Vintage camping: Chevrolet camper and caravan

Take two adults, four kids under ten, a 1956 Chevrolet camper, and a 1960 caravan called Mary Lou, and what do you get?

In the case of the Cook family, the answer is unique experiences, great memories, and a whole lot of fun.

Wherever this Whangaparaoa family of six goes on holiday with their colourful vintage camping setup, the reaction is always the same — lots of 'wow's and endless offers to take it off their hands for a princely sum.

Neither the Chevy nor the Happy Days-style caravan is for sale, but Paul Cook, 44, knows exactly what it feels like to take one look and fall in love.

Back in 2011, he experienced a similar rush to the head when he spotted the Chevy at a beach north of Auckland.

"I loved it," says Paul. "I made a huge fuss, chatted to the owners, and took loads of photos."

In a strange twist of fate, a year later one of Paul's colleagues saw it in the back of a mechanic's shed, 20 kilometres away in Kaukapakapa.

Vintage _camping _2

"He sent me a photo from his phone, saying it was for sale. I jumped in the car and drove straight there. I couldn't get the bank transfer done quickly enough!"

The timing was perfect. Paul and his wife, Rochelle, were looking for a promo vehicle for their Silverdale-based new and used motorhomes and caravans business, RnRV. A stylish and quirky attention-grabber, the Chevy fitted the bill perfectly and it also doubled as a great family getaway vehicle.

All four kids — Helana, 9, Mitchy, 7, Lachie, 5, and Briana, 3 — are able to sleep in the luton above the cab, while Paul and Rochelle sleep comfortably in the double bed that transforms into an L-shaped couch in the daytime.

There's no shortage of grunt to pull the three-tonne vehicle, even with all their gear and Mary Lou attached to the back. "Listen to that rumble," says Paul, firing up the 5.7-litre V8 engine.

It's not cheap to run, though. Paul reckons, with the help of a semi high-rise manifold and four-barrel carburettor, he's increased its fuel economy a little, but it still slurps through 24 litres of petrol per 100 kilometres.

Luckily, the family's favourite camping spots are all within a 200-kilometre radius of home.

Vintage _camping _14

Most likely, the Chevy started out life 58 years ago as a standard pickup truck, the conversion into a motorhome happening sometime in the 1970s.

The previous owners had suspension airbags inserted to help stabilisation. Paul and Rochelle have added their fair share of upgrades too, spending the same on improvements as it cost them to buy the vehicle.

They redid the chrome, upgraded the engine, and replaced the rusted-out exhaust system twice.

"The first time, it made the engine too quiet. What's the point of having a beautiful, grumbling V8 if you can't hear it?" says Paul. "So we got them to do it again."

On top of that, they've added spherical side mirrors for better road safety, a reversing camera, and a 280-watt solar panel system. It feeds the new 12-volt electrical system which runs the lights, hot water, 60-litre fridge, and other appliances, and backs up the vehicle's starter battery.

Out went the basic camping cooker and in went a new gas grill and cooktop, perfect for feeding a hungry family of six, and a wardrobe has been fitted out with a chemical toilet.

Vintage _camping _6

When you have — or at least demand — a little privacy, you can open the wardrobe door and sit snugly inside, your feet dangling out. There's also one in Mary Lou, but more on that later.

Thanks to the internet, Paul and Rochelle have tapped into a wealth of Asian-made, new Chevy parts and have managed to replace everything, from the red leather sun visor to the components on the dash.

Parked most of the time at the family's RnRV motorhome yard next to Auckland's northern motorway, the Chevy comes home with Paul most weekends and the kids have started seeing it as an extension of the family.

"They can come to the yard and play in a $90,000 caravan or a $200,000 motorhome," says Paul. "But they always make a beeline for the Chevy."

Now, though, it does have competition in the form of Mary Lou.

Just like his first encounter with the Chevy, it was pretty much an 'I've gotta have it' moment when Paul clapped eyes on Mary Lou at this year's Beach Hop in Whangamata in March.

Vintage _camping _1

Wandering through the retro caravan section of the classic car festival, he was transfixed by the exquisitely presented 3.3-metre Roadhaven caravan. She'd been a ticket prize at the Beach Hop the previous year. The winner was now selling it on.

"We had in mind we would like a groovy little caravan to tow behind the Chevy," says Paul. "We couldn't believe our luck!"

The kids were impressed too, announcing, "Now the Chevy has a girlfriend!"

Painted red and white, Mary Lou matches the Chevy's colour scheme like they have shared DNA.

Inside, though, Mary Lou is downright ritzy with her red-and-white spotted curtains and 1950s diner-style black-and-white checkerboard floor.

There are no cooking facilities inside the two-berth caravan, meaning there's extra space for living.

Vintage _camping _4

Paul has replaced Mary Lou's basic electrical system with a 130-amp AGM battery, and a 12-amp, 240-volt charging system and BEP marine 12-volt control panel. A Pioneer Bluetooth stereo delivers sounds through two six-inch by nine-inch speakers. And just like the Chevy, he converted the wardrobe into a loo.

Next, he plans to plumb in an outside shower system, so when the family is freedom camping, they can simply erect a shower tent and run hot water through it.

Adding Mary Lou into the equation has afforded the Cooks some much-needed space and spending time with them at the beach is a bit like being at a mini carnival.

The Chevy and Mary Lou are parked next to the sand, the sea sparkling like diamonds nearby. A red-and-white awning stretches out from Mary Lou, sheltering vittles like cheese, crackers, and pavlova from the sun.

The kids are zooming around, pulling each other on vintage-style go-karts and enjoying a rare treat of a bottle of Coke. Meanwhile, Paul is sitting in his beach chair, strumming his ukulele and singing Hawaiian legend Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's version of Over the rainbow.

Vintage _camping _16

So far, the Cooks have taken Mary Lou with the Chevy on one ten-day holiday to Mahurangi, just north of Auckland.

Paul drove the Chevy with Zoomy, the speed boat they use for family fishing excursions, attached to the back while Rochelle towed Mary Lou in the family car.

"That's what we love — boating, fishing, playing in the sea. We work hard, long hours in our business and with the Chevy and Mary Lou we decided to make the most of our family time, creating awesome memories," says Paul.

"One day, as the kids get older, we might end up trading Mary Lou in for a larger retro caravan, but the Chevy will always be part of the family. I have visions of the kids cruising in it in their twenties…"

For the latest reviews, subscribe to Motorhomes, Caravans & Destinations magazine here.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on email
Share on print

Related Posts

DCB Lincoln

Review: DCB Lincoln

Two NZ businesses have joined forces to showcase the DCB Lincoln – a no-expense-spared luxury motorhome developed and built by Design Coach and Body and available from DeLuxe RV Group

Read More »