Harley Sitner was within the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn for a marriage in March, feeling as if he’d simply been sprayed by a skunk. Mr. Sitner’s hometown, Seattle, the place he owns a camper-van restoration, restore and rental enterprise known as Peace Vans, was the positioning of certainly one of one of many first large coronavirus outbreaks. “People were like, ‘Stay away,’” he recalled.
Back dwelling, with peak road-trip season approaching, his workers reported a rush of cancellations on rental vans. Mr. Sitner had simply employed a “super-awesome” advertising supervisor and started pondering he might need to put her off.
School was canceled and all however probably the most important companies had been ordered to close down. Mr. Sitner was compelled to provide his workers a month off, save for a skeletal crew that caught round to carry out important companies like repairs.
“We were looking at some pretty significant revenue black holes,” he mentioned.
Then, in mid-April, the cellphone began ringing within the restore store.
“People started thinking they’d have a summer, and wanted their classic Volkswagens looked at,” Mr. Sitner mentioned.
But it wasn’t simply that. There was additionally a run on a brand new line of contemporary camper vans his firm had introduced with Mercedes-Benz on the Chicago Auto Show in February: produced by a third-party producer known as Driverge, sleeping 4 apiece, and beginning at $69,000 with out kitchen and cabinetry, $89,000 with.
“We sold like 28 of them in 30 days,” Mr. Sitner mentioned. “Some people are saying they’re not getting on a plane for two years or never going to Europe again.”
Mr. Sitner is 52, with a 10-year-old daughter named Eden Peach. In particular person, he initiatives a young, Michael Stipe-ish vibe, wistfully remembering that “until recently, we hugged so many of our customers” and brewed espresso within the store’s entrance workplace.
He first turned acquainted with Peace Vans as a buyer, operating his Vanagon (a.ok.a. the Volkswagen T3) out and in of the store, in Seattle’s industrial SoDo neighborhood, between jaunts to Burning Man. In 2013 he discovered from the store proprietor that he deliberate to shut the enterprise, and Mr. Sitner satisfied him at hand it over as an alternative.
Over the years, Mr. Sitner has served clientele from growing old hippies to Instagramming millennials, and all political persuasions. (In the lot of Peace Vans there was an previous VW bus from Iowa awaiting restoration with a National Rifle Association sticker on the driving force’s-side window and a portray of the phrase “Peace” on the facet panel.) But the enterprise with Mercedes, which started casually after he started shopping for the chassis of the model’s Metris van from a dealership down the road, has introduced a brand new sort of purchaser, Mr. Sitner mentioned.
Ed Stevens, a 51-year-old tech entrepreneur in Dallas, had deliberate to take his spouse, Robin, and two grownup kids scuba diving within the Caribbean when the pandemic took maintain. The virus’s unfold, he mentioned, was the explanation he began trying to purchase a camper van.
“We canceled the reservation and hunkered down, and then I started thinking, ‘I can work from anywhere, Robin’s taking a class online, and we thought we’d just cruise the whole country,” he mentioned. “As soon as I saw the official partnership between Mercedes and Harley, that was the motivating factor.”
(“The idea of building on a Nissan or a Ford light van did not meet the quality bar we wanted,” Mr. Sitner mentioned, explaining his selection of chassis.)
Mark and Linda Kimlin had simply spent the winter in Spain earlier than returning to New York City in mid-March, feeling “very lucky to escape unscathed,” mentioned Mr. Kimlin, 63. But New York was itself about to get scathed, and with the lease up on their Upper East Side condominium, the Kimlins high-tailed it to a house they owned in New Paltz, north of the town. (They anticipate to return to the town when issues “settle down,” Ms. Kimlin, 65, mentioned.)
Their daughter had deliberate to get married in California in July (the celebration has been postponed, although not the ceremony) and, Mr. Kimlin mentioned, “it seemed like a good time for wide-open spaces and not getting on an airplane.”
His son-in-law-to-be had pushed a less complicated model of the Metris camper van and shared his constructive expertise with Mr. Kimlin, who purchased one from Peace Vans on the power of that advice and the truth that his spouse “likes camping, but with a comfy bed.”
Talk to any camper-van proprietor and so they’ll tout the comparatively small measurement of their automobiles in comparison with conventional RVs and the taller Mercedes Sprinter vans that many Amazon supply drivers whiz round in, explaining that the extra compact Mercedes Metris and VW Vanagons are simply usable as second automobiles in dense neighborhoods in main metropolitan areas.
But they’re additionally nice for when a wildfire jumps the freeway and bears down on your own home — the exact state of affairs Naomi Neilson stared down in mid-June at her home in Shell Beach, Calif.
“Everyone was like, ‘Where are you going to go?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know, I’m going to take my van and go,” mentioned Ms. Neilson, 46, who owns a Metris camper van and runs a bathroom-fixture firm known as Native Trails. “I just threw some food and drinks in the fridge and was ready to go. It took me 10 minutes. I went down the coast a little way and just relaxed. I didn’t end up needing to evacuate for the whole night, but it was nice to be able to just throw a couple things in there and know I had a place to sleep and cook for as long as I needed.”
Of course, this is one thing house owners of Volkswagen Vanagons have taken consolation in for many years. While Metris house owners like Mr. Stevens by no means thought-about shopping for such a lovable relic of hippie tradition as a result of he “didn’t want to be spending two days somewhere while my transmission gets shipped in from God knows where,” VW house owners like Brian Kolonick of Cleveland suppose the effort’s value it as a result of, he mentioned, “my kids think I’m cool for a minute.”
“It’s the way it smells, the way it drives, the way people look at you — you’re bringing them some level of joy,” mentioned Mr. Kolonick, 42, who works in digital well being for a corporation known as Conversa in Portland, Ore.
He rented a Vanagon from Mr. Sitner earlier than he purchased one, and mentioned some VW scenesters flip their nostril up at him as a result of he “can’t repair things” and has to name a mechanic. He’ll usually go to Vanagon boards on-line, the place he sometimes finds die-hards dissing the Subaru engines in some customized conversions, arguing that they’re “taking away from the slow-running intensity” of the inventory motor.
And it’s honest to surmise that some VW devotees suppose Metris house owners are a tad tender. “We have friends who have them, and I’ve got to admit, we joke about their vans,” mentioned Jim Samuel, 58, a realtor and University of Oregon grad in Seattle who named his 1991 Vanagon “Bertha,” after the Grateful Dead track. “But it comes down to people, ultimately.”
Joayne Andrews agrees. A 72-year-old retiree, she lives in Cathedral City, Calif., simply east of Palm Springs, and has owned 26 Volkswagens in her lifetime, 4 of them vans. A Jetta is her every day journey, however when she actually needs to get away, she’s obtained a 2000 Eurovan at dwelling and an ’82 Westfalia stashed in Seattle that Mr. Sitner’s crew has been restoring for the previous two years.
When she visits mates up and down the West Coast, she thinks her vans make her a greater houseguest. “It’s nice to be able to pull into their driveway and not take up space in their house,” she mentioned. “We’ve got our own little studio apartment.”
As for the Metris campers, her neighbor has one and Ms. Andrews thinks “they’re lovely.”
She then added, “They’re super-expensive, but probably with what I had to have my van restored, I could have bought one.”