A Full History of the Motorhome Industry in South Africa

A Full History of the Motorhome Industry in South Africa

(And the role of Kennis Caravans & Motorhomes as the Pioneers)

The story of the motorhome industry in South Africa opens in 1973 when the Jurgens Caravan factory in Kempton Park launched the Autovilla, nicknamed “skilpad” because of its rounded shape and which was rather slow travelling up hills, built on a Volkswagen Kombi chassis, which was specially reinforced in Germany before being shipped to SA as a chassis cab.

The motorhome body on this chassis was very similar to the Jurgens caravans of the time, with the same white and grey colours outside and they had a dinette/double bed in the rear.

In 1976 the Autovilla underwent a change by Jurgens adding an additional small double bed over the cab, called a Luton bed. The outside colours also subsequently changed to all white with green striping on the side, and a plastic orange insert in the waist and roofline beadings. Until 1979 these vehicles had 1800cc engines and a few had automatic gearboxes which, because of the vehicle weight, became problematic and were discontinued.

In 1979 Volkswagen launched the all-new T3 shape Kombi with a 2000cc engine. Now the motorhome bodywork became bolder and was more spacious inside and some had a small bathroom. But the outside still had the round shaped front Luton as well as a more rounded read-end, until 1982.

In 1983 the motorhome bodywork was given a much more modern shape and colouring, with a more square front Luton and rear-end.

For various reasons such as heavy import taxes, it was no longer a viable proposition to import the Volkswagen chassis, bringing an end to these Volkswagen Autovillas. Because these vehicles were underpowered by SA standards, many conversions were done by various garages, mostly by fitting a Ford V6 engine.

In 1983 Jurgens imported a number of CF Bedford chassis/cabs from England, with 2300cc 4 cyl. (Vauxhall) engines, one with single rear wheels on which they built the Autovilla Prospector, a 4 berth, and also, a chassis with double rear wheels, on which the Autovilla Pioneer was built, which was a 5 sleeper. Both had bathrooms with a slide away chemical toilet and tip-up basin. The Pioneer also had a hot water gas geyser and shower. Both had quite a large double bed over the cab and two opposing single seats at the rear, making a single dinette/bed. In the rear one could either make 2 single beds, or a large double bed by utilising the table. This floor plan layout was very popular, and was later also used by other manufacturers!

Both models were 2.4m wide, much more spacious and had a handy luggage compartment outside rear, as well as lots of packing space in overhead lockers, and under the bunks. Colour was white with burgundy and silver for the Prospector, and with bronze and silver on the Pioneer.

Many of the original 2300cc engines have long since been replaced by larger units over the years. They remain very popular on the pre-owned market and sell for many times their original value.

Motorhome Hire Companies such as “Auto Deutch” and “Campers Corner”, both now redundant, also started to operate and purchased quite a number of these motorhomes.

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In 1985 the era of Autovilla Motorhomes built by the Jurgens Caravan factory came to an end when the Kempton Park factory was sold, and which then became the World Trade Centre, and Jurgens production ceased for quite a while. In 2009 Jurgens re-launched a modern new Volkswagen Autovilla, which was a short-lived, due to the appeal of other Jurgens products. However, it is interesting to note that to this day, many people refer to any motorhome as an Autovilla, very much the same way that people today refer to any dishwashing liquid as Sunlight, regardless.

In Europe and the United States various size chassis that are specially designed to accommodate a motorhome body are always available from most truck manufacturing companies, but as mentioned before the various import taxes and levies imposed by the South African Government made it impossible to import these, notwithstanding continuous appeals to the authorities. The motorhome industry in SA had to rely on manufacturers who still had to make use of and completely rework or rebuild locally available truck chassis before they could commence with building a complete motorhome.

It was no mean task for a truck chassis to accommodate a watertank, greytank, blacktank, gastank/bottles, batteries and a generator.

