Harley Sitner was in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn for a wedding in March, feeling as if he’d just been sprayed by a skunk. Mr. Sitner’s hometown, Seattle, where he owns a camper-van restoration, repair and rental business called Peace Vans, was the site of one of one of the first huge coronavirus outbreaks. “People were like, ‘Stay away,’” he recalled.
Back home, with peak road-trip season approaching, his employees reported a rush of cancellations on rental vans. Mr. Sitner had just hired a “super-awesome” marketing manager and began thinking he might have to lay her off.
School was canceled and all but the most essential businesses were ordered to shut down. Mr. Sitner was compelled to give his employees a month off, save for a skeletal crew that stuck around to perform essential services like repairs.
“We were looking at some pretty significant revenue black holes,” he said.
Then, in mid-April, the phone started ringing in the repair shop.
“People started thinking they’d have a summer, and wanted their classic Volkswagens looked at,” Mr. Sitner said.
But it wasn’t just that. There was also a run on a new line of modern camper vans his company had announced with Mercedes-Benz at the Chicago Auto Show in February: produced by a third-party manufacturer called Driverge, sleeping four apiece, and starting at $69,000 without kitchen and cabinetry, $89,000 with.
“We sold like 28 of them in 30 days,” Mr. Sitner said. “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 person, he projects a tender, Michael Stipe-ish vibe, wistfully remembering that “until recently, we hugged so many of our customers” and brewed espresso in the shop’s front office.
He first became acquainted with Peace Vans as a customer, running his Vanagon (a.k.a. the Volkswagen T3) in and out of the shop, in Seattle’s industrial SoDo neighborhood, between jaunts to Burning Man. In 2013 he learned from the shop owner that he planned to close the business, and Mr. Sitner convinced him to hand it over instead.
Over the years, Mr. Sitner has served clientele from aging hippies to Instagramming millennials, and all political persuasions. (In the lot of Peace Vans there was an old VW bus from Iowa awaiting restoration with a National Rifle Association sticker on the driver’s-side window and a painting of the word “Peace” on the side panel.) But the venture with Mercedes, which began casually after he began buying the chassis of the brand’s Metris van from a dealership down the street, has brought a new kind of buyer, Mr. Sitner said.
Ed Stevens, a 51-year-old tech entrepreneur in Dallas, had planned to take his wife, Robin, and two adult children scuba diving in the Caribbean when the pandemic took hold. The virus’s spread, he said, was the reason he started looking to buy 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 said. “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 said, explaining his choice of chassis.)
Mark and Linda Kimlin had just spent the winter in Spain before returning to New York City in mid-March, feeling “very lucky to escape unscathed,” said Mr. Kimlin, 63. But New York was itself about to get scathed, and with the lease up on their Upper East Side apartment, the Kimlins high-tailed it to a home they owned in New Paltz, north of the city. (They expect to return to the city when things “settle down,” Ms. Kimlin, 65, said.)
Their daughter had planned to get married in California in July (the celebration has been postponed, though not the ceremony) and, Mr. Kimlin said, “it seemed like a good time for wide-open spaces and not getting on an airplane.”
His son-in-law-to-be had driven a simpler version of the Metris camper van and shared his positive experience with Mr. Kimlin, who bought one from Peace Vans on the strength of that recommendation and the fact that his wife “likes camping, but with a comfy bed.”
Talk to any camper-van owner and they’ll tout the relatively small size of their vehicles compared to traditional RVs and the taller Mercedes Sprinter vans that many Amazon delivery drivers whiz around in, explaining that the more compact Mercedes Metris and VW Vanagons are easily usable as second cars in dense neighborhoods in major metropolitan areas.
But they’re also great for when a wildfire jumps the highway and bears down on your house — the precise scenario Naomi Neilson stared down in mid-June at her house 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,” said Ms. Neilson, 46, who owns a Metris camper van and runs a bathroom-fixture company called 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 something owners of Volkswagen Vanagons have taken comfort in for decades. While Metris owners like Mr. Stevens never considered buying such a lovable relic of hippie culture because he “didn’t want to be spending two days somewhere while my transmission gets shipped in from God knows where,” VW owners like Brian Kolonick of Cleveland think the hassle’s worth it because, he said, “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,” said Mr. Kolonick, 42, who works in digital health for a company called Conversa in Portland, Ore.
He rented a Vanagon from Mr. Sitner before he bought one, and said some VW scenesters turn their nose up at him because he “can’t repair things” and has to call a mechanic. He’ll often visit Vanagon forums online, where he occasionally finds die-hards dissing the Subaru engines in some custom conversions, arguing that they’re “taking away from the slow-running intensity” of the stock motor.
And it’s fair to surmise that some VW devotees think Metris owners are a tad soft. “We have friends who have them, and I’ve got to admit, we joke about their vans,” said Jim Samuel, 58, a realtor and University of Oregon grad in Seattle who named his 1991 Vanagon “Bertha,” after the Grateful Dead song. “But it comes down to people, ultimately.”
Joayne Andrews agrees. A 72-year-old retiree, she lives in Cathedral City, Calif., just east of Palm Springs, and has owned 26 Volkswagens in her lifetime, four of them vans. A Jetta is her daily ride, but when she really wants to get away, she’s got a 2000 Eurovan at home and an ’82 Westfalia stashed in Seattle that Mr. Sitner’s crew has been restoring for the past two years.
When she visits friends up and down the West Coast, she thinks her vans make her a better houseguest. “It’s nice to be able to pull into their driveway and not take up space in their house,” she said. “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.”