We can see how this caravan got its name, just look at this cute little snail!
In the district of Mormant, in north-central France, lived Georges Lemarié, a coachbuilder with an eye for aesthetics.
At the request of a family member, Georges built his first caravan in 1936. The cars of this time only had three speeds, therefore requiring minimal drag from a caravan. Keeping this in mind, he designed an aerodynamic caravan that was small in size, with rounded edges, adding a small ‘fin’ to improve stability on the road.
Despite its diminutive size and curved surfaces, the rear point housed a storage chest for the awning and frame, allowing more space inside for sleeping. The caravan as a whole evoked the shape of a shell, and so the “Escargot” caravans were born.
Georges began to receive orders for his shell-like van, which were all built individually or in very small volumes, the size dependant on the type of car towing the van, and the needs of the buyer. With names like “Biarritz” and “Mont-d’Or”, they all followed the same general design with the rounded front and aerodynamic rear.
After WWII ended, French automobiles became more powerful, and Georges Lemarié began to design his caravans to accommodate this change. In 1948, Lemarié moved from Mormant to Fontainebleau, and it was here that he built the “Mont-Blanc” and the “La Baule”. These post-war models were more modern in design, yet kept their rounded shape. In fact, the general shape would be reproduced on all future models.
All caravans of this time were built on a rigid chassis with independent wheels, leaf springs and inertia-activated brakes. The frame was made of ash, and the outer covering from aluminium alloy. Ventilation and light were provided by a series of skylights on either side of a raised roof. Glass wool insulation sat under washable vinyl canvas, in which the customer had a range of colours from which to choose. This canvas gave the interior a sense of padded comfort. The colours and accessories - such as cushions and curtains - were suggested by Mrs. Lemarié. The end result was a cosy caravan that was easy to maintain.
By the mid-1950’s, caravanners wanted to travel all over Europe, and into places such as Turkey and Morocco. Lemarié decided to build an all-metal caravan, with a very innovative ventilation system, using a pop-up roof, which he’d been thinking about for some time. The interior layout also changed completely, with the dining area converting into a 3rd berth. At the front was a kitchen, and at the rear, a double bed, although the interior retained the padded appearance. When the roof was raised, the occupants enjoyed an almost panoramic view from the inside of the van. The clever and practical control to raise the roof later became the hallmark of the brand.
This 1955 caravan was named the “French-Cancan” in reference to its lifting roof! It was a great success and soon Georges Lemarié extended this new concept to the rest of the range.
Over the years, the exterior paint of the “La Baule” series was standardised in an ivory colour, as was the “French-Cancan”. The vans that followed adopted a brighter, “slightly broken white” with a roof colour of the customer’s choice.
As the purchasing power of the French increased, so too did the size of the caravans. This was also reflected in the interior equipment – the fridge, the heating, chemical WC and bidet were standard, and customers were offered a variety of options, such as laminated wood veneers.
More models were to follow, but it was the “Folies-Bergère”, presented at the 1958 Auto Show, that was to become the brand’s workhorse, being produced up until the closing of the business.
Always faithful to the ‘camper-caravan’ spirit, Lemarié never built caravans over 4 metres long with a maximum sleeping capacity of 5 people. But with camping regulations becoming more restrictive, and proper campsites becoming more popular, caravans soon became much more spacious, often turning into second homes for the French people. To Lemarié, this signalled the end of the freedom to camp just anywhere, and this was a path that Lemarié did not want to follow.
And so “Caravanes l’Escargot” came to an end. But we have an inkling that Mr Lemarié would have been pretty pleased to see that his caravans are now being sought after and enjoyed by retro van collectors worldwide. What a legacy!