Controversially, it is Auto-Trail’s ruby anniversary – and it isn’t. Although Auto-Trail is celebrating 40 years of motorhome production, the company itself – who you can find out more about in our guide to the best motorhome brands – has been successfully trading for much longer.
A clue as to its original raison d’être is in the name ‘Auto-Trail’– the firm repaired and serviced touring caravans and built exhibition units to be ‘trailed’ behind ‘autos’! Pictured in front of a ‘trailer’ outside the original factory in Stallingborough, North Lincolnshire, are the original founders of Auto-Trail, Bill Boasman and Barry Holmes.
It was after touring the US in a rented RV that they decided to have a go at building a luxurious ‘mini’ RV. They couldn’t afford new chassis on which to build prototypes, so they used pre-owned ones instead.
The Bedford CF was a popular choice, but we think this Cherokee has the oldest base vehicle (1979) of those still in use.
It may look like a Transit, but it’s bigger – actually a 1979 twin rear wheel Ford A-Series. Originally, it would have their signature broad side stripe continuing on the cab, as is the case with this 1990 Mercedes-Benz based Cherokee.
Another A-T design signature was the ‘drop’ (sliding) sash-style windows either side of the entrance door.
The Bremen Merc (207/208/307/308) was a popular choice for purchasers in the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s. Popular, but not universal, and in fact Auto-Trail went through a stage when it would convert (almost) anything if it stood still long enough.
The firm also built many ‘little and large’ bespoke models, as illustrated by the Cherokee on Peugeot 504 pick-up and this lengthy special on a Mercedes lorry chassis. This one was so long, it only just fitted on the factory driveway!
As production models got longer, Auto-Trail began using Al-Ko chassis extensions behind the Talbot Express cab for their Scout and Pullman. It was a natural progression to move up to the tandem Al-Ko chassis for the new flagship model, the 1991 Seminole. A-T was the first UK producer to bring in ‘six appeal’ (by a matter of weeks!) and a permanent bed at the far rear.
Talbot/Fiat and Mercedes-Benz had long underpinned Auto-Trail’s finest, but they were not the only brands to attract the attention of its innovative design team. One such is VW, with this Transporter T4 based 1993 Cree; this was A-T’s first medium-sized ’van, featuring a full-width rear changing area and washroom.
The Transporter offer was widened to include many Frontier models and their recently reinvigorated Cheyenne range. Cheyenne premiered on the Talbot Express as a value-for money offering, aimed at the hire fleets. Such was the demand to retail them, A-T introduced the Rico upgrade pack and subsequently, a raft of layouts.
‘One that got away’ was the extremely well-received 2006 Miami, which was a low-profile offering based on the Renault Master. It was difficulty in obtaining the Renault chassis-cabs that killed it off – pity!
It is often erroneously opined that UK converters can’t make A-class motorhomes. This is demonstrably not true, as this 2007 Mercedes Sprinter based Grande Frontier illustrates. Currently, A-T is building three models in its (updated) Grande Frontier A-class range, and very desirable they are, too.
The mid-1990s saw the introduction of panel van conversions – the Stag on Ford Transit, plus the Badger and the Fox on Peugeot Boxer/Fiat Ducato.
Both of the latter vehicles were available with their own moulded high-top, superbly revisited for the original V-Line models.
The final featured Auto-Trail is a personal favourite. It is a 1988 Sioux on Mercedes 207D (our cherished registration number) in which we travelled extensively at home and abroad in the early 1990s. It’s still giving sterling service today to its current owners… at 34 years of age.
If you’re thinking of buying a more modern Auto-Trail model, be sure to check out our reviews of the Auto-Trail F68 and the Auto-Trail Grand Frontier GF88, two impressive ‘vans that were both winners at the Practical Motorhome Awards 2022.
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