Today, the forward-fold camper trailer is an institution. Look to some of the most successful camper trailer brands and their hallmark model is a premium off-road forward fold with a raft of features that make camping in the bush more like living in a video game. They might not be the best sellers (that’s probably still a middle-of-the-range soft-floor campers), but they’re creating interest and desire, and that’s half the battle won, right?
The popularity is understandable – the forward fold camper trailer design is elegant, comfortable and simple to use. It brings a level of caravan comfort to something the size of a normal camper trailer. But for all that, it took nearly 20 years from the time the first forward folding camper trailers were concocted until they were popularised around the turn of the decade by importing companies like MDC Camper Trailers and GIC Campers (now known as Black Series Campers).
The first commercial version of a forward-fold was designed by South African expat and owner of Koala Campers, Glen Hudson. “I wanted to make a rear-opening camper and I wanted to compete with Aussie Swag, in those days. I thought, why are they making it open in the back? Make it forwards and we won’t have to worry about the bed and legs and you save space. That was way back in 1993, I think. I even patented the design.”
“I went down to the Sydney Show and on our way home I was thinking about all the campers there and realised this would be the best way. We were going to Moreton Island and Fraser Island a lot and didn’t want the hassle of having to peg it out and all that for one night stops and just decided that would be the way. So we stopped on the way, you know where they had that big rock, and had coffee and designed it on a tissue, on one of the napkins.”
“I’d also only just made the moulds for a poly camper and it just turned out that this worked perfectly on a poly camper, and I folded it forward which went over the storage box and that’s about what happened to it. It was really simple.”
It might have been simple, but it wasn’t very popular. Glen doesn’t think he even sold six of them, although attributes that to his decision to built them on a moulded plastic body, a technology that wasn’t and still isn’t widely accepted in the camper trailer market. He said, “I don’t know what held it up. What might have been a problem, is that, when I started making these, I made them on the poly camper, but poly campers at that stage, I was the only one making them that way, and everyone was knocking the poly.”
Interestingly, Glen invented a range of different camper trailers and parts for them, although few seem to have made it into widespread use. Amongst his ideas are a side-fold, hard-floor camper with a telescoping floor to increase the interior floor space, a diagonally folding camper, which folds both backwards and sideways creating a large, L-shaped room off the side and back of the camper, and various other smaller bits and pieces. But Glen may not have been the first to built a forward folding camper.
Michael Hackett, who would go on to invent and popularise the Ultimate Campers, had built two forward folding camper trailers in the very late eighties or very early nineties, although they weren’t specifically for camping. Back then he was a boat builder and adventure guide, so he’d built one as a mobile workshop/luggage carrier and another for a mate. He’d tow his behind a Troopy on diving tours to Gnarloo and Quobba Station or camp in it next to slipways while he was fixing boats.
When it came time to build the first Ultimate Camper in 1994, the forward-fold design was considered and rejected, though. “The size of the bed we wanted, when folding forward, interfered with the opening of the vehicle we were designing for. For instance, the 80 Series was the benchmark of the day, and whether it was barn doors or the tailgate, it basically meant that the bed was in the way of those doors if you’d left it hooked up. We could have extended the draw bar to accomodate it, but as you know, when you look at any of the plethora of forward folds now, which I think is 98 per cent Chinese, or something, you will see that they have a lot of gear in front of the axle and all suffer from what I might call the Kimberley issue – too heavy forwards. And that’s what we’re wary of.”
“Any forward folds you’re going to have to extend the draw bar forwards and that gives opportunity for anyone, or the designer to put stuff up there which makes it heavier on the draw bar and weight is the enemy. So, why did we go sideways? It allowed for a good rear entry but it also provides immediate shelter – like for deck chairs or to be used as a kids room, or what we now call a spare room.”
Despite the fact the side-fold Ultimate Camper quickly became a benchmark for premium off-road accomodation, the forward-fold design sat idle for nearly a decade after Glen Hudson’s first attempt, although a few people did give it a go. Kerry Jones, who’s the man behind Mod Con Campers remember’s Glens early versions and told me ‘there was a chap in Sydney in the mid-90s who I think only ever sold one or two of them.’ Kerry even had a go himself in 1998 or 99 but only ever sold one, “to a bloke called Bob Clarke, I’m pretty sure.”
Kerry says that in 2005 Steve Budden from Australian Offroad Campers had a go at it, too, but the product didn’t last long. Steve says, “We built two and they were called the Islander, but there was just no interest, so when Kerry from Mod Con asked if he could take the design and keep working on it, I said go for it. Both are still reguarly travelled in, and we service one of them every year.” Camel Campers are also said to have given the forward-fold design some life. Camel Campers was run by Norm Hudson, Glen’s son, which give some credibility to the suggestion.
With input from Australian Off-Road’s Islander and many of Kerry’s own thoughts, Mod Con tried again with the forward-fold and this time had more interest. He told me he converted one of his rear-fold soft-floor tents for the job and put it on a totally slab-sided trailer and displayed it for the first time at the Brisbane show of 2009. It still wasn’t a runaway success, though interest was definitely building, maybe off the back of the rise in popularity of the roof-top tent.
It’s possible Mod Con’s early belief in the product would have paid off significantly if the industry didn’t move away from Australian manufacturing to overseas builds. It would be other companies that would really take the concept to unprecedented levels of popularity.
Market Direct Campers was the first company to take the concept overseas and start bringing them into the country in a big way. Soon after, other companies were founded and jumped on the bandwagon. The early versions are said to have been crude and often lacking quality, although things have certainly changed over time. Mod Con, for example, once a proud Aussie-builder, now builds its range of forward-fold campers in China, while only two versions of the forward-fold are built locally.
It took a long time for any Australian manufacturer to bring out a forward-folding camper trailer. The Cub Camper Frontier was only released in 2017 and the Jayco JTrak has been announced, but no one’s seen one in the flesh yet.