The Death of the Luxury Caravan

If you are under 40 and have a standard car driving licence, you will find it very difficult to tow a caravan weighing over 1400kg. When it comes to trying to tow a caravan up to 1500kg there are a handful of tow cars you can choose, and it is tricky and time consuming to find one that fits the bill. Over 1500kg you can all but forget it! This is very different if you are over 40 and passed your test before 1997, as you can tow pretty much what you like without a further test.

In 1997, to “harmonise driving categories between EU member states” the legislation was brought in, but didn’t have much effect as few 17 and 18 year olds passing their tests were interested in towing a caravan. Now that the majority of under 40’s have this restriction, the effect on caravan sales is beginning to bite.

The problem is you are limited to a combined weight of 3500kg for car and caravan. You might be thinking that seems fine, three and a half tonnes? To tow a 1500kg caravan I can have a car weighing 2 tonnes. Only really big cars weigh 2 tonnes or more, but you’d be wrong.  Even a Ford Mondeo’s maximum laden weight is 2.3 tonnes (2300kg), leaving you with just 1200kg for the caravan, and it’s the loaded weight that is measured in the 3500kg limit.

Figures from the DVLA show that since 1997, five million drivers have passed their driving test.

Of those 5 million only 1.2% have passed the further “trailer test” to upgrade to a B+E licence, that’s 60,000 drivers in 20 years, or 3,000 per year.  All of the 3,000 will not be caravanners, it is made up of horse owners needing to transport their horses, drivers employed where they need to tow a trailer, for example a vehicle recovery driver etc, so at best half of those will be caravan owners. 1500 people per year when new caravan sales last year were 21,512 (NCC figures), not to mention the number of used caravan sales to (generally) younger families most affected by the 3500kg limit, is a tiny number of people coming through who are licensed to tow heavier caravans.

Now with 500,000 touring caravans in the UK and the Caravan and Motorhome Club having 850,000 members, there’s a big problem looming for caravan manufacturers.

The driving licence law change in 1997 means that most people over the age of 40 have the E classification added to their licence automatically, meaning they can tow a car with trailer up to 8,250kg combined weight without a further test. Since then you are limited to a combined weight of 3500kg. You had to pass your test before Jan 1997 to benefit, meaning you had to be at least 17 in 1996. Every year those people are getting older, in ten years they’ll be over 50, in 20 years they’ll be over 60.

Things might seem fine at present, as the people looking to buy a caravan weighing over 1500kg costing £25-35k are actually in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s as they have the financial means to do so. But as the pool of people able to buy these caravans gets ever smaller with the passing of time, the larger more luxurious more profitable end of the caravan ranges are going to become unsalable.

This will mean the death of the luxury caravan market, along with 6 berth caravans and twin axle caravans.

We have already seen this starting to happen. Data that the DVLA provided me with here has seen a rise in motorhome sales of 21%, yet only a 7% rise in the same period (2016 vs 2014) for caravans. This comes after a large drop in sales of both from 2008 when loan availability dried up. There is also evidence from dealers that tells us customers are inquiring about large 5 and 6 berth caravans regularly but sales have remained flat. Larger and heavier caravans are not selling as they should, and it is first noticeable in the 6 berth models as parents with young children (that will be able to sleep on the bunk beds) are generally in their 20’s and 30’s and so subject to the 1997 licence restrictions.

Looking at the 2018 ranges from Swift and Lunar, two of the most popular and lightweight manufacturers, more than half of their models weigh 1500kg or more, meaning a dramatic impact on sales of the heavier models, and a consequent impact on profitability for manufacturers. What this will mean for prices of lighter models when the more profitable luxury (heavier) models don’t sell as expected is debatable, but I can’t see it meaning cheaper prices. It’s likely to leave us all paying more at a critical time for the UK caravan industry as a whole.

The NCC (National Caravan Council) has written to the government setting out it’s position regarding the opportunities afforded with “Brexit” including “Driving Licence restrictions”

So there could be some good news on the horizon, although that will be a couple of years away.

If you would like to help, I urge you to write to your MP or the Dept. for Transport to get this issue on the legislative agenda.