Uit het Magazine van The Caravan Club dd maart 2001

Frontal assault

Moulded fronts on caravans are a smart feature, but damage can involve a costly repair.
JOHN WICKERSHAM presents the facts

Few people buying a caravan ask what material is used for its front panel. Moreover, hardly any purchasers think to ask what a replacement panel is likely to cost. But why should they? There are more important matters to check.
However, there's a reason for raising this subject. The trouble is these shapely fronts usually comprise a single-piece moulding. They also feature low-level skirts which deflect spray and dirt flying up from the road. A good idea - but it adds a potential problem.
If you have a brush with a bollard or strike an awkward kerb, the entire front might have to be changed. Try and work out what that might cost!

Early caravan fronts were moulded using glass reinforced plastic (GRP) - or fibre glass as it's often incorrectly called. Indeed, I am pleased some manufacturers still use this material; I happen to like it. However, a lighter and less expensive material arrived on the scene a dozen or so years ago and many manufacturers are using it instead. To give the material its full name, we're talking about acrylic-capped acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene. The acrylic outer surface gives the shine, and the rest we'll call ABS.
Of course, it's not just the caravan industry which has fallen in love with ABS. It's used for the front wings of the Ford Focus, the race fairing of my Honda motorcycle and many car bumpers up and down the land.
Provided it's not too thin, acrylic-capped ABS looks smart, shiny, and doesn't suffer from hairline cracks that sometimes develop on a GRP panel.
Furthermore, when it's made in large quantities, the cost of a panel can be surprisingly low. (Try telling that to the spare parts department when buying a carbumper!)
Another point to remember is that the alternative material, GRP, is especially easy to repair. Indeed, boat builders, canoe owners, low-volume sports car builders, experienced caravan engineers, and also the author, appreciate that damaged panels can often be renovated to near perfection. Many's the time I repaired my GRP slalom and surfing canoes - even when they were in several pieces.
Now it's true there are repair kits for ABS as well, and I have received training on the repair procedures. Unfortunately, however, I know very few caravan service centres who repair acrylic capped ABS body panels. So if your caravan front (or car bumper or scooter fairing) gets damaged, the entire panel is normally replaced as a matter of course.
On some occasions this is the best solution anyway. But what does the replacement of an entire caravan front panel entail? How long should it take? And what is the likely cost?

Thanks to Bailey Caravans, I was able to watch service engineers being trained in procedures for changing caravan fronts. The job was timed, recorded on a company video, and I shot three rolls of colour film.
Most impressive was the fact that the entire process from start to finish took an experienced fitter a mere 3.5 hours. Everything was in place before work started, of course, and all materials were to hand. The demonstration caravan was also a fairly recent model -so there weren't those stubborn rusty screws, seized bolts securing grab handles and the other unexpected hindrances that slow down work on older caravans.
In other words, don't presume that your local service centre is going to achieve this speedy progress. To begin with, ordering the parts can take time as you'll have read already in earlier issues. But as the demonstration showed, a good service centre should be able to complete the job in a full working day. Establish the hourly labour charge, add £ 1000 for the panel (a typical dealer price) and you'll get an approximate idea of the cost.
lt's an involved operation and great care needs to be exercised to seal all the junctions between the new and existing panels. On hot, sunny days, differential expansion between a plastic front section, the aluminium-skinned sidewalls and the roof panel material subject the sealant to especially high levels of stress.
In total, the job needs skilful hands, knowledge of caravan construction and careful workmanship.

When we're towing, the front of a caravan takes the brunt of the weather. Add flying stones, road debris and overhanging branches and you realise what could happen.
Nevertheless, if there's major damage, a good caravan engineer should have no difficulty changing a front panel. The only worry occurs if the caravan manufacturer is no longer in business. Parts can be hard to trace and if a new panel is no longer available, there's clearly a problem.
From my own perspective, I still retain a preference for GRP because so many body specialists - in all sorts of industries - can carry out good repairs. Even if you cannot get matching gel coat (which is the pre-coloured outer surface layer of a G RP panel), you can always get paint specially mixed and copy the car repairer who applies a filler and then sprays on the colour.
As regards ABS repair work, it now remains for more caravan engineers to acquire the skill and confidence in using repair kits for this type of plastic. I suspect that entire ABS fronts are sometimes changed when a repair would suffice.
And one more point. If it's the bottom skirt which is most likely to hit ground and get damaged, why are body fronts made in a single piece? Couldn't that skirt section, which sits below the floor line, be a separate component - with joining flanges for a bolt-on skirt section? Or have I missed an important point somewhere along the way?