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Nostalgia for VW vans and road trips boost Coquitlam camper van rental business

Port Moody entrepreneur started his Honest Camper business after a road trip with his son in a retro VW; now he's refurbishing campers and renting them out to British Columbians denied international travel during the COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19 has clobbered the cruise ship, airline, tourism and hospitality industries, but one Coquitlam business may be set to thrive amid the uncertainty of summer travel created by the pandemic.

Honest Camper, which has a stable of five camper vans — including two refurbished VW Westfalias — is booking now for a summer that is expected to be more enjoyable if Dr. Bonnie Henry’s promise of “brighter days” comes to fruition.

Owner William Jarvis believes nostalgia for simpler times and yearning to get outdoors is what’s prompting people to book his vans, including the 80s era, boxy Westfalia workhorses that conjure up happy memories of a time before COVID-19.

“People are keen to get out. I’m starting to see that now. People have accepted their fate they are not going to travel outside of the country, they’re looking for ways to stay local.”

Jarvis is a big booster of heading out into B.C.’s beautiful interior and experiencing the freedom that a small camper van can provide.

In fact, it was one such trip up the Sunshine Coast in a retro VW van with his son, Jake, that was the inspiration for Honest Camper. 

Playing games with his son, roasting marshmallows over a campfire and snuggling up in a sleeping bag were among the joys of camping, and Jarvis, who’d become interested in minimalism and the Tiny House trend, felt he’d landed onto something others might enjoy, too.

“It’s a chance to unplug and get more connected with each other, that was such a great experience, I remember going to our next spot, thinking this is ‘awesome,’” he said.

He’s not the first person to be lured by nostalgia to purchase a VW van and nurse it for a few thousand more miles. Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace continue to offer these ‘60s era symbols and people will pay huge dollars for them.

For Jarvis though, he saw a business in renting out these vintage vehicles.  

Handy with tools and with a creative eye, Jarvis gave up his career in the technology industry and started buying vehicles and renovating them into simple, roving dwellings but with a modern retro feel.

The fleet includes three models: two VW Westfalias (boosted with 2L Ford engines); two Mercedes-Benz Sprinters (with roof-top tents) and an efficient yet roomy Mercedes-Benz Metris with a pop-top roof (a sixth is on the way). All offer the comfy basics, and a cleaning policy for confidence during the pandemic.

They are stored at a lot in Coquitlam and Jarvis, who lives in Port Moody, said the vehicles have been used for romantic island getaways and boisterous family camping trips (they sleep up to four). He expects the same type of journeys this year.

One person even booked a vehicle for their 14-day COVID-19 isolation period.

There are tables for dining indoors during inclement weather. Rugged BF Goodrich All-Terrain tires provide traction on various road services and the vehicles come with two-burner camping stoves — but no toilets.

Jarvis will even fill the fridge with delights from Whole Foods and pack the liquor cabinet as well — a hot water shower is among the available add-ons.

“The idea for these vans is to be simple and have a very small footprint,” said Jarvis, noting that people typically use the facilities at their campground.

Still, Jarvis is cautious because B.C. is not out of the pandemic woods yet, as current restrictions and vaccinations have yet to battle back case numbers. 

“It’s looking positive but it’s also challenging, you don’t know what’s going to happen with restrictions,” he said.

But for anyone who has driven a VW van, the experience is all about the journey. Neither sleek nor fast nor nimble, these retro beasts may provide just enough of an endorphin boost to get some folks through the pandemic.