The future of Track Trailer
Tvan co-innovator Gerard Waldron chats to Michael Browning about taking a hands-on approach at the Track Trailer helm.
Track Trailer owner and chairman Gerard Waldron is back running the company that spawned the multi-award winning Tvan – with a headful of futuristic ideas he believes will again change remote area travel.
"I never left, because I was never really here!" is how he describes his hands-on return to the helm of the innovative camper trailer business, which has set the pace for adventure travel since it was founded in the early 1980s.
It’s a curiously true statement, as for most of the 18 years since he and Track Trailer founder Alan Mawson built a prototype of the award-winning Tvan, Waldron has been somewhere else while directing the company as chairman.
However, with his recent retirement as managing director at the Australian Road Research Board and his foundation work in setting up the Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative behind him, he believes it’s time to drive Track Trailer (TT) forward.
That’s not to say there’s an autonomous camper trailer in the company’s future, but with developments of the Tvan, a larger Topaz hybrid pop-top and a new tandem-axle offroad caravan imbued with the TT’s mission to ‘excite and delight’ well on the drawing board, there are plenty of milestones ahead.
Waldron’s ‘return’ is timely. Successive developments and refinements of the Tvan have kept TT’s doors open for many years in a way that the low volume Topaz and the more recent Mate trailer could never do.
The company’s move in 2015 from its cramped, modular factory in Bayswater to substantially larger, all-in-one premises a kilometre away, shifted the focus of its engineering department away from product development to streamlining production processes of the existing models.
Meanwhile, the establishment of a new front-of-house retail business – ‘Outback HQ’ under sales manager John Anderson – to market not only Track Trailer, but also Bolwell RV and POD trailers, plus a range of camper and 4WD accessories, has added a completely new dimension to the business.
A NEW ERA
Waldron officially moved into his office behind the showroom in November and his presence has re-energised the company. It’s palpable when you visit.
"As chairman, it has been one of my jobs to go over the books and ask the difficult questions," he explained. "Being based here, I can have a greater appreciation of what’s going on, the difficulties and can see ways to solve them more easily.
"The business has been operating really well under production manager Tom Sanchez, with my older son Des running the engineering side and my younger son Lloyd handling marketing, but through the industry roles I have had in recent years, I believe I can bring a lot of new ideas and experience to Track that will help it to grow in the future."
To understand why Waldron’s fingerprint is indelibly all over Track, we need to wind back the clock to the late 1990s. That’s when, on the Queen’s Birthday long weekend in 1997, that the Tvan was born.
Think of a classic 1940s Bondwood tear-drop caravan. Now turn it around and put the drawbar on the fat end. That’s pretty much how the camper’s distinctive profile was penned by the late Alan Mawson.
What started as encouragement for Mawson to create a successor for the innovative Eagle camper trailer resulted in a collaboration that tapped extensively into Waldron’s background in product development.
The following year, their project entitled ‘Transition to caravan’, or ‘Tvan’ for short, had taken shape as a prototype, etching a step closer to taking the Australian camper trailer industry by storm.
Today, the Tvan continues to hold as an industry benchmark with many of its then-novel features, from the MC2 Asymmetrical Link independent suspension, sandwich aluminium body panels, innovative use of sheet metal, top-hinged rear hatch with drop-down tent and instantly accessible undercover bed, adopted by market rivals.
None of these innovations were patented. As everyone in the camper trailer and caravan manufacturing industry will tell you, good ideas are incorporated elsewhere well before the lengthy and expensive process of patenting runs its course. As Waldron said, "The only way to really protect your intellectual property in this business is to stay a long way ahead of the game."
A MEETING OF MINDS
Waldron’s interest in camper trailers began in 1994 when he stepped down as the youngest general manager of the former Victoria’s Gas and Fuel Corporation. The plan was to spend time with his family and see Australia, but when he looked around to purchase a rugged and well-designed camper trailer for his family travels, he was disappointed with the offerings.
"I did my research while I was recovering from having my tonsils out," he recalled. "We wanted to do a lot of outback travel, but as the trailer was to be the heart of our rig, I didn’t want it to fall apart or be limited in any way as to where we could take it."
Waldron, who is a qualified mechanical engineer, found only one camper trailer on the market that measured up to his exacting standards – the Eagle, which at that stage was then better known as the ‘Type 3’.