Therefore, in the early 80s, a new company, Rec Vee Industries, was formed between Kennis Motorhomes and WJ Motorhomes to develop and supervise the construction of such chassis.

WJ Motorhomes in Vereeniging was owned by Wildrich Gronewaldt, an Architect and Jack Rawes an Electrical Engineer. Wildrich became sole owner within a short while

During 1979 WJ started building the Entertainer motorhome based on a Mitsubishi Canter chassis with either diesel or petrol engine. The Entertainer was a 6.5 x 2.5m motorhome with the entrance towards the rear and the kitchen across the back. They were mostly custom-built for customers. Usually a large double bed was over the cab and a pull out couch/ ¾ bed behind the driver. On the left hand side behind the passenger seat, there were usually 2 swivel chairs and table forming a single dinette.

Because the engine on this truck was situated under both front seats, getting from the front into the back of the Entertainer was a problem.

In 1985 the Mitsubishi chassis was replaced by the Nissan Cabstar with a much more powerful engine, but production ceased in 1987.

By 1980/81 WJ developed a smaller Companion Motorhome based on the Toyota Hi Ace 2000cc. This unit was very similar to the last VW Autovilla, but not many of them were built.

The focus now shifted to the Mitsubishi L300 chassis with the 1800 cc engine under the front seats, similar to its bigger brother, the Canter.

Following these earlier products was a small 2 bed camper with the entrance door at the back which had only one double bed across the width.

In 1985/86 the Companion and Companion S motorhomes were launched, both models with back door only, and with 2 single beds length-wise. The ‘S’ was 600mm longer. 1987 saw the launch of the Companion SE (side entrance), a 4 Berth with 2 double beds over the cab and in the rear. The small kitchen was behind the passenger seat.

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From 1988 the Mitsubishi L300 engine changed to 2000cc and the new SE5 was born, a five bed with bathroom, including a hot water shower and flush toilet. The original WJ outside colours of white and red, with yellow and black stripes and red skirting below the floorline, were now changed to silver and black.

These motorhomes became very popular both with the private buyers but also very much with several rental companies which had sprung up in the meantime.

Kennis Caravans and Motorhomes sold over 500 of these units, and Ci Caravans also launched an equivalent, called a Ci Explorer

In 1994 the manufacturing rights were taken over by the Jurgens-Ci factory from WJ Motorhomes and from Ci Caravans. From there-on the model designation was called JSE 5 and were built in large numbers to Motorhome Industry standards, until the year 2000 and the L300 Companion and Ci Explorer are today still sold regularly on the secondhand market.

IN 1997 the first diesel 1 ton chassis became available, built from a Hyundai chassis cab with either a 2.6L or 2.5L Turbo engine, and was named the Avante, but after a few months was renamed Avalon because Toyota complained that Avante was one of their brand names.

The now famous WJ Avalon with the same basic floorplan as the Companion but wider and with new front and rear styling, and new style furniture, ran concurrent with the petrol-driven Companion. But all these class of motorhomes, as mentioned, had the problem with the engines under the seats and therefore it was difficult to get from the cab into the living quarters unless around the outside!

By 2000 the Hyundai was replaced by the Mercedes Benz Sprinter which was an enormous step forward.

Stepping back now again in time, in order to begin the saga of larger motorhomes, eight additional Bedford CF chassis were obtained directly by Kennis Caravans in 1985, which were literally stretched, and new Ford V6 engines installed, with manual gearboxes, and the first WJ Pacer was born. When the prototype was featured in the Caravan and Outdoor Life Magazine they were all sold within a few days.

Only in 1992 did the Pacer re-appear, built by WJ on a Nissan V6 3L bakkie, when Kennis purchased the bakkies and had the chassis chopped off directly behind the cab and a complete new wider and longer chassis was designed and fitted, with a wider rear axle. This Pacer sat on the road like a sports car! They are still very popular on the market and are holding good re-sale values. This Pacer was 6.5m in length, low slung with a large double bed over the cab, pull out couch and kitchen in the centre with bathroom in the rear. Some were built with single beds and bathroom with a “sitzbath” in the shower at the rear. Because of its spacious interior various optional extras were possible and a few were also built on the Nissan 4x4 chassis. These Pacers were also discontinued within a few years, until it was again developed in 2005 by the Jurgens factory, on a Mercedes Benz chassis.

