Sidmouth story of success - the Caravette

Caravette founder died just as business was on road to success

IT began in a builder’s shed in a Sidmouth garden. The iconic VW Caravette was the brainchild of Jack White, who ran a building company in the town.

Last week, Sidmouth Herald news editor Di Bowerman, looked at the birth of the Caravette. This week she continues to trace its historic path to success.

NEW buildings were found at Woolbrook and more staff taken on, with Jack White trading as J P White (Sidmouth) Ltd.

By early 1957, 56 vehicles had been produced and sold and larger production premises were needed.

“Father acquired the freehold interest of the old Gasworks at Sidmouth, which consisted of a five-acre site, plus fields and woodland,” Shirley Pratt, his daughter, said.

The bonus was it had its own railway line, a siding coming into the works.

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Jack, who was captain of Sidmouth Golf Club and sponsored his staff to enter Sidmouth Carnival, built his factory using 16 bricklayers and in a weekend completed nearly all the outside walls, getting triple pay for working on a Sunday.

He had a canteen and offices and bought several adjacent houses to act as a security barrier, while Shirley and sister Mary kept their horses in the field there.

There is no doubt that Jack benefitted from running a building company too because during the quiet months he could put his carpenters back to work building bungalows.

The new Alexandria Works was officially opened in May 1960 and the firm, still in its infancy, employed 75 people, mostly local carpenters and craftsmen.

By this time more than 1,000 Caravettes a year were being produced - some three or four VW and two Austin and Morris vehicles daily.

Although production expanded to take on BMC vans, Jack’s real interest was the Volkswagen.

“I recall father worked extremely long hours, always looking ahead, meeting targets, thinking up new ideas, investing, taking part in the London Motor Show at Earls Court and caravan and camping shows at Olympia,” said Shirley.

By now Jack employed 120 and Caravettes were being sold around the world and to famous celebrities such as the late Jimmy Savile.

“Our own Caravette was used as an everyday runabout vehicle as well as spending many memorable holidays roving around Europe,” said Shirley.

Jack’s wife, Annemie, had a special version of the Caravette built as a present for her husband.

It had extra windows at the roofline and the units were in mahogany rather than light oak. It was painted red and white. This unique vehicle still exists and Ralph, Shirley and Mary’s brother, would like to track its owner down. Annemie, Jack and their children feature in brochure photographs produced in 1960.

When Beeching axed branch lines in 1963, Jack travelled with local councillors to the Houses of Parliament to try to persuade him to change his mind.

That year, as his business grew, Jack suffered a heart attack while driving at Alexandria Works and died. He was 51.

Shirley was 14, Mary 12 and Ralph seven.

Shirley said: “He was driving through the road on the estate when he had a heart attack in his VW pickup. All the workmen were in the canteen for the morning coffee break.

“When they came out they saw his vehicle and they had a first aider there and Pat was there and they tried to revive him, but couldn’t.”

Annemie was left with swingeing death duties which gave her no alternative but to sell the company and the following year it was sold to the Renwick Wilton & Dobson Group who took on most of the staff and continued to trade under the J P White (Sidmouth) Ltd., name until June 1971 when it was renamed Devon Conversions Ltd.

With an ever increasing leisure industry, the firm continued to grow to more than 3,500 vehicles produced in 1972 and it was appointed as sole official VW motor caravan convertors in the UK.

“Father contributed much to Sidmouth in the form of housing and employment. He was a popular figure in the town and among his workforce, and the trade union only came into the factory after his death,” said Shirley.

In 1981 the business moved to Exeter and in 1985 announced it was going into voluntary liquidation.