Home » This Dorky Van Was Britain’s 1950s Answer To The Explosive Popularity Of Camper Vans

This Dorky Van Was Britain’s 1950s Answer To The Explosive Popularity Of Camper Vans

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In the years immediately after World War II, people all over the world found new ways to relax. Many would hitch trailers up to their vehicles and hit the road while others would work with the vans they already had to do the same. It didn’t take long for inventors to come up with conversions to turn work vans into cozy campers. One of them was the Dormobile ‘Bedroom on Wheels’, Britain’s answer to the explosion of camper van conversions of the 1950s. This rare 1961 Bedford Dormobile Romany is an example of a vintage camper van that isn’t a Westfalia.

This story takes us back to the early 1950s. Europeans and Americans in their respective post-WWII regions are getting on their feet and hitting the road, going camping along the way. Over in Europe, tradesmen with practical work vans made modifications to turn them into vehicles to take their families on camping trips. Of course, by 1951, Westfalia introduced its now-famous “Camping Box,” which turned Volkswagen Type 2 vans into vehicles you could camp in. Today, Westfalia is practically a household name with brand recognition even among people who aren’t into campers.

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Less known is one of Britain’s entries into 1950s camper vans. Despite the Dormobile launch happening just a year later in 1952, Dormobile doesn’t have nearly the same global fame as Westfalia does. Dormobile also calls itself “The Original Camper Van Converters,” which doesn’t seem to be completely true when you account for the existence of Westfalia.

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What is certain is the fact that Dormobile converted some really funky vans, including this dorky Bedford CA van. It certainly looks way more striking than a Westfalia!

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From Carriages To Campers

Dormobile is still around today, converting a line of different vehicles into campers. The company says it’ll turn your MAN TGE (VW Crafter), Volkswagen Transporter, Ford Transit, and Peugeot Boxer (Fiat Ducato/Ram ProMaster) into a home away from home. But, the company will convert more than just the typical European work van as it’ll also convert UAZ Bukhanka vans and classic Land Rover Defenders.

Uaz Buhanka
Dormobile Ltd.

The company says its history began 251 years ago when Martin Walter opened a shop to make harnesses for horses. Later, Walter expanded his business into crafting horse-drawn carriages and coaches. Like many coachbuilders in those days, Walter transitioned to crafting bodies for cars. In this case, Walter’s early automobile work involves bodies for Bentley, Daimler, Mercedes-Benz, and Rolls-Royce cars. In 1933, Martin-Walter Ltd. also built the Martin Walter ‘Wingham’ Cabriolet, which was based on Vauxhall or Rolls-Royce chassis.

Today’s Dormobile traces the roots of its pop-top roof to the Wingham Cabriolet. The highlight of that vehicle was a convertible top that allowed the four-door sedan to become a convertible.

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Dormobile Ltd.

The next landmark in Dormobile’s history happened in 1935 when Martin Walter Ltd. produced the Utilecon. The conversion turned Austin, Bedford, Ford, and Morris vans into multi-purpose vehicles. The Utilecon body featured seating for four to seven people that could be folded flat in 5 seconds to turn the van into a work vehicle and then folded back to turn the van into a passenger vehicle. Utilecon-bodied vehicles aided in the World War II effort by carrying munitions, saving people as ambulances, and serving the Royal Navy as utility vans.

It’s also noted that in 1937, Martin Walter Ltd. merged with Abbey Coachworks Ltd., creating Wingham Martin Walter Ltd. and adding aircraft seating to the company’s portfolio.

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Dormobile Ltd.

In 1952, another big change happened. Bedford, the commercial vehicle subsidiary of Vauxhall, launched its Bedford CA work van. As Heritage Machines writes, the Bedford CA’s stubby nose is what made it famous in the UK. However, it wasn’t there just for giggles. The short nose split the difference between a forward control van and one with a conventional front end. See, cabover vans are great for maneuverability, but that engine takes up interior volume. Moving the engine slightly forward allowed the Bedford CA to have a more roomy cab, but still benefited from not having feet of hood ahead of the windshield.

It was around this time when Martin Walter noticed that Brits were going on road trips, but there wasn’t really a proper van for the task. The company pounces on the Bedford CA with the creation of the Dormobile.

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Dormobile Ltd.

This van was similar to the Utilecon but with two rows of seats that folded down, turning into beds. Martin Walter dubbed it the “Bedroom on Wheels.”

Martin Walter is credited as one of the firms that helped camper vans spike in popularity in the 1950s, and its next incarnation of the Dormobile would push the envelope in even further. In 1957, the Bedford Dormobile caravan is introduced, turning the humble Bedford van into a motorhome closer to the Class Bs we’re familiar with today.

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Dormobile via eBay

The Dormobile motorhome sported a gas stove, a sink, and cupboards, plus seating for four that converted into beds. The highlight of the Dormobile was its pop-top, which rolled over, offering standing room in the van.

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The Dormobile was such a smash hit that the company changed its name to Dormobile Ltd. By 1961, Dormobile started converting Volkswagen Type 2 vans and it wasn’t long after before the company started putting its characteristic tops on Land Rovers, too. The company would continue converting regular vehicles into campers into the 1990s, when Dormobile lost steam. In 1994, rising costs, slower sales, competition, and a shift toward vacations away from camping brought an end to the Dormobile name. The factory closed up and in 1997, the Dormobile rights came up for sale. The modern Dormobiles you see today are from the rebirthed brand.

