UK’s rarest cars: 1961 Commer Maidstone camper, one of only four left on British roads

Andrew Roberts
·4-min read
1961 Commer Maidstone camper, one of only four left on British roads
1961 Commer Maidstone camper, one of only four left on British roads

Sixty years ago, ownership of a new Commer camper represented freedom to countless suburbanites. No more would their holidaying be restricted to a grim boarding house on the Dorset coast, with a landlord who resembled Lionel Jeffries portraying a prison warder. Instead, the open road beckoned, with admiring glances from various Ford Consul and Austin Cambridge drivers.

The Rootes Group unveiled the Commer 1500 FC in January 1960, with the brochure highlighting its “elegantly streamlined” appearance and the “positive steering”. The track was narrower at the front to enhance manoeuvrability in town, and there was a choice of no fewer than 16 bodies. Another selling point was the independent front suspension, although many operators found the Commer’s handling to be “interesting”.

The introduction of the rival Ford Transit in 1965 impacted the FC’s sales, but production lasted until as recently as February 1983. One reason for its longevity was its durability, and another was its popularity with various government departments, the Commer serving as a Post Bus and transport for British Telecom engineers. They were also frequently seen as motor homes, and possibly the most exclusive of the Commer campers was the Maidstone, built by Rootes at its works in Kent.

Rather than the cheaper van, the minibus variant of the FC formed the base for conversion into “an ideal home on wheels”. The advertisements further promised that “your accommodation and hotel worries are a thing of the past” as the Maidstone possessed “all you require for a wonderful holiday”. After all, who could resist a camper with “hard-wearing linoleum” fittings, “attractive curtains” and an “easy-to-clean ‘Marleyflor’”?

1961 Commer Maidstone camper, one of only four left on British roads
1961 Commer Maidstone camper, one of only four left on British roads

The other advantages to the Maidstone ownership included a telescopic roof “with room for the tallest” and a wardrobe with room for “quite a considerable amount of wearing apparel”. The extensive list of extras included a gas refrigerator for £39 17s 3d, an HMV radio for £36 18s 6d and an Elsan chemical toilet and curtain for £11 11s. The last-named accessory encapsulated the glamour of a typical early 1960s British holiday.

In 1963 Autocar evaluated the “Four Berth De Luxe” version costing £927. The report concluded it was a “very well-planned motor caravan”, but other coachbuilders began to provide cheaper alternatives as the decade progressed. Only four or five Maidstones are believed to remain on the road, and 8174 WA, owned by Scott McDonough, is the oldest, and probably the finest, surviving example.

1961 Commer Maidstone camper, one of only four left on British roads
1961 Commer Maidstone camper, one of only four left on British roads

McDonough came by the Commer in 2020, and despite being 6ft 5in tall, he finds the sleeping accommodation very comfortable. There is room for seven passengers, with seats that can be arranged as a double bed augmented by two single berths – one in the front and the other in the roof. The Maidstone also retains its original enamel stove, Calor gas lights and elevating top.

Over the years, the FC gained front seatbelts, new curtains and upholstery and servo-assisted brakes. The early versions were powered by the 1,494cc Hillman Minx engine, with Rootes promising “brisk acceleration”, which proved somewhat wide of the mark. When Commercial Motor tested the van version in 1960, it found the top speed to be 64mph, with cruising at just under 60mph.

1961 Commer Maidstone camper, one of only four left on British roads
1961 Commer Maidstone camper, one of only four left on British roads

McDonough’s camper is now fitted with a Weber carburettor, but the performance is still not exactly dramatic. However, he greatly enjoys piloting the Maidstone while the public reaction ranges from “my dad used to have one” to sheer amazement. The Commer was recently reunited with the widow of its original owner, and the McDonough family anticipate a post-lockdown holiday in the Maidstone.

Today, to see the duotone Commer FC is to appreciate a vehicle as uber-1961 as John Leyton singing Johnny Remember Me or Rank’s Look at Life travelogues. Better still, it is a reminder of a time when motoring journalists could praise a camper for its ability to travel “quite fast over really rough tracks, without the risk of smashing crockery”.

Thanks to: Scott McDonough

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