Lilliput Caravans were designed and built by the late Bruce Webster, an expatriate English coach-builder who, having despaired of the very heavy vans that his customers asked him to build to their own designs, set out to design and build a lighter version which could be easily towed by the average family’s medium powered car.
His first attempt in 1962 was a compact design which make extensive use of light but very strong plywood. On the return from their first family holiday outing with it, this van was sold to a motorist who had followed them, and when they stopped, insisted that they sell it to him. Encouraged by this success, Bruce decided to try building caravans full-time. Ever the perfectionist he repeatedly modified his designs, progressing from all plywood through aluminium-over-ply sides with molded fiberglass roof and finally to fully molded fiberglass construction.
While only a few of the early designs incorporating plywood are known to be still in existence, the last two models endured better. They are the penultimate12/6 “Special” which is 12 feet 6inches long (3.81m) and the final model the 10 feet 6inches (3.20m) Gazelle. While Webster designed and built the12/6 Special as a premium caravan, it was not a commercial success and it is believed only 29 were built. However, the Gazelle was an immediate success and about 250 were built.
The evolution of Webster’s designs has an interesting facet. On first sighting a Lilliput one is struck by the very low profile .This came about because the early production took place in the basement garage of the Webster family home and the height of the finished van was dictated by the height of the garage doorway. One might think that there would be cramped headroom inside but it is not too bad. The raised centre section of the roof obviously helps but a feature unique to Lilliputs in their day is that the floor is secured to the bottom of the chassis rails rather than the top, enabling one to step down into the living area and gain the resulting 3 three inches extra headroom.
The genesis of the name Lilliput is another interesting aspect. At the time that the Webster family were bouncing around ideas for naming their first caravan (the one that was sold at the dairy) their son was reading Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. His young mind made the connection between Gulliver’s perception of “smallness” in the land of Lilliput and what his father was trying to achieve with his caravans. He suggested the name Lilliput and it seems it got universal approval. It is now thirty years on from when production ceased and the work of Bruce Webster is increasingly gaining recognition, a recognition it rightly deserves. His creations have clearly become classics in the eyes of collectors.
While clearly retro in appearance to some people, the Lilliput’s pleasing lines and rounded contours lend a certain charm that will never date. Interior layouts vary from one van to another as designs were changed over the manufacturing period. In addition a number are believed to have been custom built to the original purchaser’s requirements. Many Lilliput caravans have been modified over time, to suit the owners changing requirements. Run-down and derelict caravans are refitted by their new owners. As a result, there are a great variety of Lilliput caravans.
By contrast, new members David and Lorraine Henson of Whakatane have recently taken ownership of a Gazelle to find they are now third owners of what was originally the Webster’s personal van. It is little affected by it’s 37 years and David is adamant that he will not change anything. In the same vein Margaret and Roy Larsen of Tauranga who have owned their 12/6 for 39 years (believed to be the longest single ownership in the club) claim that if Bruce Webster were to see it now he would be unlikely to notice any difference from it’s new state in spite of it having had the exterior repainted three times, two gas stoves, upholstery recovered twice, curtains replaced three times, two refrigerators, three awnings, and gone through two sets of tyres, two motor cars and five station wagons. As Roy says, like Paddy’s axe it is exactly the same as when it was new.
About the Lilliput Caravan Club of New Zealand
The Lilliput Caravan Club of New Zealand is dedicated to the preservation and enjoyment of the iconic Lilliput Caravans which were manufactured in Auckland from the early sixties through to the late seventies.
The Lilliput Caravan Club of New Zealand is a single national organisation with members spread from Kerikeri in the north to Wellington and one member in Mosgiel in the south. Ownership of a Lilliput is a prerequisite to full membership. A National Rally is held annually in February usually in a central North Island location. However many members like to get together more frequently and over the years they have gravitated into regional groups, each group organising their own calendar of rallies within their regions. The northern group draws it’s followers generally from north of the Napier / New Plymouth line and holds eight monthly rallies each year omitting the months of January, June, July and August.
The majority of members are retired people with the average age in their mid seventies. However we are noticing a downward trend as older members find they are not wanting to be quite so active and giving up their vans to pass on to younger families. Hopefully the new owners take up full membership and again hopefully, the previous owners transfer to Associate Member status which allows them to still participate in rallies by using on site camp accommodation.
The rally convenors endeavour to draw up a programme which takes members to an assortment of camps through the year, getting a balance between seeing new places yet giving opportunity to return to old favourites.