This 1961 Bedford Dormobile Romany

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That brings us to the camper van for sale today. Despite being one of the bigger names in camper vans, it’s believed that relatively few Dormobile vans have survived to the modern day. Certainly, they don’t seem to come up for sale as often as a vintage Westfalia does and you’ll rarely find them in the United States. Perhaps you won’t be surprised to read that while this example is currently being auctioned off, the buyer will have to import it from the Netherlands.

The seller of this unit claims it was restored a few years ago by an enthusiast. It looks like that person did a good job because it’s perfectly imperfect. The van looks great, but not so squeaky clean that it resembles something that was constructed just this morning.

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On the exterior, you’re getting a Bedford CA van with expansive windows and sliding doors. Of course, the highlight of the exterior is the Dormobile flip-top, and we’ll get to that later. Power comes from a 1.6-liter four up front. It’s making about 59 HP and pushing power to the rear axle through a three-speed manual transmission.

Inside is where the magic happens. Slide open the front doors and pop open the barn doors in the rear and you’re presented with a simple, but practical interior.

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Cabinets flank both sides, where you’ll find plenty of storage plus a sink, a hidden powered cooler, and a hidden gas stove. Forward of that are two rows of Dormatic seats. These fold into beds, making for a cozy camper for two. The camper is finished with color-matched curtains and the Dormobile flip-top ventilated tent roof. The roof has two hammock-style beds, upping the sleeping count to four people if you desire.

You won’t find a furnace or an air-conditioner here. Instead, the Dormobile Romany is the kind of van you’d park by a lake for a weekend and just relax. Of course, should you need more creature comforts, there are tons of products out there for that.

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If you’re interested, this 1951 Bedford Dormobile Romany is currently up for auction on Car & Classic. The auction has a bit over 5 days left in it and bidding is at €5,000, or $5,419. This van could be a bargain for a vintage camper if bidding stays low.

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This camper looks like a fantastic weekend ride and it’ll almost certainly be a talking point no matter where you go. I’d love to drive this van around with the front doors open and me catching some wind. Thankfully, I have enough on my plate to import a rare camper from the Netherlands.

(Images: Car & Classic Seller, unless otherwise noted.)

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Scruffinater
Scruffinater
25 days ago

Sliding front doors!!! I suppose it only has front doors, but still, where do I sign up?

Eric Udell
Eric Udell
25 days ago

Wheeler Dealers did an episode where the spruced up one of these. https://dormobile.co.uk/wheeler-dealers-dormobile/

Morgan Thomas
Morgan Thomas
25 days ago

Years ago I worked with a guy in his 60s who owned 2 of these – the nicer one he took on a trip around Australia, which would have been an interesting but very slow trip!

Nic Periton
Nic Periton
25 days ago

While this maybe both apocryphal and too much information, legend has it that I was conceived in one of these. What? your parents did ……………..in a Dormobile???!!! This is the sort of behavior that undermines the very foundations of society!!!

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
25 days ago
Reply to  Nic Periton

Well, its a cooler story than on a Woolrich blanket in the back of a borrowed Dodge Tradesman in the parking lot of a David Bromberg concert, I’ll give you that

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
25 days ago

Dormobile’s UK rival Carawagon had a Ford Escort van conversion in the 70s that had both a pop top and a fold out rear section to get enough length for the bed. Cararawagon also converted Land Rovers including a batch for the British Army.

Bison78
Bison78
25 days ago

If there is only room for 2 to sleep, why does it have 4 seats?

I remember these from my youth, back in the UK. They were fairly common.

Tristan Hixon
Tristan Hixon
25 days ago
Reply to  Bison78

There’s room for four, as mentioned in the article – there are two WWII-style stretcher beds in the pop-top, shown closed on the final photo.

James Davidson
James Davidson
25 days ago

We had a Land Rover 109 Dormobile camper and it was great to camp in. The front and rear seats folded flat together to make a bed or to face each other with a cafe table for four in between. It had a sink, stove and cabinets along with bunks up in the popup tent on the roof. It was still capable off road and we would take it on Land Rover rallies in the Adirondack Park in Upstate New York.

Eggsalad
Eggsalad
25 days ago

I have to think that in 1951 there were a whole bunch of British men who had spent part of the previous decade “camping” against their will or better judgement.

Aaron
Aaron
25 days ago
Reply to  Eggsalad

What is war but an involuntary camping trip with 10,000 of your best friends?

ChefCJ
ChefCJ
25 days ago

If anyone still watches Wheeler Dealers, they did an episode with one of these last year or maybe the year before. Paint, a newer Pinto engine, Mike made the cabinets in the back, it was great. I used to see these all the time as a kid and loved them. The Dormobile is a proper camper, they’re great little things. Anything under 8k for that thing would be a bargin for what you’re getting. The Bedford was a far more stylish (though admittedly less capable) version of the Transits of the day, and I’ve always wanted one.

Drive By Commenter
Drive By Commenter
25 days ago

Interesting! That’s about what they could do back in the day. I wonder how waterproof that canvas is and if there’s any roof retention system beyond that canvas. Or leveling. Doubtful. Amazing what people considered normal back in the day that nobody would put up with today.

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