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Suleica and Orion, a fantastic history.
In 1958/59, the company Kunststofftechnik (plastic-technology) Ferdinand Schäfer in Detmold decided to build a lightweight camper car from GFK. Experience in the construction and the using of fiberglass reinforced plastics from GFK or epoxy resin had existed for more than ten years.
A sensational and exhilarating caravan arose on the drawing board, with a construction-length of 4.30m, net weight approximately 560 kg, maximum total-weight 800 kg the Type F430.
Round, almost female forms dominated its appearance. Windows bent at the corners, above a lantern-roof and a 14 cm large hollow double floor. The vehicles constructed concept was for longevity. There was even a patent as well as application-pattern-protection in Germany and for foreign countries.
First displayed in 1962 the series was built until 1968. In the course of coverage in the media the Motor Sport Journalist of that time, Fritz B. Busch of the magazine Auto-Motor-Sport named it the „Super-Leicht-Caravan „ the name still used until the present day “Suleica”. It has nearly become its nick-name.
The German company Hahn delivered the chassis, equipped with torsion bar suspension and overrunning brakes. The construction is manufactured from GFK (glass fiber reinforced plastic) material. Members of staff manually lined out half-form moulds with polyester-harz-drenched glass fiber-mats. After the hardening, they lamented this body and mounted it to the already finished lower section. The vehicle insulation consisted of „Stepptex - foil“ on Styrofoam®. The interior still corresponded to today’s current standard. That is: cross-sleepers, refrigerator, heater, 2-burner gas cooker, with or without toilet, the furniture’s from birch plywood. All windows, ever the curved ones were double glazed. The price was: 7900,00 DM. (a Ford -German Type 12M as comparison cost 5395,00 DM).
Further body lengths followed. In series, there was a 5,0 m variant, the F500 from the period of 1968 until 1974. The F430 was even built to be amphibious and was pulled over a lake using an amphibious car of the Type "Amphicar“. From 1967, the construction-length of 6.00 m was built on tandem axels, later even 6,30 m. However, these activities finished here. As prototypes, there was still the Suleica in the variations of 3,40m, 6,00m, 6,30m, (until today no unambiguous proof of them exists), and a Suleica QT, on basis of the Orion II or III.
At the trade show in 1967 in the German city of Essen it gave the idea of the first motor caravan with the character-name HS 68. It was a structure from a matched Suleica F430 on HANOMAG-Chassis F20, later changes again through the construction of a Suleica G 500. The Suleica became installed behind its original driver cab, instead of on the loading-bed. This may have looked modern for the potential purchaser of that time, but today it just looks funny.
Diploma-engineer Dr. Freise drew the first design sketches in the year 1968 for an amphibious Motor home with the name ORION. Installed on an altered chassis of a VW-Transporter type 26 was an accordingly altered Suleica G 500. It received a new form frontally with round headlights and the underneath received a hull formed floor. To the rear a propeller was installed.
However, this construction suffered the same fate as Howard Hughes giant wooden airplane the „Spruce Goose„. However, for demonstration purposes it was once driven through the harbor-basin but was never built in series. The prototype of the swimming - ORION however still runs today equipped for driving on the street on a VW-basis without the propeller.
In the year 1969, another prototype of the ORION originated, this time on a Matador chassis type F20 with a diesel engine from the company Perkins with 50 horse powers (hp) and an overall length of 6,00 M. The front now without the ships form (as otherwise described above). And naturally no propeller and rudder at the back anymore. In was built in series until 1974.
The interior resembles the equipment of the Suleica G500. Sometimes the interior was furnished with long table and lateral seats, sometimes with a round seat group. In the middle was a big washroom. Kitchenblock with refrigerator. The wardrobe with built in. It had a TRUMA heater and air circulation system. The furniture’s was built out of chipboards with cherry-veneer.
The driver-section offered the possibility for more places to sleep. Two ribs, one at the border to the rear living space and one at the border to the driver section separate the vehicle in three sections.
However there are manifold production variations so that we can speak today of the vehicles of the type ORION "of being unique"
Another alteration to the vehicle front emerged in the course of the use of using chassis manufactured by the firm HANOMAG/HENSCHEL. The front-headlights now became quadrilateral and the front now resembles the front of the truck HANOMAG GARANT. But the relationship of the ORION type I to the VW is still recognizable in the area of its VW Bus tail lights. This leads to funny questions being asked, for example: “It is now a disguised VW Bulli or a disguised Mercedes“ The motors came from Austin, the type AT 60, 1536 ccms with 54 HP or AT 70, 1800 ccms with 70 HP or as a diesel engine 200/220 from Mercedes with 55 HP or 60 HP. The vehicle is a front wheel drive. Mercedes also delivered the chassis later after HANOMAG/HENSCHEL was taken over by Mercedes under the types L206/306 DG for the diesel and L207 for the petrol engine.
Two fires in the production halls of the company Schäfer in the years 1972 and 1974 caused the business immense economic damage. Jigs moulds and tools for the production of the Suleica and the Orion became badly damaged. The production of the Suleica was transferred for economical reasons to Hungary.
Nevertheless, the production of the new ORION type 2 started in the year 1974. The body structure was now in line with the market, but with big side and rear windows. One year later, a shortened version of the ORION type 2 was produced as the ORION 500.
In the year 1978, Mercedes stopped the production of the old chassis. That became the birth of the ORION type 3 with the modern chassis type MB 207 and type MB 208 with rear wheel drive. The drivers’ cabin area now resembled the frontal view of the Mercedes 208 and the interior equipment resembled the production variations of the vehicles of the prior series. But now in the driver cabin, there were modern rotary seats.
And of course all possible motor variations where available, a 5-cylinder-motor included and there was also an automatic transmission version.
I think several circumstances prevented the survival of the production of these excellent vehicles: evermore rigorous design specifications in the vehicle construction and of course the costs. Approximately 800 hours of manual work in the production makes such a beautiful vehicle extremely expensive.
An ORION III in the fully loaded version cost sometimes more than 100 000 DM.) The Company Schäfer capitulated from the production of further vehicles as the economical consequence of the factory building being damaged through fires.
The rescue attempts of the BMW Garage belonging to the firm Depping at Detmold, which managed the former company Schäfer for a short time under the name TFG (Teutoburger Fahrzeugwerke); also remained unsuccessful for different reasons.
There were and still are a large amount of diverse variations and prototypes of the vehicles of Suleica and Orion which are not described here individually, because it would just be to lengthy for this report.
The last ORION, a type II 500 was built at the Teutoburger Fahrzeugwerke in the year 1987, produced as an office and camping mobile. After this last action, the firm’s curtains closed for ever.
For more detailed information, I recommend the reading of German published book with the title "Das patentierte Leichtgewicht" („The patented lightweight") written by our club-member Clemens B. Rintelen.
Author of this report: Stefan