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Archive 38
Tow it or drive it?

Caravanning is enormously and increasingly popular;
but more and more buyers appear to be switching
to motorhomes instead of trailing a touring caravan
behind the car. Stuart Bladon examines the options
and recalls a trip to the spectacular Rhone Alps

Only those who haven't experienced it and know nothing about it imagine that caravanning is uncomfortable. The days of trying to read by a glimmering gas lamp, using a kettle to heat water for washing, and suffering miseries of dampness and condensation are long gone, swept away by the enormous progress of the caravan industry. Nowadays they are nearly all well insulated,
with double-glazed windows, central heating running off gas or the in-site mains power supply and equipped with modern auto-ignition cookers. But the dilemma remains: should you buy a caravan to tow behind your car, or go for a self-contained motor caravan?

   The amazing thing is the increasing popularity of motorhomes in spite of the sometimes staggering prices. £30,000 would not long ago buy you one of the most extravagant models around, but at the recent Caravan Show at the Birmingham NEC there was no shortage of models priced at £40,000 and upwards, although the popular VW Clubman (below) starts at £35,930 on-the-road.

                   The VW Clubman from Auto-Sleepers

   In contrast, around £12,000 will buy a good trailer caravan, moving up to £15,000 for a luxury Avondale or Bailey. A good towcar such as a Peugeot 406 or CitroŽn C5, in either case with the latest HDI turbo diesel engine, brings the package to about £30,000. Turning to motorhomes, one of the cheapest and very competitively priced coachbuilt models is the Auto-Sleeper Nuevo on Peugeot chassis, again with turbo diesel engine, starting at £29,000. The smaller van-based Volkswagen model from the
Auto-Sleeper range is the Trooper with elevating roof at £27,445, powered by the excellent 2.5-litre TDi engine.

   Most people, of course, have a car already and will probably still need an alternative means of transport even if a motor caravan is purchased. If a touring caravan is bought, the present car may serve perfectly well and only need a tow-hitch and electric connections to be added, costing about £300. If it is not big enough, then changing up to a model that can cope may still come out a lot less costly than the motorhome alternative.

   How do you know if your present car is big enough to tow the caravan that takes your fancy? Weight is one of the critical factors, and The Caravan Club formula is that maximum gross laden weight of the caravan - a figure readily available from any caravan dealer - must not exceed 85 per cent of the unladen kerb weight of the car. Power also is important, and all but the lightest caravans really need at least a 1.8-litre tow car for comfortable towing with reserve for hills and overtaking. There should then be no problems with stability, and no excuse for going slowly, causing the sort of moving traffic block which brings caravanning into disrepute.

   The critical difference arises when you are in camp. The trailer caravan is uncoupled from the car, the 'steadies' wound down to make it level and stable, and the car is then available for every-thing from trips to the shops to local touring, returning to the caravan as a base.

   With a motor caravan, you are not quite so well-placed for short journeys. Things have to be packed up and put away if the vehicle is to be used for transport, and there may be parking difficulties when you arrive. In towns, a motorhome is often a problem, because height limits are often too low for motor caravans at many urban car parks.

   To overcome the problem of mobility on arrival, many motor caravanners take bikes with them, and special cycle racks are available. Some people even take motor cycles or even tow a small car on a fixed drawbar.

   When it comes to setting off for the journey, however, the motor caravanner scores over the trailer caravanner who has to wind up the corner 'steadies', couple up and connect electrics, attach the 'breakaway cable', and check that trailer indicators and brake lights are working correctly. The breakaway cable is a safety device to ensure that in the unlikely case of a caravan becoming detached from the towcar, its brakes will automatically be applied.

   "I got fed up with all that hitching up," one motor caravanner told me, explaining why he had switched from a trailer caravan outfit to a motorhome.

   On the journey, too, the motor caravan scores. Progress is a bit quicker, with the ability to cruise at about 70-75 mph against 60-65 with a towed outfit, and you can drive even a big motor caravan in places that are out of bounds for touring rigs. Over the years I have taken Auto-Sleeper motor caravans over most of the Alpine passes including the notorious Gavia and the 9,048 ft high Stelvio. Some of the passes allow motor caravans but trailers are banned. The high seating position in a motor caravan is also very pleasant though this is also enjoyed by those who use a 4x4 off-roader such as the Mitsubishi Shogun as towcar, with the added advantage that the driving mirror gives a view through to following traffic.

                        Front seats can often be swivelled

   On the credit side for the car and trailer concept is the better equipment taken for granted in most cars priced above about £15,000, such as air conditioning, safety airbags, central locking, and theft alarm. Electric windows are beginning to arrive on motor caravans, but usually air conditioning comes only as an expensive addition. At least most motor caravans now have power steering and a good audio unit.

