Have you ever walked through a camping show and wondered just where do all the designs and models come from?
Broad-scale patterns of camper trailers are almost universally inherited from others — there are very few that haven’t been seen or trialled elsewhere — but the details of chassis and suspensions, tents and doors, kitchens and storage, spare wheels and electronics don’t just spring into being. So where does it all come from? How does it evolve?
This isn’t a topic I would say has necessarily come to the front of mind even here at this magazine. We often get to ask a manufacturer why they did this or that, why they chose a particular component or brand over another and so on, but in terms of settling on a completely new style of camper, the mysteries have thus far remained outside the scope of our conscious thought.
THE CUB CONCEPT
When the Cub Campers team told us they had some ideas for a new camper that would be very new to the range — even if being sold by others — we were intrigued. This was some time ago, and at the time we were sworn to secrecy, but we had the opportunity to see how a completely new design of camper trailer came together.
The concept was for a new double-fold design. Cub had been asked for such a camper many times at shows and without one in the model range it struck the crew that there was a market sector they were missing.
They watched it walk away at every show. The sales people were telling the bosses they needed it. The customers were asking for it, so why wouldn’t they be doing it?
Cub had recently introduced its first forward fold design — the Frontier — and it had rapidly risen to become its best selling model, accounting these days for over 40 per cent of sales. The forward fold concept had been developed by Queensland’s Modcon campers nearly two decades ago but it had been swiped by a string of Chinese factories and rapidly became the biggest seller for a number of import brands. However, forward folds had a number of design limitations; they were generally heavy, with high ball weight and limited storage. But people seemed to like the room under canvas, the seating area inside, and the clear space off the ground.
The forward fold rapidly took over from the side fold soft floor as the camper of choice for many, especially those with families, but it lacked in sleeping accommodation if you had more than two kids. With the old side folds you could accommodate almost as many bodies as you liked simply by enclosing add-on awnings or sewing up bigger tents, and they had the storage options to accommodate all the extras that come with the added people.
That sleeping limitation in forward folds led inexorably to the double fold, with an additional bed out the back, so you could sleep six or seven people each night. Even if you only had two kids, having that rear bed permanently made up while in camp — which didn’t have to be disassembled each morning and reassembled each night — was a great convenience.
In the past year or two the double fold has been displacing the forward fold as the leading seller for a lot of brands.
Cub made the decision that it needed a double fold in its range, a decision driven largely by the company’s CEO, Simon McMillan, and its Managing Director, Shane Fagan.
“Shane and I both go to the shows regularly and we’d see people come in and look at our forward fold Frontier and our large rear folds and then hear them ask, ‘Do you have a double fold? We want to be able to put the kids to bed and still sit in the lounge and have our own separate bed area,’ ” explains McMillan.
“It was a decision that was largely driven by customer feedback. And aside from that, the Frontier is our biggest selling model and we see the market as moving more and more toward the forward fold and the double fold as a natural variation on what was a very successful design.”
Fagan says other factors played a part, too.
“Another point is that industry statistics show that the average buyer of a camper trailer or caravan today is in their 30s, not in their 60s,” he says. “That just backed up what we suspected was happening.”
McMillan continues: “A decision to build a double fold design was very much in line with what we thought the market wanted, matched up with our capabilities within our factory and our current designs. Once Shane and I had debated the idea and come to the determination that it was a way forward, Shane drew up a fairly specific scope.”
The first stage of this evolutionary approach was to pull together all sides of the corporate and manufacturing process to thrash out the idea and set a path forward.
“Everyone was brought into the idea at this stage and asked to come on board; the board, shareholders, the production team and the sales team, everyone was given a chance to have their say,” says Fagan. “We like to think we’ve always been quite inclusive on issues like this. If all the stakeholders are on board then it makes it so much easier to get it to the next stage.”
McMillan explains: “We’re fortunate that we have a lot of very experienced people in our team who can come to a project like this with a lot of practical experience and some good ideas. The initial design meetings involved our design manager, our sales manager, the production manager and others.”
One of the driving factors in a new concept camper is cost, because the finished product has to fit within a market niche which is in many ways determined by what your opposition is selling their product for, and this determines the level of fitout.
“One of our targets was functionality,” says Fagan. “We wanted it to be easy to use, and convenient. And we think we’ve done that, that it’s easier to use than any other double fold, easy to open and easy to close. That’s why we have no poles for the back bed; the tent there is self supporting, which goes back to that goal of making it easy to open and close.”
“We tried to play off our strengths, so another target was to build a light camper that was easy to tow,” continues McMillan. “In Shane’s initial specifications was a target weight of 1350kg to 1400kg, along with using Australian canvas and steel in line with all our other campers.”
The design team went away with instructions to come up with a workable set of plans, but this threw up some changes from the start.
“The project evolved a lot from the original scope because we realised we needed a bit more depth in the body to make it easier for the rear section of the roof to close into the body of the trailer,” Fagan adds.
“That was a decision made in the first few months of the development of the trailer, so that was always going to add a little bit of weight.”
