An Elegant Eccles

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The Eccles story begins in 1913, when W A J Riley built himself a motor caravan on a 1909 Talbot. In 1919 Riley and his son Bill put the Talbot outfit and a rather crudely built trailer caravan on show at a London garage close to the 1919 Motor Show. A positive response to their homes-on-wheels - they sold the trailer outfit to a titled lady - and decided then to take the plunge into the infant 'motor caravan' business. 'Motor' then distinguished the 'vans' from those drawn by real horsepower and was applied to both towed and self-propelled versions. In 1921 they were in the Motor Show itself and, for those with the money, caravanning was really starting to take off. By the late twenties one could pick up an Eccles Motor Caravans catalogue and select from a variety of trailer 'vans and coachbuilt bodies which could be wedded to the motor chassis of one's choice. Also depicted were a variety of the specials which Eccles had built for commercial users.

This elegant Eccles was built on a 1931 Chevrolet chassis, itself produced in the Luton factory after the Chevy operation had been moved from Hendon in North London. It was probably one of the last British-built Chevy commercials, for in that same year a slightly anglicised version of the Chevrolet was launched by General Motors and given the name 'Bedford'. We don't know the early history of this Eccles motorhome but it is very similar to an Eccles Chevy pictured in A H M Ward's 'Caravanning and Camping', first published in 1931 and as a 2nd edition in 1933. What we do know, however, is that the vehicle slipped down the social scale. Once a plaything for a leisured owner, it was relegated to a commercial role. Its interior gutted, it was fitted out and sent to work the streets as a fish and chip van!

That was how the Chevy's present owner, Don Abbitt from Surrey, bought the vehicle nearly a decade ago in Wales. But he knew how it had started its days and he thought he had a fairly straight-forward answer to how to return the outfit to its former glory. Don also owned an Eccles touring caravan of similar vintage. Its body was past redemption but it looked as if the furniture might be saved and installed in the motorhome. Unfortunately it was not to be; there was just too much difference between the internal dimensions of the Chevy's body and those of the caravan.

Still, at least the caravan furniture provided Don with a pattern to work to. Both the style of the cabinetwork and the general layout could be copied to make the restored motorhome an authentic reproduction of the original as it left the Eccles works in Stirchley, Birmingham. Restoring the body, recreating the interior and repairing the Chevy chassis itself has taken years and many hundreds of hours of skilled and patient work to reach the perfection which our camera captured earlier this year at an Historic Caravans club rally. At least the engine and driveline were not in too bad a shape. The most serious problem in that area, we believe, was the need to sort out a crankshaft bearing problem in in the Chevrolet's ohv straight six.

Chevrolet launched their 3.2-litre 'six' in 1928 for cars and it appeared in the 'LQ' 1 1/2 ton truck the next year. On the RAC formula it is rated at 26.3 HP and driving through a 4-speed 'box - Don believes the latter boasted some synchro on its upper ratios when young but it now demands double-declutching - the engine still gives respectable performance. The outfit can cruise at 40-45mph and is good for nearly 20mpg. The range, however, is poor due to a tiny tank of just around 6 gallons. The brakes, rod actuated, operate on all four wheels, which are 20 inch diameter and shod with 600 section tyres at the front and 700s at the rear. The vehicle came with the oversize rubber on the rear and Don thinks the small resultant increase in gearing benefits both performance and economy.

Don and Jan Abbitt don't just keep their elegant Eccles for show. It earns its keep as a touring vehicle and can usually be seen towing a colour-matched luggage trailer, also made by Eccles and in-period, which takes the toilet tent, free-standing awning and other gear. The Chevy's run to the HCC's National Rally in the Wet Midlands in June must have put on at least 250 miles and, as we write this, the couple are about to set off around London for a rally in Essex and then through the Eastern counties to Derbyshire. Well restored this grand old pioneer is but retired she definitely is not.


Note: Article published in Motorhome Monthly, Britain's former number one motorhome magazine, by Chris Burlace, now an author at Motorhome and Campervan Magazine.

Did You Know?

The lowest car is a radically modified Austin Mini, named "Lowlife" by its creator, Perry Watkins of Aylesbury, England. Measuring 60 cm (24 in) from the ground to roof, with 2.5-cm (1-in) ground clearance, it was completed in October 1999. Despite its diminutive size, the project cost $15,800. It took 18 months to plan and a further three years to build. Based around a 1967 Austin Mini, parts of a further three Mini bodies were welded into the final shell.

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