At that time, it was a top-end camper trailer, with its retail price of $13,900 being around $10,000 more than a good tent-trailer from a reputable manufacturer, but it attracted adventurers with an appreciation of quality and innovation.
After an exploratory trip into the centre via the Flinders Ranges, Waldron purchased an 80 Series petrol engine Toyota LandCruiser in late 1994, which he converted to run on gas and with his wife Sandra and their three children tackled Cape York in 1996.
"In those days, our Eagle attracted an enormous amount on interest," Waldron recalled, "and we were often woken up to find ourselves surrounded by onlookers. To save time telling everyone the same story, we carried a wad of Alan Mawson’s brochures. Many Track Trailer customers today do the same thing as our products have always been at the forefront of engineering and attracted interest".
When they got home, Waldron took the trailer back to Mawson to have some repairs and maintenance work done.
"TT was already fulfilling a military supply contract for 500 and 750kg payload trailers fitted with its new MC2 Asymmetrical Link Suspension, but with my product development background it became clear to me that the company had nothing in the pipeline for the RV market. So the MC2 chassis and suspension were built into the Eagle from 1996, and subsequently both were fitted to all TT’s commercial products.
"Doing this brought the proven performance of in-service military equipment to private adventurers and it has been a major factor in the strength and credibility of all Track Trailer products ever since."
Building on this development, TT in the late 90s once again focused its attention on the recreational market. By that stage, he and Mawson spent a lot of time together chewing over concepts for future camper trailers and agreed to sketch out their ideas over that fateful Queen’s Birthday long weekend, and compare notes on the Tuesday.
"To our surprise, we both came up with similar concepts, although the reverse teardrop shape was Alan’s inspiration," Waldron conceded.
Working with Mawson, Waldron became the project manager and did the engineering for what was to become the Tvan. The design was immediately rewarded in 2000 following its official public launch the Caravan Industry Association’s ‘Camper of the Millennium’ Award (and later at CTA’s Offroad Camper of the Year and Camper of the Year with wins in its respective categories in 2009, 2011 and 2015).
In 2007, TT’s answer to the burgeoning hybrid pop-top market began to take shape, with the Topaz launched late in 2008. It immediately received good reviews and positive owner feedback. However, with its smaller volume of sales, Waldron thinks the Topaz still has a lot of untapped development potential.
"It’s probably true to say with the Topaz we don’t have as big a competitive advantage over our rivals with the current concept as the Tvan has over its competitors," said Waldron.
The Topaz’s styling, with its unusual trapezoidal side windows, abrupt rear end and sheet metal interior, has not been to everyone’s taste, but Waldron makes no apologies.
"No Track Trailer product will ever look like grandma’s bedroom with chintz curtains and the like," he said. "Our customers have a different aesthetic goal."
"Some people walk in and say ‘too industrial – can you soften it a bit?’ but we won’t do that, as our industrial look and engineering are our points of difference".
Waldron revealed little on the caravan at the concept stage but is adamant that the tandem offroader will be far from a ‘me too’ approach, adding that under his resurgent leadership its potential will be uncorked in other innovative ways.
"Like our other products, it will unmistakably be a Track Trailer, which means it will retain its unique design differences and a more industrial look to other available products."
He also hopes to introduce some new technology to the caravan industry in the model, based on his work on autonomous vehicles.
"Having a smart tow car and a dumb caravan doesn’t make sense," he said. "You can expect to see a product that will relate to and interact more with the latest automotive products.
"I’m always on the lookout for new ideas and my phone is full of pictures of designs that interest me, often totally unrelated to the RV industry.
Indeed, while attending the Big Red Bash a few years ago as customers were crawling all over his MK3 Tvan that incorporated a lot of MK4 parts, Waldron was taking note on the innovative ideas many had incorporated into theirs.
"In many ways, I applaud the idea of customers seeing what we have done as the base for them to innovate even further, although I can’t say I always agree with what they do!"
However, Waldron is quick to reassure future TT customers that its caravan will never aim to be a pioneer in unproven technology.
"Our trailers will always deliver on ‘mission critical’ in their core functions following armed forces practices," he said.
"This means that they should never leave you stranded through failure of their essential components, such as their chassis or even their refrigeration when these are used in remote areas.
"Sometimes this may make us seem a little conservative when compared to some of our market competitors, but it’s something we never compromise on and I believe that’s why we have such a loyal and satisfied customer following."
Check out the full feature in issue #109 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration.