Bailey's set to ensure we carry on caravanning
Last summer marked the 65th anniversary of a Bristol firm that has touched the lives of thousands of people, both in the city and far beyond. But its founder, Martin Bailey, could hardly have imagined that one day his caravan business would have a turnover of more than £90 million a year and be breaking into overseas markets.
Bailey started out in a most humble way. Using only hand-tools, presses and glues, he single-handedly built his first tourer in just six months. He had put to good use the skills that he developed first as a sheet-metal worker at the Bristol Aircraft Company (BAC) during the Second World War, and later as a cabinet maker.
The completed caravan was towed from Bailey's mini-factory at the Old School House on Bedminster Down Road (also used as a fire station at one time) to Ashton Gate market at the City ground.
The caravan sold for £200. That was in 1947. The following year, Martin formed a company called F.G Bailey, and went into full-time production.
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Caravans were made for another 12 years at The Old School House, until bigger premises were needed to meet a growing demand.
During the post-war years, caravan holidays captured the public's imagination.
After six years of war, and continuing rationing, families were looking for enjoyable, but cheap, breaks away from home.
A touring holiday, with the family car towing a caravan, became popular, as did renting one for a week at the seaside, or in the country, sometimes on a farm.
Extensive caravan parks were opened at resorts such as Weymouth, West Bay and Brean, near Weston, to cope with the boom.
Baileys moved on to a plot of land at South Liberty Lane in 1960 – and remain there to this day.
Another major development came about when Patrick Howard, the MD, and his brother, Stephen, bought the firm out, with support from other family members.
Today, both men are equal joint owners of the business, now known as Bailey Caravans, with other relatives working in key posts.
Among them is Marketing Director Simon Howard, who says: "The site at South Liberty Lane was chosen because it was close to the A38, the main trunk road to Devon and Cornwall and the gateway to the West Country before the M5 was built.
"It provided an opportunity to advertise the caravans to the passing holidaymakers."
At the time of the move, the firm employed about 30 people and was turning out about 100 caravans a year, but things are a little different today.
Simon explains: "We now occupy almost 15 acres of land at South Liberty Lane, which enables us to make 7,500 caravans and motor homes a year.
"They go out to a network of 110 dealers stretching from Cornwall to Inverness and across to Northern Ireland.
"Caravanning is still popular. Two thirds of our customers are retired couples who have downsized into smaller homes and bought caravans to see the world.
"The other third are families who take their children on holidays."
One of the company's best-known customers is the former Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, and her husband, who have bought four Bailey caravans.
Simon continues: "We've also started exporting to Australia and New Zealand. The economy there is pretty buoyant.
"The caravans are shipped out by container to a network of dealers we have built up.
"They are bought by ex-pats out there who want a caravan that was built in Britain.
"Another growing market for the company is the Czech Republic.
"Our caravans are still built by hand, with 30 of them coming off the production line each day as well as 25 motor homes.
"There's a good supply of local labour and we now employ more than 300 people.
"Three generations of the same family have worked for us. There are people who have spent their entire working life here.
"This is a really nice business in which to work. We are giving people the opportunity to see the world."
While other caravan makers have come and gone, Simon Howard believes that Bailey's success can be partly attributed to listening to want customers want.
He says: "We have always been innovative with new designs and were one of the first manufacturers to fit a fridge as standard."
Bailey was also the first to install a space heater as standard.
Down the decades, every new model coming off the production line has offered greater facilities, and even more luxury, with the gradual addition of cooking stoves, heating, lighting and bathrooms.
It's a far cry from the first Bailey model – the Maestro – which was 13ft 6in long, 6ft 6in wide and slept five people.
In spite of difficult trading conditions, the company recorded an annual turnover of £91 million in the 2012 calendar year. It has also become the longest-established UK independent manufacturer.
And last November the firm got a royal seal of approval when the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited the factory.
Not only were the royal couple given a guided tour of the production line, but they were driven in a motor home around part of the site.
"I understand the Queen wanted to see some British manufacturing during her Diamond Jubilee tour," said Simon.