Want to Live That #VanLife? Here’s How to Get the Van
When you live in a van, it’s not about the van.
It’s about everything you get from the van: freedom from the monotony of cubicles and suburbs; such non-material luxuries as beauty and silence; and, some claim, even inner peace.
Emily King and her partner, Corey Smith, have lived in their 1987 VW Vanagon Westfalia full camper, with kitchen and cabinet, for four years. It has nearly 300,000 miles on it. They bought it in upstate New York with the odometer broken at 187,000 miles.
“We are reclaiming the true meaning of the word wealth, from the Middle English word wele, meaning well-being,” Emily told me recently on a phone call from the West Coast. She said the pair has found the new American dream: a modern take on the great road trip, immortalized and glorified by cinema and lore from our nation’s past. They document their adventures on the Instagram feed @wheresmyofficenow, where they have 156,000 followers, and they were recently featured in a lengthy New Yorker profile.
Corey and Emily are not alone. Over a million photographs on Instagram have been hashtagged #vanlife, and dozens of similar feeds, such as Project.Vanlife, Vanlife Diaries, Homesweetvan, and the Van Dreams have hundreds of thousands of followers, all told. They put the pleasures of #vanlife on full, glamorous display: crystalline lakes, alpine mornings, and mystic desert sunsets. Often, the adventures star a man and a woman (and a dog) reaching Shangri-La levels of communion: the man with his beard, man bun, and abs won on the back of a surf board; the woman with flawless, tanned skin and yoga expertise. (This is Instagram; all levels are tuned to perfection.)
So What About the Vans?
“I have seen a tremendous growth in the past few years,” said Harley Sitner, who owns Peace Vans in Seattle. His shop takes in roughly 100 vans per month for restoration and repairs, a “massive increase” since he opened the shop five years ago.
“It’s a zeitgeist thing,” Sitner said. “The van thing seems to be this generation’s way of manifesting an authentic experience. It’s something they’re reaching for—it’s a vehicle, and it’s tangible. It’s immediate, too. You get the whole rejection of the current value system.”
Surfing, camping, eating out of a van—if only for a weekend—is nothing new. Free spirits have lived in motorized vans and busses and campers since Volkswagen and others started making them more than 50 years ago. Nomads, gypsies, pioneers, and tinkers lived the caravan lifestyle—in unmotorized form—during prior centuries.
But Volkswagen, that purveyor of the most iconic van on the planet, currently sells exactly zero vans in the United States.
“We imported the Eurovan for more than a decade, but with the cost of the vehicle and the limited volumes, there was no real business case for it by the end of its run,” said Mark Gillies, a spokesman for VW. The last year VW sold the classic bus was 1993. It sold three. This was down 610 units from the previous year. More recently, VW stopped producing the U.S.-spec Eurovan (also known as a Transporter Caravelle and even as Spacebus, depending on where in the world it was sold) in 2004, after just 209 sold stateside. And despite a little concept minibus VW showed in 2011 at the Geneva Auto Show, there’s not much promise to bring it to production. Even the Routan minivan, a seven-seat, rebadged Chrysler variant, ended production in 2014. Fewer than 1,200 of them sold that year.
Gillies said VW is “evaluating” a new concept van for production, but now that modern regulations for safety and efficiency don’t allow the kind of proportions that once made it so appealing, it’ll be tough to recreate the perfect look of the original.
(SUVs are also to blame for the demise of the beloved VW minibus. While the industry sells 2.8 million units annually just in that single segment, minivans and their ilk remain a fraction of that, and it's shrinking.)
In short: Don’t hold your breath for a new VW minibus to appear any time soon.
Seek, and Ye Shall Find
That’s all right, though. Most people buy something vintage or used, anyway. This is the most price-conscious way to get into a van for summer. EBay routinely list options for as little as $5,000 for a 1971 VW, or as much as $22,000 for one from 1987.
Amber Badger and her family bought their 1975 Volkswagen Kombi Campmobile for $22,500, then paid an additional $10,000 for the engine rebuild. They have put on 6,500 miles since they bought it six months ago; they live in a standard home in Australia but take the van on long trips, such as a recent month spent traveling to Tasmania.
“We took into account that the vintage Kombis are an appreciating asset and will be worth more in years to come,” she said. (Badger runs the Instagram feed @Summerofseventyfive.) “Not that it means anything—we’d never sell it!”
Hagerty lists the average value for a 1954 VW Transporter (four cylinders, 30 horsepower) minibus in good condition at $23,100, though the best examples are worth $70,000 on average at auction. These are not the most reliable vehicles for daily or weekly use.
Such specialty sites as Westfaliasforsale.com, OverlandKitted.com, and GoWesty.com offer the best used-and-loved-and-used-again choices. Peace Vans doesn’t sell them per se, but Sitner will help you find one to restore.
If you’re in the market for a used van to take surfing, look for one with no exterior rust (Sitner has performed $30,000 rust repairs), and always request a pre-purchase inspection by a trusted mechanic who specializes in the kind you’re considering. (Look for American brands such as Dodge and Chevy if you want to save money in the longer run; parts of them are significantly cheaper and easier to find than those for European-made vans.)
How to Use Them
It can also help to think in terms of “smiles per mile,” rather than straight gas mileage, since older vans don’t exactly drive like sports cars—or even modern SUVs.
“Have realistic expectations about performance and speed,” Sitner said. “Don’t go overboard in the romanticism of an older vehicle—the bloom can quickly wear off.”
Of course, that doddering can be part of the draw.
“A big part of the appeal for us is traveling slowly, as we do in our vintage camper,” Badger said. “It’s fair to say we’re nostalgic, and our van conjures up so much more to us than a modern van would. It forces us to slow down, live more simply, and appreciate what little we have.”
The New Route
More difficult to find, though by no means impossible—and considerably more reliable—is a brand-new surf-style van. The Sportsmobile Mercedes Sprinter 4x4, which is a Mercedes Sprinter van retrofitted by aftermarket company Sportsmobile, comes with a 3.0-liter, V6 diesel engine.
It gets 188hp and 325 pound-feet of torque on a five-speed automatic transmission, with roughly 19 miles per gallon. (A two-wheel-drive version of the Sportsmobile Sprinter gets 22mpg.)
What’s more, the big rig comes raised by 4.3 inches in the front and 3.1 inches in the rear over factory specs, which gives it better climbing ability.
The interior has such creature comforts as dinettes, couches, flat-panel TVs, wireless sound systems, internet, and comfortable sleeping for two.
It costs $90,000 in base model form, but after adding options, most cost closer to $130,000 or $140,000, according to Nick Gennock, the sales manager for Sportsmobile West.
Go West. Or North. Or East. Or South.
Now that #vanlife is glamorous and influential, it’s a sustainable vocation. King and Smith live frugally—they “thrive” on $1,800 a month, King said. But so far this year, the duo has earned $10,000 through social media collaborations centered around their van and lifestyle.
“Once I saw the ability to be a digital nomad, I saw this as being the golden age of van life,” Smith said. “We are able to sustain the lifestyle on the road while making a good income.”
Van life isn’t going anywhere. But if you join in, you will be.