Wednesday May 22, 2019
The year is 1962, and you are planning your summer holidays. Some of your neighbours have started venturing to the Costa del Sol, but you prefer to your two weeks in a part of the world where Kellogg’s Frosties and Wonderloaf are readily obtainable - and where there are no strange electrical sockets.
However, the thought of another stay at the “Mon Repos” Guest House in Skegness – ‘hot and cold running water in most rooms’, ‘one rasher of bacon per visitor’ and ‘use of cruet 9d extra’ – is rather a depressing one. Furthermore, the landlord and landlady do remind you of Boris Karloff and Peggy Mount.
The alternative is a new motor caravan, and so you avidly read the brochure for the Bluebird Moto-Plus camper, based on the Austin or Morris J4; ‘a four berth caravan and a car all in one’.
For just £795 ex-works, you too could be enjoying ‘the car-plus-caravan that makes the whole idea of holidays simpler, more comical, and gives you the greatest freedom of all!’. There was even the luxury of ‘plastic foam mattresses’, so the next step was clearly to contact the official sales agent Crofton Garages in London E1 on BIShopsgate 3393 to arrange a test drive.
Today, the 1962 Morris carvanette owned by Barry and Shelia Gandon is one of the finest surviving Bluebirds on the road and a reminder of the delights of post-war camper vans. In the 1950s Martin Walter of Folkestone had revolutionised the British leisure market with its conversions of the Bedford CA, and by the early 1960s, there were a plethora of firms offering conversions on any number of light commercials.
One such outfit was Bluebird Caravans in Parkstone, and from 1958 onwards they offered motor campers to augment their range of static units. Within a few years, customers were offered a choice of the Bluebird, which was either J4 or Commer-based, and the five-berth Morris J2/Austin 152-based Highwayman.
It is easy to appreciate why the Bluebird was such a desirable vehicle in its heyday; even Alec Issigonis would have surely been impressed with the space-efficiency of its cabin. The J4 is under 13 ½ feet in length yet there more than enough room for a quartet of occupants.
Barry remarks that some people prefer the BMC product as a camper to a Volkswagen Type 2 as the latter’s ‘side door and rear engine robbed it of space. With the Morris, you have a front engine and rear doors’. The two side-facing passenger seats convert into a single bed as does the driver’s seat (although this is suitable only for anyone less than five feet tall) while the settee forms a double bed.
The Bluebird’s list of fittings includes a water storage tank, ‘hanging cupboards’, a sink, and a two-burner gas stove (for preparing your Frey Bentos pies) while the table can be stowed away behind a seat. Each rear door contains a storage locker – ‘a previous owner fitted Yale locks for some reason’ –and the interior is furnished in the very best ‘polished limber ply’, to quote the sales copy.
The roof may be elevated to a height of 6ft. 2ins although Barry does not regularly use this feature – ‘it is actually quite heavy, but I do check it about once a year’. There was also smart exterior trim, which was essential in lending a J4 a sense of mild glamour.
The J4 made its bow in 1960, and fourteen years later it was succeeded by the Leyland Sherpa. Today they are an object of fascination especially the camper versions. The Gandon Bluebird carries the badging which serves as a reminder that the separate Morris and Austin identities were retained until 1968 and the lack ofsupplementary air vents either side of the radiator grille further denotes an early model.
Barry came by his J4 around six years ago; when it had been languishing in a barn for a quarter of a century and that time, there were less than 20,000 miles on the clock.
Of course the Morris, which now goes by the nom-de-J4 of “Monty”, required a certain amount of mechanical refurbishing. This included the rebuilding of the radiator, fitting a new water pump and the overhauling of the brakes including new piping. In terms of the bodywork, it seemed that the J4 ‘was better underneath than it was on top’.
The bumpers needed re-chroming, but only the gutters and the inside of the doors required painting; Barry notes there was also ‘a lot of cleaning to keep her in order!’. The rest of the two-tone colour scheme was as original as the interior, and with a set of new tyres, the Bluebird was once more ready for a thrilling holiday jaunt to St. Leonards on Sea.
Barry’s van is also one of the last to be fitted with the 1,489cc B-Series engine prior to the J4 gaining the 1,622cc unit from the Austin A60 Cambridge/Morris Oxford Series VI. The four-speed transmission takes some acclimatising as the layout is ‘back to front’ – it keeps you on your toes’.
The steering could not be described as light and Barry points out that ‘fitting radial tyres have improved the handling, but it makes the van feel even heavier!’. For ease of modern driving, he has also added an electronic ignition ‘which make things easier’ an electric fan ‘with a sensor unit in the top hose ‘and servo assistance for the J4’s never-renowned braking system ‘which makes them easier although she is still on the drums’.
The public reaction to Monty tends to range from amazement at actually seeing a J4 in use, remarks along the lines of ‘my dad used to drive one of those’ ‘It’s a J4!’ and many requests to see the cabin. The mileage is now at the 30,000 mark, and the Gandon Bluebird is both a testament to its coachbuilder and one of the most charming and usable classic vehicles on the road in the UK.
And for some reason, you can just imagine the recently married Terry and June going on holiday to the Devon coast in their newly-acquired Morris camper van. With hilarious consequences.
WITH THANKS TO: BARRY AND SHEILA GANDON