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Memorial Day marks the start of the summer travel season, and AAA forecasts that 34 million Americans will hit the road this weekend, an increase of 52% from last year (although still less than 2019 levels). And an increasing number of those travelers will be hitting the road in their own RVs. RV shipments are expected to hit their highest level on record, well over 500,000, according to the RV Industry Association.
But Marco Greywe is not impressed with the hashtag #vanlife, even though it has nearly 10 million Instagram followers. He thinks a lot of the shots of immaculate interiors and yoga in the morning are staged. “Nobody likes living in a van full time,” he said. And he’s heard of Nomadland and its Oscar-winning star. (“I will have to watch it—Norm Macdonald, right?”)
Despite his indifference to pop culture, Greywe, a strapping native of Osnabrück, Germany (he played a professional German version of American football before moving to America in 1996), runs Buslab, an iconic repair shop for one of the iconic vans in history: the Volkswagen Vanagon.
The pandemic-induced thirst for the open road has kept Greywe and his six mechanics operating at max speed for more than a year. He says Buslab, which specializes in models last made in 1991, fixes about four vans a day at its Berkeley, Calif., shop. Repairs can cost as much as $50,000 for major overhauls and custom jobs.
VWs have always been a part of his life. He grew up near the Volkswagen factory that made Karmann Ghias, and the parents of his childhood friends worked at the factory. Although Greywe trained as an electrician, he had long been restoring VWs before he turned his hobby into a job.
He recently joined TIME for a conversation from the supply room off the repair shop.
(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
What has the past year been like for you?
Crazy, crazy. Volume has definitely picked up with COVID. People love to go to BLM [Bureau of Land Management] land and just be by themselves and breathe fresh air without having to worry. We are running at max capacity. We are booked out three weeks to a month in advance. People beg us to get them in earlier.
These are old vehicles you work on: Do you sometimes have tough conversations with the owners?
That is probably the worst part of our business. There’s definitely breaking a lot of bad news. It’s literally like a doctor that says, “Sorry, your heart is bad and there’s nothing you can do about it.” A lot of people in the past haven’t really kept up with maintenance, and it is like a chain reaction of repairs: an engine, transmission work, suspension.
Do you ever say, “Sorry, this patient just can’t be saved”?
Yes, I say that rarely because it’s not my decision. I can explain to them that financially it does not make any sense to fix up this van. You can see people getting teary-eyed because it has become part of the family.
What are some big-ticket jobs?
We have $40,000, $50,000 repair orders. We have people that ship their car, and we customize them with solar panels, auxiliary batteries, an updated refrigerator, basically modernizing every component in the car.
What makes these camper vans so special?
This is really the best-size vehicle that I can go out and use as a daily driver. It’s not a big RV. People love them because they’re small, but they’re really nicely set up where you have a kitchen. People are just madly in love with them.
Have you always been mechanical?
There are certain people that are gearheads from birth. I was one of those people that started taking my toys apart; I took the toaster apart, bicycles, mopeds. I’ve always been interested in how things work, and always try to fix things myself instead of just giving up on them or replacing them with new things. I will die with a wrench in my hand.
With cars so complicated and reliant on computer chips, what has been lost?
We’ve become a throwaway society: you just throw it away and get the next one on Amazon.
So you haven’t seen Nomadland yet?
People have commented that it’s kind of a sad movie. We work here, where people are extremely happy to get out and they choose to take the vans on adventures, and they’re trying to go out into the middle of nowhere and get away from it all for a while.
You are not a big fan of #vanlife?
It’s not always glamorous, you know, and they make it look very glamorous. To be honest, #vanlife was really big three, four years ago, and then it was falling off a little bit. Van prices started going down because a lot of people bought old vans that weren’t really van people, and they weren’t used to how old they were and how much maintenance they needed. So they went back to their modern cars. It sounded better in theory. They saw too many of those Instagram posts that looked like it was all paradise. So the market took a little dip, and then COVID hit and it just skyrocketed because everybody at that point … just needed an escape vehicle. The van industry is booming again.
Do you have a favorite tool?
For the VW, the 10-millimeter and the 13-millimeter wrench. You can fix half the car with it.
Are you making a good living?
It’s an O.K. living. Nobody’s getting rich doing this, not even close. I am happy with what I do. It’s not all about money. I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.