatic gearbox, until 1989, when Mercedes Benz stopped producing this model.

The Elite became longer with time, and chassis were stretched from 6.5m to 7.8m, until the last model: the 9300 LTD. This model had a separate bedroom, en-suite bathroom and a double bed fitted diagonally so that you could walk around it. They became more and more luxurious, with two TVs, large fridge/freezers, radios, DVD players etc.

With all the extra weight, the gross vehicle mass was far exceeded, and the brakes of these Mercedes chassis were sub-standard. (If you had to make an emergency stop, you were in trouble). As a result, Mercedes assisted in some cases by fitting a “retarder” in the driveline.  This is the reverse of an electro-motor, which now is found on most buses!

As the Mercedes-Benz Elite chassis was no longer available, a few Elite 6500s were built on specially-designed chassis made mainly with Ford parts, in 4.9m and 6.5m lengths.

In 1995, the Iveco vehicles from Italy came to South Africa, and with the Iveco chassis now available, the much larger Class A Elite was reborn. Fully-integrated Elites started rolling off the production line − but only after all the body fibreglass moulds had been adapted to the new reworked Iveco chassis. As before, most were sold before being built, and delivery lead time was usually three to six months.

Unfortunately, the whole body of the Elite, from back to front, had to be made from fibreglass moulds, including the front grille, windscreen, engine lid, dashboard, etc. etc., which was very costly and labour intensive. For this reason, it was decided (when the Mercedes Sprinter became available) to go back to a Class C version, using the original complete cab with front doors, etc.

 THE PACER

In order to begin the saga of larger motorhomes such as the Pacer, we need to step back in time. Eight additional Bedford CF chassis were obtained directly by Kennis Caravans in 1985. They were stretched, and new Ford V6 engines installed, with manual gearboxes − and the first WJ Pacer was born.  When the prototype was featured in the Caravan & Outdoor Life magazine, they were all sold within a few days.

WJ Pacer 1992

Only in 1992 did the Pacer re-appear, built by WJ on a Nissan V6 3L bakkie. Kennis purchased the bakkies and had the chassis chopped off directly behind the cab, and a complete, new, wider and longer chassis was designed and fitted, with a wider rear axle.

This Pacer was 6.5m in length, low-slung and with a large double bed over the cab, a pull-out couch and a kitchen in the centre with the bathroom in the rear. Some were built with single beds, and the bathroom with a “sitzbath” in the shower at the rear. They are still very popular on the market and are holding good re-sale values.

Because of its spacious interior, various optional extras were possible, and a few were also built on the Nissan 4×4 chassis. These Pacers were also discontinued within a few years, until they were again developed in 2005 by the Jurgens factory, on a Mercedes-Benz chassis.

In 2008 the Merc chassis was replaced with the most widely-used chassis in Europe and in the UK, the Fiat Ducato, until Fiat SA stopped imports in 2015.

THE AVALON

In 1997, the first diesel 1 ton chassis became available, built from a Hyundai chassis cab with either a 2.6L or 2.5L Turbo engine, and was named the Avante; however, after a few months it was renamed Avalon, because Toyota had complained that Avante was one of their brand names.

WJ Avalon MB Sprinter

The now-famous WJ Avalon − with the same basic floor plan as the Companion, but wider and with new front and rear styling, and new style furniture − ran concurrent with the petrol-driven Companion.

But all this class of motorhomes, as mentioned, had the problem of the engines under the seats, so it was difficult to get from the cab into the living quarters unless you went around the outside!

By 2000, the Hyundai was replaced by the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, which was an enormous step forward.

In 2000/2003, a number of WJ Avalons were built on the Nissan Cabstar 3.2L. diesel chassis cab − replacing the Hyundai, but very similar in layout. However, with the launch of the WJ Avalon and WJ Pacer on the Mercedes-Benz chassis, these became the most produced motorhomes in the country until 2015, when motorhome-production ceased at Jurgens Ci.

POST-2000

Since the turn of the millennium, several other motorhome manufacturers have appeared, such as Motorhome-World, AC Motorhomes, Travelstar, Vista Motorhomes, and others.

Kennis Caravans & Motorhomes, a pioneer in the development of the South African motorhome industry as innovators and at retail level, is now a proud dealer of the well-known Motorhome-World brand.

By Allan Vos, Kennis Caravans

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