Vehicles - Military Carawagon

The Military Carawagon was based on the civilian version manufactured by Searle Ltd of Sunbury, Middlesex. They no longer trade but had been converting Land Rovers for many years before the military contract was awarded. They also advertised the usefulness of the vehicle for other services where a mobile command post might be required with 4X4 capability. Various methods have been used to increase headroom. The Carawagon has a flexible aluminium sheet that lies flat when not in use. When elevated, it forms a large arch reminiscent of a cathedral, increasing the headspace and room inside the full length of the vehicle. The front and rear arch shaped panels are hinged and fold inside when not in use.

Taken from the supplement printed to go inside the User Handbook, these photographs show 16GN15 with the roof both erect and stowed. There is a Land Rover rear step for the back door and the Depot Unit can be seen on the right hand rear panel. I don't know how long the Carawagons stayed in this condition, the galvanised finish on the body capping, front bumper, rear bumperettes and roofrack are clearly visible. no doubt the Deep Bronze Green paint finish would soon be brutally repainted in IRR Green or Breen/Black, as was the fate of so many military vehicles.

Apart from the lining of the roof, there is no canvas used in the construction and the whole assembly feels fairly robust and secure. The civilian version has skylights in the roof although these are omitted from the military version. The military version has dark glass in the rear and only one long side window on the left side. The civilian version has windows down both sides. The military versions all had large square section metal roofracks forward of the cab and above the windscreen. This was intended to stow the cammo nets essential to disguise the characteristic profile of the Carawagon when the roof is up. The civilian version had a wooden rack that was integral to the timber rails above the cabin. The military version had the timbers cut short. A tempting target for the enemy when presented with a vehicle bound to contain intelligence or high-ranking soldiers. Even with the roof down and not so obvious, the roofrack is now the telltale. Unless all the vehicles are covered in nets then the one with the cammo nets over it is a good target, sometimes you can’t win. In the event of a contact, make for the Carawagon…NOT!

There are blackout curtains that run in aluminium channels fitted to the inside of the windscreen and front doors. A large roller curtain covers the side window and another similar curtain covers the rear door. Some of the rear windows were painted over while in service. All the doors had industrial type switches to turn off interior lighting when the doors are opened, these could be bypassed with an 'R' clip to hold the plunger in. Some of the conversions that were transferred to other base vehicles (I heard of them described as 'plants') had blackout curtains between the cab and the rear body, some had plywood partitions instead with a small sliding hatch. Equipment levels were pretty basic even by civilian standards. There is a long work surface down the right hand side with sliding door cupboards underneath that held shut a set of 3 drawers. There is ample storage space, left uncluttered by items such as fridges, portapotti’s, gas bottles etc. I’m told the military version had a twin burner fitted to the inside of the door but have not seen evidence of this. The military version had a small stainless steel bowl built in to the worktop with a Whale a foot pump operated tap.

The first batch was converted around 1978 for Commanders to use in the field in BAOR, Germany. They were based on a group of vehicles selected from a depot, all LHD GS's and I understand probably already in service. Hard tops were fitted and modified to the Carawagon roof, during work on one early Carawagon I noticed that the finish on the hard top was originally in Stone colour compared tot he paintwork below the waistline cappings. Later conversions have been taken straight from the Land Rover production line to Carawagon as late as 1984. Part of the conversion process involves removing the rear bulkhead and rear seatboxes. The bulkhead is removed to increase room and to allow the occupant to lie full length. In order to make the bed, the passenger seatbase is removed and the seat back is folded forward. The seatbase is then placed on top making it level with the bench seat in the back. Now we have a full-length bunk to sleep on. The small cupboard/wardrobe on the left at the back door is why the front seat has to be used to make a full length bunk. The rear seatboxes are removed to increase storage space. New wheelarches are fabricated but the extra storage space is useful.

Standing up in 71KB52, looking down at desk in lowered position. When raised it covers the map and Lo-Vo lamp. Sink tap can be seen on right hand side, sink cover is closed. Strap hanging down over map is for holding up the table flap. The switch behind the Lo-Vo lamp is for changing over from 12v vehicle battery to 12v DC taken from the built in transformer located behind the drivers seat. 240v AC is dropped to 12v then rectified within the switch box. Switched 240v 13A socket also visible.

At some stage in their service, the Carawagon conversions were transferred on to other Land Rovers. I have heard this better described as "replanting". The reasons for replanting are as yet unknown by me but I'm assuming damage to the donor vehicle or wear and tear etc. The transfer usually resulted in some adjustments. Not all the furniture was transferred, some had a permanent wide bunk, some had the small cupboard/wardrobe by the door moved or removed completely to allow a full-length bunk without using the front seats (and also not requiring the seat bulkhead to be removed). At least one had the long worktop removed and a map table with two tall cupboards installed either side. An electric heater was fitted under the table, real luxury. Some of the transferred conversions had the roof permanently raised. This looks like it was achieved by means of simple brackets to prevent the roof closing. Others had the two hinged end panels removed and replaced with a single piece, at least one I have seen even had a cupboard built into the roof space. I guess one reason for this may have been as a result of damage to the conversion itself as well as its base vehicle. Water damage over time is another reason for the demise of the wood panels in the roof. Screws will work loose and end up ripping out with the operation of the roof. The damage will accelerate rapidly unless repaired promptly.