Back in 1983 WJ had developed a flagship model called the WJ Elite. This was a class A motorhome integrated like a bus, so one could easily move from the front to the rear. Initially built on the Mercedes Benz 508 chassis, most of them had the 4 cyl diesel engine later replaced by a 5.7L Ford V8 engine and automatic gearbox. A type of power steering with a hydraulic ram was also fitted. These were good looking motorhomes with bright outside colours - white with red, yellow and black stripes. In the B model both driver and passenger seats could swivel, together with two additional swivel chairs and a table in the middle, to make a comfortable lounge. The kitchen was in the centre and pull out couch and bathroom in

the rear.

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Another double bed could be lowered in front above the steering wheel. The A model had two pull out couches up-front instead of the swivel chairs.

All these were custom built, mostly “full-house” with one or even two air conditioners on the roof and with on-board generator, TV and a spacious bathroom with flush toilet and “sitzbath”.

In 1984 the Mercedes 508 was replaced by the 613, now with a powerful 6 cyl diesel engine and automatic gearbox, until in 1989 when Mercedes Benz stopped producing this model. The Elite became longer with time and chassis were stretched from 6.5m to 7.8m, until the last model, the 9300 LTD. This model had a separate bedroom, en suite bathroom and a double bed fitted diagonally so you could walk around it. They became more and more luxurious, with two TV’s, large fridge/freezers, radio, DVD players etc.

With all the extra weight the gross vehicle mass was far exceeded and the brakes of these Mercedes chassis were sub-standard. (If one had to make an emergency stop, you were in trouble). Therefore the Mercedes assisted in some cases by fitting a “retarder” in the driveline. This is the reverse of an electro-motor which today is found on most busses!

With the Mercedes Benz Elite chassis no longer being available, a few Elite 6500s were built on specially designed chassis made mainly with Ford parts in 4.9m and 6.5m lengths. These were beautiful looking motorhomes with all the mod-cons, something Wildrich Groenewaldt was by now famous for, and they sold like the proverbial Hot Cake.

In 1995 the Italian Iveco vehicles came to South Africa, and with the Iveco chassis now available the much larger Class A Elite was reborn, and fully integrated Elites started rolling off the production line, but only after all the body fibreglass moulds were adapted to the new reworked Iveco chassis. As before most were sold before them being built and delivery lead time was usually three to six months.

Unfortunately the whole body of the Elite, from back to front, had to be made from fibreglass moulds, including front grille, windscreen, engine lid, dashboard etc. etc. which was very costly and labour intensive. For this reason it was decided when the Mercedes Sprinter became available to go back to a class C version utilising the original complete cab with front doors etc.

In 2000/2003 a number of WJ Avalons were built on the Nissan Cabstar 3.2L. diesel chassis cab, replacing the Hyundai, but very similar in layout. However, with the launch of the WJ Avalon and WJ Pacer on the Mercedes Benz chassis, these became the most produced motorhomes in the country, until 2015 when motorhome production ceased at Jurgens Ci.

In 2008 the famous Pacer brand, replaced its Mercedes Benz chassis with the most widely used chassis in Europe and in the UK, the Fiat Ducato, until Fiat SA stopped imports in 2015.

During this era since the early 2000s several other motorhome manufacturers have appeared, such as Motorhome-World, AC Motorhomes, Travelstar, Vista Motorhomes, and others.

Kennis Caravans & Motorhomes, being pioneers in the development of the South African motorhome industry as innovators and at retail level, are currently the only fully-fledged Retail Dealership in South Africa, of New and selected pre-owned Motorhomes.