How does a manufacturer famous for luxury and refinement expand into the fiercely competitive entry level sector without diluting the prestige of its core brand? This was the challenge for the Erwin Hymer Group in the early 2000s. It already had the affordable Hymer Swing line-up, but many observers felt this sat uneasily in a portfolio that included upmarket semi-integrated and integrated models, not to mention the super-luxury Niesmann + Bischoff line-up.
Hymer tried something already familiar from the automotive industry: launch a completely new budget range with a competitive specification, badge it differently but retain the fabled build quality of the mother brand. Volkswagen already had such a strategy, with Škoda as its lead-in offering, VW in the mid-market and Audi as the premium marque. Thus Sunlight was born in 2005: initially spun out of Hymer’s Dethleffs subsidiary and built in Isny, before moving from south-west Germany to a new production facility in Saxony, near the Czech border, in 2006, where it was joined by Carado Mobil, set up as a sub-brand of Hymer.
Now, 10 years on, Sunlight and Carado outsell Hymer’s own-badge ranges: 5200 ’vans rolled out of the factory in 2014-2015 – from the longest leisure vehicle production line in Europe.
As part of the 10th anniversary celebrations, Practical Motorhome was recently invited behind the scenes. Capron (the word stands for ‘Caravan Production Neustadt’) is a large 25,000m sq site that employs 310 workers, building motorhomes and caravans for Carado and Sunlight. The factory was previously that of Fortschritt, a former East German agricultural equipment manufacturer.
A steady stream of Fiat Ducato base vehicles is converted by Capron, using components sourced from suppliers across Europe, with habitation panels manufactured in the on-site bodyshop and cabinetwork assembled in place. Hymer Group uses its not inconsiderable buying power to source cost-effective components and these savings are passed on to buyers in low prices.
Thirteen Carado models are produced (10 low-profiles and three overcab coachbuilts); there are 10 Sunlight low-profiles, including two special 10-year editions, plus three overcab coachbuilts.
Clear differences exist between the two brands: Sunlight is marketed at younger buyers, often families, making their first foray into the pastime, while Carado targets older buyers looking for high quality at an affordable price. These distinctions are clear: Sunlight models sport a light wood finish, while Carado opts for a mid-tone one; Carado upholstery is more sober than Sunlight, which even offers one bold fabrics scheme with large checks.
One thing at the core of both brands, though, is fit and finish – the ‘Made in Germany’ quality is their unique selling point. The factory runs under a ‘just-in-time’ system without holding a huge stock of components; the workforce is highly productive, and our Capron tour guide was keen to point out the calm but very focused working atmosphere on the factory floor.
We saw a series of Sunlight and Carado models going down the line. Floors were laid on Fiat Ducato ladder frames or lowered chassis before plumbing, wiring, furniture and fittings were added. The walls were then fixed to each side, the roof dropped on, doors and windows fastened before final quality checks and decals were applied.
Between 23-29 units emerge from the line every day before awaiting dispatch to dealerships all over Europe. Big markets for Sunlight and Carado include Germany (10.2% market share), Finland (13.3%), Norway (16%), Austria (7%) and Sweden (6.2%).
Both brands are dedicated to growing their market share in the UK – they’ve been going head-to-head here since 2013, via discrete dealer networks (Sunlight’s UK retailers include Lowdham Leisureworld, Pullingers, Viscount and Cara Motorhomes; for Carado, try our reigning Dealer of the Year for New Motorcaravans, Heart of England Motorhomes, as well as Travelword, Kimberley Caravans and Becks Motorhomes).
Last month, a second production line came on-stream at Capron, to produce caravan models for both ranges, so it’s clearly onwards and upwards for this successful venture.
One decade on from losing its Swing, Hymer Group is still very much at the heart of the entry-level motorhome market.