Harley Sitner didn’t plan on owning an auto body repair shop. He’s a tech entrepreneur by trade with a long tenure at Microsoft on his resume, and he’d helped launch a few businesses throughout his career, including a skincare line and a nursery. Van repair wasn’t in his 10-year plan — that is, until he bought his first VW camper van in 2008.
It’s hard to get older vans repaired, Sitner said, and he struggled to find a shop in the Pacific Northwest that could help him get the parts he needed for his new purchase. Then he found a small van repair shop in Seattle, WA called Peace Vans. The business was about to shut its doors, which gave Sitner an idea: What if he bought the place?
“I was like wow, I think I can do this. I’m passionate. I know what the market needs,” he remembered, laughing. “My wife was like ‘Really? This is what you want to do next?’ But I did it.”
When Sitner sets his mind to something, it’s clear there’s really no stopping him. It’s been six years since he purchased the shop and Peace Vans is now a small empire hidden behind a rather unremarkable storefront in Seattle’s Sodo neighborhood. Sitner has grown the business into one of the biggest camper van repair shops in the United States, with a staff of talented auto body repair folks in tow. He attributes the business’s quick growth to great customer service, deep expertise and a community vibe.
Peace Vans is made up of three parts. The first and largest is the repair shop, which boasts a month-long waitlist and offers fixes for all types of retro camper vans, especially Vanagon Westfalias. Most of the repairs are basic, focused on safety concerns like brakes and fuel. A few cases are more serious, requiring updates on motors or transmissions. Still fewer are bespoke projects, which Sitner only takes on when someone has a very clear and reasonable vision of what they want. In fact, Sitner says he was once offered his own television show about bespoke van repairs – but he turned it down. “They wanted me to put an aquarium in a van,” he said. “That’s ridiculous!”
When I visited the Peace Vans shop in early fall, camper vans were lined up end-to-end in the side yard, three deep. Sitner pointed out specific projects, like a van that a father-son pair had driven from the east coast to Seattle for a winter re-up. This is typical, Sitner said. Many of his clients come from far away because owning a Vanagon Westfalia is no small undertaking and finding a good repair shop is a big deal. Parts can be tough to find, although Sitner said VW recently sprung up a whole business dedicated to creating new parts for their older vehicles.
“It’s tough to work on these vans,” Sitner said. “Most of the ones we work on are children of the ’80s, and the ’80s were a weird period in automotive engineering. At this point, a lot of the vehicles we fix are 30 to 40 years old and they have deferred maintenance.”
Sitner also cultivates relationships with folks who make certain parts for older vans (some are even 3D printed) and Peace Vans sometimes strips older vans for parts, too. Still, he said, this is a hard business to move forward. Retro van repair is a dying art, something he’s all too aware of as he tries to keep his employees engaged. After all, the business depends on people with niche knowledge.
You can rent camper vans from Peace Vans, too, which is the second branch of Sitner’s business. For a not-so-low price, Sitner will hand you the keys to a retro VW van stocked with all the gear you need for a week or two out in the Pacific Northwest wilderness. The vans come with fridges, beds that fold down, pop tops, tables and other well-thought-out features. They’re typically reserved months in advance by out-of-town visitors who plan to explore the Pacific Northwest during the summer months.
The third part of the Peace Vans business is new. They’ve partnered with Mercedes-Benz to turn 2019 Mercedes vans into campers. For people who are interested in a high-end camper van experience, this is the way to go, Sitner said. When I visited, he was coaching an older couple on their options for decking out their new Mercedes-Benz van, including a trailer for e-bikes and enough power to support other essentials.
Not to be forgotten in this business equation is Sitner’s ability to build a strong community, which is more than likely the secret to a deeply loyal clientele. He said that people often bring six-packs of beer into his office at the end of the day, asking for free bits of advice about the best updates they can make to their vans. He’s happy to share what he knows because he truly believes in this lifestyle – so much so that he lives it, too. Sitner recently returned from Burning Man, where he slept in his maroon VW camper van the whole time. “Van life is evocative of authenticity and nostalgia, of simpler times, of an escape and disconnection,” he said.
Sitner is also set on sharing the van love with his eight-year-old daughter. Recently, they went on a four-night father-daughter van trip to the Olympic Peninsula. They spent their time together making crafts, reading and cooking their own food. “There was never once a ‘Dad, can I use your phone?’ or ‘Dad I’m bored,’” he said. “That’s magic.”