Left photo: Stood looking out of rear door. Small wardrobe to the right. Bench seatback is in upright position at right window. Right photo: Looking in through rear door. Hinged flap covering sink to the right with footpump showing through kickboard. Sliding doors of cupboards hold drawers closed in centre section. Farthest door holds jerry can for sink water supply. Close the roof by pulling the handles above each air vent in the end panels and allow the roof to drop slowly, remembering to clamp the roof down from the outside before driving off. The noise made when the wind makes the roof pop up again suddenly is like the Thunderclap paper toys that used to given free on the front cover of old comics. Not for the faint hearted while driving.

A simple way to tell if the conversion is not on an original vehicle as supplied to Carawagon is to check the wheelboxes in the rear. If they are there then it’s been transferred. Likewise the presence of a bulkhead although I have seen one transferred conversion that had the bulkhead removed at the same time. The furniture will also show signs of not wanting to leave the original vehicle without a fight. Sometimes it doesn’t make it at all, a shame because the quality of original work is exceptional when compared to the plywood replacement in most that is almost a lash up by comparison. I have seen one example that was in a rosewood lamimate and of very good quality, alledgedly a favourite vehicle of it's officer and one that had to wait for the officer to leave before the Carawagon itself could be disposed of. At least one Carawagon no longer has the familiar Carawagon roof but has a large aluminium roof tub looking very much like an exotic bath fixed upside down. It is a tidy job and certainly adds even more head room as the sides are vertical. I personally don’t feel this makes the Military Carawagon any less original if the body transfers were done while in service. Everything experienced while in service only adds to the provenance of a vehicle, no matter if it is a Carawagon or a standard LWB. It’s even better of course if anecdotal references can be found. The relatively scarceness of the Military Carawagon should make it quite likely to be remembered and you stand a better chance of it being yours if photographs are found of it in service. I am probably not alone in welcoming such memories from serving or retired personnel who recognise and remember a particular vehicle and can relate those memories, good or bad, to the current owner.

Stood up looking through windscreen. The table is lowered but lifts up to allow more space to pull the bench seat out. The seat back fills the 20 inch gap left as the seatbase is slid out (wooden guides under the base board provide the correct position for the base to stop at). The overall width of the bed is approximate to the two seat squabs in the cab. Although not seen here, the front seat squabs would have been lifted out and both the seat backs folded forward. The seat squabs are then placed on top of the lowered seat backs to raise the cushion height and complete the full length bed. Although the seat bulkhead has been removed, there is a low bulkhead installed to support the bench seat. This is low enough to be right out of the way when laying across the bench seat and front seats. The bed is very comfortable and, although not made for two, is certainly up to the job providing both parties are familiar, or wish to become familiar. With nowhere to fall out there is no problem of waking up on the floor. The windscreen curtains are seen in their storage positions, held back by push stud straps. There are several 'swags' made in the same blackout fabric around the roofline of the cabin and back body for stowing personal gear. As well as the 12v striplight above the back door and the articulated Lo-Vo light for the map table, there is also a flexible goose neck map reading light under the NATO lightswitch on the dashboard. The smoked glass on the sliding side window and rear door is quite effective but blackout roller blinds are advised when the interior is illuminated at night lest the neighbours be treated to a cabaret. The interior is quite spacious and I can stand full height when the roof is up. Vents at either end are necessary in hot weather as the roof cavity soon becomes unbearable in strong sunlight.

I saw this one at Blanchards only a few years back, apparently a favourite of it's previous owner, it was not allowed to be released from the Army until he retired, rank apparently having it's privileges. I was unable to determine it's age but it has one of the more imaginative interiors refitted. Although not as appealing as the original it retains features such as the original sink but with an electric pump. There is a "geyser" type hot water boiler above the sink. The map table is still there as well as the electric supplies, lighting and switches. The short wardrobe has gone from inside the rear door to be replaced by one slightly taller but still allowing the roof to fold. The bed is no longer a bench seat but a cabin style, no doubt made to accomodate an issue mattress. The outside of the rear body shows extra storage typical of the jerrican lockers.

To my knowledge, only around 34 were converted by Carawagon. Whether this was the size of the first order may be significant because at least a further four were ordered and went into service around 1984. The figure may be confused and exaggerated somewhat by the fact that some of the original vehicles were "replanted" on to other chassis. Does this constitute two vehicles because of the two registration numbers that will now exist for the same body? All the vehicles I have seen so far have been 12v but have had provision for 240v AC connections via external Depot Units (a box mounted on the rear above the tail lights). Some had 24volt connections also. Sometimes the connection box is mounted where the rear quarter light windows are, the glass being replaced by an aluminium sheet. I have seen two articles in magazines that may be of interest for further reading:

Wayne Davies 2004

Land Rover Owner International, April 1995 page 188. The Military Carawagon by Bob Morrison.

Motor Caravan Magazine, October 1998 page 42. Comparison of Carawagon and Dormobile by Steve Rowe (repeated in LRW April 1999).