McMillan continues: “A large area of our initial focus was on the opening and closing mechanism of the tent because that is a key function in the selling of the camper. We wanted no spreader bars or poles to be inserted internally. We wanted it to simply fold out and be a finished structure.
"It was really in the discussions between the design and engineering and factory group we realised with the mechanism we were trying to use we were going to need a bit more space. Rob Black, in our design department, works a lot with canvas and he was able to give us a lot of feedback on the amount of space required and how to get that canvas to pop open.
“We have to include all aspects of production and design to match up with sales. Often factories produce something that is easy to manufacture but not easy to sell. We were looking for something that was a compromise between something that was easy to sell and people want and something that we could produce in a production line environment.”
“The deeper body might add weight but it has some advantages as well,” Fagan adds. “It means we can have a full height back rest in the lounge seats where a lot of our competitors have a really low back rest. That also meant we had a brand new chassis, which has had flow-on effects in our forward fold Frontier and will impact its production in the coming year as it will probably become a deeper bodied trailer as well.”
The additional 100mm of body depth also adds greatly to the internal storage capacity of the camper, so the carriage of items such as tables and chairs on the bed is now easier, and there is greater space for carrying items in the body of the camper and deeper storage space beneath the internal seats.
Storage was another of the design imperatives. Forward folds generally have limited storage capacity other than what you might carry in boxes within the body of the trailer. Cub had the advantage in design of not having to design the width of its trailers around the internal width of a shipping container, so making a slightly larger trailer was easily adopted. This was also, in fact, a design target for the Frontier forward fold.
The additional body height also created higher carrying options on the fridge box storage rack, an important consideration when you’re travelling with kids who tend to want their toys, boogie boards and other comfort items.
The design team was conscious of the need to make the best use of storage and so incorporated an extra-long pantry that now runs nearly the width of the camper and increasing the size of the fridge box by shifting the rear partition back, though this then diminished the space available in the locker behind. Both of these design changes have also been incorporated in the Frontier.
Cub was also commencing a project to include a newer and more upmarket kitchen throughout its range and so the double fold concept inherited that new feature from the beginning. And the kitchen was mounted on the same runner system that is fitted to the company’s other premium models.
PUTTING IT INTO PRACTICE
The design team polished up their blueprints on their computers with the CAD (computer aided design) software Solidworks, which can predict functionality, one of the more important requirements on Cub’s spec sheet. This process resulted in three possible versions in the first round of assessment, all concerning the method incorporating that rear bed.
One involved the rear extension of the camper folding over, in a repetition of the front folding segment, and another involved the rear bed section sliding out on runners. The latter was rejected because the runners interfered with the seating in the lounge and placed restrictions on the tent structure.
One of the initial questions was whether the tent roof should be split at the mid-point with each end opening out simultaneously or whether the roof remained as a single structure with the supporting bows opening within that. From the modeling one was chosen — the latter, which was largely based on that in the forward fold Frontier. It was tried out and it worked.
Not everything could be included. One design restriction of forward fold campers is dictated by ball weight requirements and axle position. These impose restrictions on the location of the kitchen, fridge and pantry, and dictates the entry door location. This results in the main gas strut assisting the fold-over top from crossing the door when shut, preventing the opening of the door without the top being rotated over. This means roadside access to the interior is greatly restricted. It is a function of the design that nobody has yet overcome successfully.
Cub originally wanted an electronic step included in the forward fold Frontier design, but found there wasn’t room in front of the axle, beneath the access door, to work with any of the available electric steps. Moving the axle back to create the room led to an unacceptable increase in ball weight.
Having decided on the desired design, the next step was to build a prototype, in this case a chassis and side frames, without the fitout, floor or external panelling. This enabled testing of the opening and closing mechanism, which again ended up going through three different versions before anyone thought about the tent itself.
By this stage, from the production of Fagan’s scope of the project it had taken about 12 months of work, fitting the various jobs in between other work by the factory so that it didn’t create any dislocations in the necessary processes to meet the flow of orders and to accommodate changes in the design of existing models, which is a constant process, as in any well-run camper business. Cub’s continued expansion in sales has created a constant time and space pressure to meet orders without throwing in a totally new model.
“Really, it takes a lot longer than you’d like,” says McMillan. “It’s a case of planning a time and then tripling it because of all the unknowns that you face as you go along.” And Fagan agrees.
“In a perfect world you’d have your R and D section totally isolated from your manufacturing centre, at a completely different address, because it’s human nature to want to bring all good ideas to the product you’re making," he says. "So every time someone suggests a change we have to assess it and if it’s worthwhile and work out how we’re going to incorporate it.
"Having your R and D away from the factory would buffer that flow of ‘good ideas’. But of course, that might also diminish the incorporation of good ideas, so it’s a constant balancing game.”
Cub has, for the past 18 months, incorporated a regular ‘R and D day’ into its weekly schedule, so that was when the new double fold prototype build was undertaken. About half of these R and D days were devoted to prioritising existing issues such as enhancing the production of existing products, and half on the development of new products.
