August 26, 2011 9:32 pm

Curves in all the right places

The inexorable rise of retro-chic has seen a new generation take to the road in campervans with relish

Forgive me if, at the start, I make some assumptions ... that you are a regular reader of this newspaper, currently on your summer holiday, and you are reading this article sitting in the shade by a splendid, perhaps slightly old-fashioned swimming pool – in Tuscany, or in the south of France, or Martha’s Vineyard. A little way across the garden is your holiday house which, in these respective scenarios, might be a time-weathered stone farmhouse, a soft pink-washed villa or an elegant, white-painted clapboard house by the water.

But there is another place you might be reading your holiday Weekend FT: a campervan – which, in its latest reincarnation, should perhaps be called a glampervan.

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The allure of the mobile home has always attracted that certain type whose poster girl is the UK’s former foreign secretary Margaret Beckett, who continued to take caravan holidays in between her ­ministerial duties which often involved intensive travel on the Royal flight.

For many there appears to be a kind of reassurance in spending the opening and closing days of the two-week summer break sitting in a very long traffic jam. However, the rise and rise of retro-chic has seen a new, sophisticated generation take to the home on wheels with relish.

It is a case of waving goodbye to 21st-century essentials – the media room with disco mist-maker, 24/7 connectivity and hyper-organised living – and, at a moment’s notice, taking to the open road. As Jane Field-Lewis and Chris Haddon, authors of My Cool Campervan (Pavilion) write: “To experience again ... the joys of outdoor life, idle conversations, map reading and stumbling upon delightful new places – confronting those difficult ­decisions: do we stop and savour the view or tear on through?”

A campervan with two puppies inside

I remember being on holiday with a great friend at her house in Tuscany, when two of her friends – possibly the coolest yet simultaneously most charming people I have met – arrived for a few days in their beautiful, slightly clapped-out VW. They were travelling through Europe on honeymoon. Yes, they were glad to see a swimming pool and a shower. Yes, there was something to be said, in the heat of Italy in August, for stone walls 2ft thick, and tiny shuttered windows, and tall limewashed ceilings, and ancient mahogany beds.

But in the memorable stakes, I think they might have outshone us all. Their visit, and the little VW van parked in the shade of the olive grove, was one of the more striking events of the holiday (which but for things like this tends to merge, inexorably, pleasurably, but without distinction, into every other holiday that I’ve spent over a decade in Tuscany).

A NOSTALGIC INVESTMENT

‘A chic way for the well-heeled to do cool’

The classic VW T2 camper was, for many years, the chosen vehicle for students, surfers and anyone else without the cash to fuel adventurous ambitions, writes Amie Tsang. Now, it has become a nostalgic investment – a chic way for the well-heeled to do cool.

A van that would have cost £8,000-£12,000 five years ago will now set you back £18,000-£22,000. The VW Camper Company Ltd in Oxfordshire renovates VW vans with everything from retro laminate flooring to dropdown DVD players. They advise against fitting an engine from a different brand because it is unlikely to work well with VW parts.

At the other end of the scale, a new Airstream 684, the most popular model, costs £57,920 and has the benefit of a private bedroom within the trailer. Buyers can pay an extra £790 for a rotating worktop extension and a residential-style Franke sink. Airstream Europe does not customise, but modifications are offered elsewhere. Pamela Anderson went to Unique Autosports in Miami to personalise her Airstream.

For the impecunious, the English Caravan Company’s Teardrop costs £6,995 and sleeps two. An extra £2,000 will get you the Toy Hauler model, which has space for motorbike storage or lounging about on a weekend away. The Classic is a big step up at £26,995 but as well as space, you will get full cooking facilities, a television and a choice of wood veneers and laminates.

The VW Camper Company

Airstream Europe

The English Caravan Company

Unique Autosports

Something is at work here. The cult of the celebrity van and caravan owner is well documented on both sides of the Atlantic. We could say that it doesn’t need repeating here but, frankly, the list of names is too much fun, from Jamie Oliver to Helen Mirren, Rio Ferdinand to Jenson Button, Jarvis Cocker to Robbie Williams. In the US, the celebrity fan club of the legendary Airstream reads more like the invitation list to the Vanity Fair Oscars party: Sandra Bullock, Colin Farrell, Denzel Washington, Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks, Andy Garcia, Tim Burton, Sean Penn, Matthew McConaughey and Lenny Kravitz. Ralph Lauren owns four. Airstream reveals that “Pamela Anderson added some more unusual extras to hers, including a stripper pole, vibrating circular bed and mirrored ceiling”, and adds that China is now seen as their greatest emerging market.

In new design, as in the vintage market, a quiet revolution is taking place. The English Caravan Company adopts unashamedly 1950s styling in their new caravans with “curve appeal” – from the tiny Teardrop to the much more substantial, luxury Classic model (complete with two berths, WC and kitchen). New Airstream trailers speak unequivocally of the great 1960s American dream. True aficionados seek an original 1950s Morris A60 Sun-Tor, or the classic VW T2 van, a defining icon of the 1970s – accounting, no doubt, for the desire to own a VW among fortysomethings, as they discover a nostalgia for the lost innocence of their youth. What strikes one is the seriousness of it all. We are looking at a part of that wider expression of the nostalgia game that bursts upon the national consciousness in events such as Wayne and Gerardine Hemingways’ Vintage design festival at London’s South Bank last month, or Lord March’s Goodwood Revival. It also bubbles up in niche UK brands Labour and Wait (who will doubtless be providing the enamel teapots for your caravan), St Jude’s (the fabrics) or Old Town (the clothing of the driver); or in the US with stores such as Ancient Industries and Etsy.com, a marketplace for vintage items.

At the turn of the millennium the nostalgia industry was already vibrant – but packaged, as it were, in inverted commas. There was something irreverent about it all, that knew it could not take itself too seriously and revelled in the hideousness of the 1970s, quietly mocking it: Martin Parr’s brilliant series Boring Postcards (Phaidon) is a prime example.

A decade on, as a troubled world struggles its way through 2011, and the spectres of Middle Eastern chaos, recession, domestic unrest and political uncertainty run deep in both the UK and US, is there another underlying current?

The realisation that authenticity may not necessarily be found on a lavish holiday in a small boutique hotel in an impoverished south-east Asian country? The need for security – the security of our childhood – that we seek now to pass on to our own children? The discovery that the things our mothers and fathers liked are things that we like too? The desire to escape – to escape both the madding crowd and the problems of a world of our own making?

In such a world, may we take heart from the fact that my greatest style hero, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, has been patron of the Caravan Club since 1952? In the fanfare for his 90th birthday earlier this year, I don’t recall this fact being rehearsed. There is a sense of permanence to such longevity that – wherever we are this summer – we can find quietly reassuring. But I somehow suspect the Duke does not spend much time caravanning.

Perhaps, after all, it is the idea and not the fact of the open road that counts. Either way, I predict that glampervan ­nostalgia will be driven gently into our (static) interiors.

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