Peace Vans roll though the Northwest
By Brian E. Clark
In the summer of 1976, Harley Sitner’s family traveled from their suburban Detroit home to the Black Hills of South Dakota onto Wyoming’s Teton National Park and then down into Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.
Their ride? A faux-wood paneled station wagon, possibly a Ford or a Chevrolet. Young Harley had a great time on that journey, he recalled in a recent interview, but he thought the VW vans he saw on the road were way cooler.
Fast forward to the 1990s when Harley was living in San Francisco and attending Grateful Dead shows on an occasional basis. He saw more VWs at the concerts and fell in love with ones with the pop-up tops.
“That was the heyday of the Vanagon,” said Sitner, who now lives in Seattle, where he runs Peace Vans (peacevans.com), which restores vintage VWs and rents out others for road trips in the Northwest. The company has also expanded into Mercedes vans, though VWs remain the heart and soul of the company.
According to the website jalopnik.com, “the Vanagon is the best-selling van in history with over 12 million units roaming the globe. It’s starred in a gazillion movies and have been owned by the likes of Steve Jobs and Jerry Seinfeld.”
Sitner said he put his plans to buy a VW van on hold for many years.
“Like a lot of dreams, my thoughts of owning a VW van sat and stewed and got put on a long pause,” recalled the now 51-year-old Sitner. “But I kept going back to getting one because I thought they were so neat.”
He moved to Seattle in 2001 to work for Microsoft, but continued to put off buying a Vanagon. Then in 2010, he and his wife welcomed a daughter into their family.
“Like a lot of parents who have a new kid, I was feeling a little stressed, wondering how my life would change,” he mused.
“I guess it was a bit of a mid-life crisis. I simply didn’t want to wait anymore. So, I decided it was time to get that Vanagon, in part so I could take my daughter camping. I literally went out and bought one. It was a 20-year culmination of a dream.”
Sitner left Microsoft in 2007 to do what he calls “some small business tinkering.” An entrepreneur at heart, he started a nursery distribution company that focused on orchids and helped some friends launch a skin-care line.
And as much as he enjoyed owning his Vanagon, he found it hard to get good service in the Seattle area. He commiserated with other VW owners, all of whom wondered why there weren’t better shops around.
He ended up finding one with a couple of good mechanics, but he said it “still sucked because the owner didn’t know what he was doing. The way he ran the business was a disaster and he was going to close it down.”
So Sitner stepped in and bought the shop in 2013, much to the surprise of his spouse.
“I figured, worse case scenario, if I take over this place, at least my van will always have good service and run,” he said. “So I went home and told my wife I wanted to buy the shop, which was tucked in an alley in the SoDo (South of Downtown) neighborhood in Seattle.
“She said ‘you really want to do this?,’” said Sitner, who convinced her “it would be a fun little side hustle and then our van would always work.”
The now better-managed operation took off, Sitner said. Since he purchased it, the enterprise has expanded into four different lines of business.
The core shop does repairs and the vintage shop does the restoration of classic vans, while the rental business has grown significantly and gained Peace Vans international attention.
“We launched the rental side with four vans in 2016 and we’ll enter this season with 24 vintage Vanagons,” he said. The company has also been working with Mercedes Metris vehicles, adding pop-tops and turning the mid-size commercial van into what Sitner calls a “true camper.” In addition, he’ll offer Mercedes Sprinters for the first time this year.
“We also have the tiny little thing called the Peace Vans Outfitter, which is stand-alone camping gear rental that we are running in 2019 as an experiment. All of this has been truly rewarding and I really feel like I found my life’s work.”
He said people who bring their VWs in to be fixed are grateful to have found a shop where the owner and mechanics who work on them are as enthusiastic as they are. They same is true for VW owners who want their rides restored, he added.
As for the rental side of Peace Vans, Sitner said the response from the motoring public has been “ridiculous,” with customers coming from as far away as New Zealand, Australia, Europe and even Vietnam to book a van and travel around the Northwest and British Columbia.