Because this was a completely new design each stage took much longer than it would once it had become a polished stage on a production line of a known model. On the regular production line, new campers create a time ‘bubble’ that slows the progress of those campers following and leaves those workers ahead of the prototype suddenly without work for a period while the slower job moves along through the line.
The new camper was able to go through the welding of the chassis and body frames and the next couple of basic stages, as they really were only minor changes from what was already undertaken on other camper models but, from there, work was transferred to R and D days.
Every process was documented and all incorporated materials and stages were written down for later analysis and costing.
“It’s all certainly very challenging and it doesn’t seem to matter how much planning you put into it all, the first ones that go down the production line will take longer than you’d expect,” admits McMillan.
As the project proceeded a materials budget was settled upon, and it appears that the new camper has come in at around plus or minus 5 per cent of predictions, which isn’t bad. The final cost really won’t be known until the camper is in regular production and actual real build times are determined.
“We had a target retail cost, a target wholesale cost, a target materials cost, a target labour cost, and you have to understand all those before you can commence production," explains Fagan. "And everything goes back to what the customer values.”
McMillan adds: “Labour is a very variable factor. If we use the Frontier as an example, we can build one with what is probably 20 per cent less labour than we did 18 months ago just because we’ve built so many of them as everyone fine tunes their areas of responsibility. And it’s probably 50 per cent less labour than it was when we first introduced it four years ago.”
With the prototype on the line it came to a time to settle on a name. Sharing a coffee in the showroom, beneath a 1970s camper that was to become one of the foundation models for the pioneering camper manufacturer, McMillan and Fagan glanced up at the venerable camper sitting high on a shelf above them and it struck them both that as a nod to its history and importance in the company’s growth that its designation of Drifter was apt. The decision on a name was made.
In a wave of other production upgrades within the Cub Campers system, the new Drifter is yet another step along the way to an expanded range of campers.
“If Shane and I had our way we’d probably have a couple of new models every year,” McMillan continues, ”but time constraints and the cost of R and D, which is expensive, limits that. There are other new models in the pipeline and we hope to be able to talk about them in the next month or two. One of the benefits of the Coronavirus is that while it’s reduced the number of orders for campers it’s given us the opportunity to accelerate the development of new camper models.”
Fagan says the last few months have offered opportunities for staff development, too.
“For example, we took the opportunity to take our production manager and Candy, who runs our canvas sewing section, up to the Wax Converters headquarters in the Hunter Valley recently to actually see the canvas being made so they better understand the materials they’re working with,” he explains. “For all their experience and time with the company it was something they’d never done before.”
The camper trailer market is changing, not just for Cub but for everyone in the business. Note those statistics from earlier in this article: the average age of a camper trailer or caravan buyer has dropped from the 60s to the mid-30s.
Fagan sees that as one of the biggest drivers of what people want in a camper trailer.
“The average value of the camper trailer we sell has risen over the past five years, and that’s because people now want more in the way of features," he explains. "A younger age means more children going along, so facilities have to expand. You could argue that people’s budgets are going up, but it’s not just campers, think about cars. You don’t put a key in a door now, that’s seen as a real inconvenience. Who would have predicted that five years ago? To open a rear hatch you now just push a button.
“Just as we’ve seen it in cars I can see such things as reversing cameras becoming standard equipment on camper trailers in the next few years, even as a security feature when you’re away from it. Another big area will be the options around remote monitoring of your camper on a phone app: turning lights off and on, checking fridge temperature, battery voltage. The possibilities seem endless, as long as it’s practical. Keyless entry to your car is practical. Why not on a camper? There are eight locking doors on our Frontier.
“There is at least one good idea a day on the Cub modifications Facebook page, and that’s just on that one site. It’s endless.”
As we left it, the Drifter was off to an extensive round of real-world testing and evaluation to fine tune any issue s which may be found before it is released to the market.
It looks as though Cub Campers is riding surely into its future.
Watch out for a full feature on the finished Cub Drifter in Camper.
The planning for the new Cub Drifter included a target weight of between 1350kg and 1400kg tare, and the finished prototype of 1390kg seemed to give the Cub planning a big tick in their ability to meet targets. However, how does that fit with the opposition in the double fold camper market?
As an exercise, the Camper team logged the declared tare weights of 50 models of double fold camper on the Australian market, all bar one of them made overseas, coming in between 2020kg (Ezytrail Lincoln LX) and a micro 1020kg (Austrack Telegraph LT Lite). The average was 1541kg. Keep in mind this included some very small campers that were so small as to in some ways be seen as too small for a family and self-defeating for the purpose of a double fold: providing space for a family.
Weight is a significant factor for camper trailers in that it imposes load on the tow vehicle, leading to enhanced fuel consumption and greater wear and tear on the engine, transmission and driveline of the tow vehicle, as well as components such as brakes and steering, and has impacts on manoeuvrability in campsites or when attempting to move it by hand at any time.