Born in Forest Gate, youngest of four sons of Morris ALPER, an Austrian born hairdresser and Lilian (née LEVY). His siblings were Henry Samuel, Laurence, Joseph and sister Miriam. On leaving school at 14 he went to night school to study electrical engineering.
When the Second World War was declared, he volunteered for the Navy and found himself serving with the Fleet Air Arm where his electrical engineering training was put to good use rewiring Swordfish biplanes.
On the cessation of hostilities, Sam went to work for an electrical engineering firm, but Sam could not get on with the manager, and so he left in 1947 and joined his brother Henry Samuel in a newly established caravan company, Alperson Products, at Ward Road, Stratford, east London.
This company seems to have had the usual post war problems of obtaining materials, ex-Government war surplus being one source, which led to an investigation as to the storage of explosives by the firm after a serious fire. This it seems was assisted by flares in war surplus rescue dinghies exploding. The fire was actually the result of an arson attack by a policeman with a grudge against Jews (see below), one of many such reports in the press country wide at the time. This was actually after Sam had set up in Newmarket but it seemed appropriate to show arson attacks on his family at both ends of his story
By 1947 he had designed and made his first touring caravan with magnesium wheels and suspension and the brakes from a Spitfire fighter aircraft. The roof was made out of the material from barrage balloons. Before long Henry left the company. An early caravan was the Streamlite Rover, 5 metres long, weighing 900kg using many war surplus parts, even parts of Spitfire undercarriage.
By now Sam had found a new material, holoplast, which was combined with aluminium for the roof and thick enough to preclude the use of interior hard board. These early caravans were, in Sam’s opinion, too heavy and too expensive. After discovering Newmarket, it is alleged during a cycling tour, he moved production to the ex-GPO garage at the end of The Avenue, at the junction with Station Approach (now Tattersall’s Crescent).
Abandoning holoplast and reverting to traditional materials he built up the workforce to 40 and was soon producing 7 caravans per week. Meanwhile he sought ideas from around the dealerships and decided that light weight, cheap, towable by a family car and an adequate spares supply system was the way to go. This resulted in the Sprite that set the ball rolling for more expansion.
This expansion was not welcome in all parts of Newmarket since for the first time there was an alternative source of employment available to them other than horse racing.
Many stable staff were quick to appreciate the better working condition, and better pay that was now becoming available, with no turning out in all weathers and with shorter hours.
It is very hard to find a stable lad who returned to racing once he had experienced “the caravan factory”. Rather than turn this article into a caravan catalogue, you are recommended to look at “Sprite Caravan” by Andrew Jenkinson ISBN 978-1-845843-58-8 if you are primarily interested in the caravan side of Sam Alper’s life.
Being cheaper than his rivals Sam looked to have an uphill struggle to persuade the public that his caravans would not fall apart, but he had a knack of getting worldwide publicity for his trials of his caravans.
One early venture was to hitch up a Sprite to a Jaguar and tow it 10,000 miles around the coast of the Mediterranean.
Many similar ventures led to Sam often sharing the driving with others of the staff on tours around the world, towing one of his caravans across formidable terrain. He set several speed records and always managed to complete the task with the caravan bruised but intact.
The pressing need for more factory space led to a move in the mid 50s to Oaks Lodge on Fordham Road, where a modern factory was built. Today only the Oaks Lodge itself remains, next door to Tesco.
Most folk do not even realise that he started Little Chef in 1956 based on the concept of the small diners he had seen while marketing his caravans in the United States. The first restaurant opened near Reading in Berkshire in 1958 and had just eleven seats. Principally found on Britain’s A-roads, they were ideally suited to the new breed of travellers taking to the expanding road network and soon Little Chefs with their now iconic logo were springing up all over the country.
With little or no commercial competition they proved remarkably popular and within ten years the brand had been subsumed into the Gardner Merchant group of companies which eventually became a part of Trust House Forte. Continuing to innovate, Little Chef introduced cheap travellers’ hotels alongside some of the restaurants. By 1996 the brand was taken over by Granada plc at which point Sam sold his interest in the company.
There were many aspects to his business endeavours, for example, to maximise the use of his work force during quiet spells he produced some tabletop games, one being “Soccerette” where one moved the magnetic based plastic footballers by means of magnetised wands under the hardboard pitch.
I seem to remember that the legs were surplus telephone insulators on the very early models. The company also diversified into small sailing dinghies for much the same reason, to keep the staff on during the seasonal lull.
He even built the first golf buggy in Britain and presented it to President Eisenhower.
Another aspect of his employer/employee relationship was the establishment of a self-build co-operative to assist staff to obtain their own houses. Of course, there was also the trade-off of discounted furnishing and fittings. It used to be possible to “spot the Sprites worker” by the curtains in their windows.
By 1963, Sam had founded Caravans International, which had purchased the Eccles brand and merged with Bluebird Caravans, and distributed these and the Sprite brand to Europe, South Africa, Canada and the United States. In 1966 Caravans International won the Queen’s Awards for Enterprise and Sam Alper was made OBE for his services to exports.
In such a volatile industry he had to survive several down turns in trade, but at the peak CI were producing 30,000 caravans a year and employing 1,000. For Sam his caravan interests ended in 1982 when the parent Sprite Company went into liquidation.
Buyers were found and the re-formed CI employing a trimmed work force and streamlined production turned to newer models. The end came in 1996 with the closure of the Newmarket plant and the loss of 150 jobs. The name was sold and the business revived under new ownership of the Swift group but one range still carries the Sprite name.
In 1966 Sam bought Chilford Hall at Linton and in 1972 planted the first vines which were to establish Chilford as one of the oldest English wine makers of modern time. With over 20 acres of vines of nine varieties, the annual production is in the region of 18,000 bottles.
Also, at Chilford Hall he transformed the Great Barn into a fantastic setting for weddings and functions. Sadly, arson again hit the Alper family, and two men were jailed for the fire which totally destroyed the Great Barn in 2012. The functions side of the business has been restored in modern accommodation.
At Chilford he could indulge himself as a sculptor and collecting modern art, much destroyed in the arson attack in 2012. Amongst other projects Sam Alper brought the Curwen Studio to Linton. This lithographic printing company had been set up in 1958 by brothers Timothy and Robert Simon.
Sam Alper owned a hotel in Gibraltar for many years and was instrumental in setting up the Gibraltar Heritage Trust in Gibraltar and the Friends of Gibraltar Heritage Society in England. He was associated with the Rotary Club for many years, beginning in the 1970s when he arranged for 50 caravans to be delivered to Italy for the relief of flood victims.
In 2000 the Rotary Club awarded him the Paul Harris Fellowship in recognition of his part in the club’s 1999 project to find and send nearly 200 serviceable caravans to earthquake areas in Greece and Turkey with the help and encouragement of Crown Princess Katherine of Yugoslavia through the charity Lifeline Humanitarian Organization (Canada). He also established a family trust to buy instruments for young musicians.
Samuel Alper married Isobel GRIST in Newmarket in 1952, having a son Simon and daughter Rebecca. That marriage was dissolved and in Newmarket in 1984 he married Fiona MORTON, and had one son, Reuben.
Our thanks to Fiona Alper, Sam’s widow, for her assistance in this article and images, plus of course the aforementioned book, “Sprite Caravan” by Andrew Jenkinson ISBN 978-1-845843-58-8. Some facts are quoted in so many different caravan magazines and websites it is difficult to know who to credit.