   Running costs tend to favour the motorhome, but again the difference may be fairly small. Insurance would cost more for a car and caravan outfit, especially since a tourer is a very 'thievable' and easily disposable unit; but most people with a big motorhome may be needing a car as well for everyday transport, bringing double taxation at £320 a year into the calculation, as well as insurance for the second vehicle. An estimated annual premium total of £700 for £30,000 worth of car and caravan, based in outer London, compares with about £300 for a motor caravan of similar value.

   The average motor caravan with coachbuilt body extending over the cab will give about 25-30 mpg if diesel, or around 20-25 with petrol. Car fuel consumption increases by about a third when towing a caravan. My Audi A4 V6 TDI, good for 40 mpg when solo, drops to about 27 mpg when towing a 4.8-metre Avondale caravan.

   A major consideration affecting the choice is the matter of where the caravan will be kept. If you are lucky enough to have space at home, out of the way beside the house, then there is no problem except that the sudden absence of a trailer caravan tends to advertise to any potential burglars that the owners have 'gone away'. Parking space for a motorhome on the road might be possible if it is not blocking anyone's view, but a caravan is going to need storage space. Typical cost anywhere near London would be around £1.50 a day, usually payable quarterly in advance.

   Whichever solution you go for, one thing is certain, and that is that you won't be disappointed. It's like the age-old controversy between pilots of helicopters and those devoted to fixed-wing aircraft. Both swear that their format is the better of the two, but they will also agree avidly that flying is wonderful. So it is with caravanning - even more so. Whether using a tourer or a motorhome, it provides a marvellously relaxed and peaceful holiday, and children love it.

Mountain motoring
   Whatever one may think about the French, there's no doubt that they have superb country for the sheer enjoyment of motoring, as I found out recently when touring with an Auto-Sleeper Nuevo motor caravan, based on Peugeot Boxer 2-litre diesel chassis. Head for Grenoble - that's my advice - and then south-west to begin exciting mountain motoring on the spectacular Col de la Machine. At times this is rather like being on the side of a precipice with only a two-foot wall for protection at the side of the road. If you want some breath-taking scenery, head for St Jean en Royant, and take the Machine mountain road to Die on the river DrŰme.

   The Col de Rousset is next, with its many hairpins presenting superb vistas calling for numerous stops for photography and to take in the view, before heading on south to Nyons and the spectacular climb to the summit of Mont Ventoux. Our Peugeot diesel climbed steadily and effortlessly in second and third, passing several signs on the way reading 'Col ouvert' reminding us that this really is a mountain road, often closed in the winter. With a feeling of smugness we stormed on past a sign banning trailer caravans and arrived at the summit at 1,909m (6,263 ft) to enjoy a wonderful all-round view of the scenery. Mont Ventoux stands high with no mountains anywhere near, giving a spectacular viewpoint.

   It was on the road up this mountain In the blazing heat of summer that a British champion cyclist competing in the Tour de France pushed himself a bit too hard on the long slog pedalling uphill and suffered a heart attack. The story goes that when
friends stopped to help Tommy Simpson, he exclaimed just before he died: "Put me back on my bloody bike!" A memorial was set up where it happened in 1967, and 30 years later his daughters re-visited the scene and added a plaque with the legend: "No mountain is too high."

   We spent the night at Lac de Ste Croix and found a superb parking point where only motor caravans were allowed. It's just a glorified car park, but with water and basic facilities as well as magnificent views over the lake, while a short walk takes one
down to the active little lakeside village. The sign allowed an overnight stay for only five euros (£3.20) per night.

   This site made an excellent start point for one of the targets of our travels - the famous Grand Canyon du Verdon, with its end-less succession of stupendous views over rugged rocky scenery down to the river. We took the upper road first, and enjoyed it so much that we crossed the bridge aptly named the Point Sublime, and came all the way back on the lower (south) road, called the Corniche Sublime, finishing up after an amazing day of travel, nearly back where we had started, at Lac de la Ste Croix.


   Some of the cuttings through the rock on the Col de la Machine left just enough headroom for the Auto-Sleeper Nuevo (above) but all the time, the roads were amazingly well kept despite the light traffic, often newly surfaced and with hedges and grass trimmed, and mile posts newly painted - all such a contrast, alas, from our neglected, litter-strewn and over-crowded roads.

  If you have driven to the top of Mont Ventoux, and traversed at least one side of the Grand Canyon du Verdon, you may have had your fill of scenery and mountain motoring, so then the superb beaches of southern France between Toulon and Nice promise warmth and leisure to prepare you for the inevitably more hurried journey back home. 

Please note that prices given in this
feature may change at short notice.

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