“I think people have been dying for something like this for a couple of decades. And they literally have life-changing experiences going on road trips in these vans.”
Sitner acknowledged that his timing was more than a little fortuitous.
“We caught the wave of van life and have ridden it to some success,” he said. “I’d like to say I saw it coming, but that would be a stretch. I was, however, in the middle of it by buying my van in 2010. In addition to my personal life story and the arrival my daughter, the zeitgeist was definitely coalescing around the resurgence in van travel. It’s been interesting to sit at a crossroads of the van life movement.”
He said the Vanagons are pretty much rented for a good chunk of the summer, with two unrelated families renting eight of them June 17 to July 10. One of the families is re-creating a trip that the now-grandparents did in the Northwest in the 1970s.
Though some potential customers have said they wanted to rent a van to drive to Los Angeles in two days, Sitner explained that Peace Vans has mileage limitations on the Vanagons.
“Some folks have told us they want to go to Yosemite, or Glacier National Park in Montana or Banff, in Alberta, Canada,” he said. “But we have to say ‘nope, not in this 30-year-old Vanagon.
“But in the modern vans, sure, we say ‘hear are the keys and go for it.’”
“For the Vanagons, though, there are limitations of around 125 miles a day that are a guide. So if customers rent for 10 nights, the limit would be 1,250 miles. But we won’t charge extra if they go 50 or 100 miles over.”
He said he encourages people to stay in the “greater Cascade Range, which means British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and a bit of Northern California.”
Sitner said Vanagons can sleep four comfortably using the pop-top, though many families pack in five.
“Another option is to bring a tent and the loudest snorer or most obnoxious person gets to pitch it and sleep outside at the campground,” he quipped.
The vans come with everything Sitner said a camper might need.
“We pride ourselves in including 121 unique items,” he said. “We figure around 82 percent of our renters are flying into Seattle. We want them to not have to bring anything other than their clothes. Then they can pick up their van, go to the store, buy food and hit the road.
“We tell people if there is something that’s not in that kit that you need, go ahead and buy it and we will reimburse you. We’ve only had one person take us up on that and it was over Thanksgiving. They bought a potato ricer, which is quite big and single purpose and we don’t include that.
“But we have everything from spices to a full complement of kitchen utensils, plates, bowls, fire starters, french press, frying pan, wine glasses, etc. Fireplace wood you have to buy. And we don’t include hatchets because of insurance.”
Peace Vans has nine diff itineraries on its website, and he said each one of them has recommended campsites and campgrounds.
“In addition, there are also private Peace Van camps that we have sourced by working with private landowners – including a couple of wineries and creameries – where our customers can camp on their property. We just secured a new one near Kalaloch on a bluff overlooking the ocean on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. It’s on a rare, privately held piece of property on the coast.”
During the summer season, Peace Vans has a six-night rental minimum and the base price is $215 a night. The modern, Mercedes Metris pop-ups go for $245 a night for deluxe popups, while the luxe Mercedes Sprinters are $315 a night.
Though Sitner loves camping in his Vanagon – he still gets out on the road to camp 35 to 40 nights a year – he said this style of travel isn’t for everyone.
“The Vanagons don’t have toilets, so if you are not comfortable using campground facilities, this may not be for you,” he said.
“Our Vanagons are meticulously maintained, but you still have to have a sense of adventure. And they are slow-going and quirky. Each one has a little something unique about it. If you’re a nervous type, you might not have a good time. Sometimes, we talk people out of it who don’t have a sense of wonder and discovery.”
As for going over mountain passes, he said the Vanagons will make it – just not in the left lane going 75 miles per hour.
“It’ll be more like 55,” he said. “So it’s a slower pace. But when people come back from their trips, they often say that they liked traveling this way, because it truly forced them to slow down and not rush.
“I love hearing stories like that,” he said. “They make it a privilege to run this business because we get to deal with a pretty upbeat cross section of the public. Of all the companies I’ve started, this has been the favorite one – in orders of magnitude.”
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.
What a fun article, and what a cool business idea!