The New York Times - Sleeping in a Delivery Van Has Never Been Sweeter
Posted Wednesday, October 27, 2004
Sleeping in a Delivery Van has Never Been Sweeter
LIKE many Texans, my father-in-law, John Mixon, chooses things that stand out.
So when we rounded the corner on a tree-lined Brooklyn street, it was easy to find him: his bright red Sprinter towered above the sensible neighborhood cars.
He and his wife, Judy, were visiting New York City from Houston, and had parked in front of the brownstone where Millicent, my wife's stepsister, lives with her husband.
This was our first opportunity to see the Sprinter, which is built by Mercedes-Benz and commonly used in Europe as a delivery van or a tour bus, but a pretty uncommon sight in the United States.
It is even less so in its incarnation as an eye-catching recreational vehicle that is big enough to serve as a rolling bedroom but small enough, at 22 feet bumper to bumper, to wedge into a generous parking space.
The Mixons have joined the ranks of a small group of people who have taken to the roads in big-but-not-too-big vehicles that allow them to hit the road in idiosyncratic style.
"When we roll into a campsite, the folks look at us like we're from outer space," Mr. Mixon said.
They might be wondering just who it is who's cruising the country in a repainted United Parcel Service truck. Or, if they know something about the van's heritage, they might be burning with envy over the guy who's tooling around in the biggest Mercedes van they ever saw. Or they might just be seeing it as yet another example of how quirky the RV world remains.
Recreational vehicle sales are booming in the United States, with wholesale shipments by August of this year rising nearly 19 percent over the same seven-month period the year before.
The numbers are going up even faster for what are known as van campers, the smaller vehicles favored by people who believe that an RV does not need to be big enough to have its own gravitational field. They make up only 1.7 percent of all RV's that are shipped, but grew more than 21 percent in the first seven months of this year over the same period in 2003.
And the Sprinter is an even smaller portion of that class. The van is sold in Europe with the iconic three-star Mercedes-Benz grille, and has been sold in this country as a Freightliner or a Dodge (which has not stopped many owners from buying a Mercedes grille for the European version and retrofitting their van with the status symbol).
The buyer generally pays about $40,000 for the van, and then tens of thousands of dollars more to have it converted into an RV by companies like Sportsmobile in Austin, Tex., and Creative Mobile Interiors in Grove City, Ohio.
Some people take on the job themselves. Andrew Bittenbinder, an automotive engineer in Pittsburgh, is converting his own van because he wanted a camper with a pop top with tent fabric, and could not find a company that could do the job.
"It has been nine months of a few hours a day," Mr. Bittenbinder said, but he is on the verge of completing the body work and putting in a double bed "upstairs," where he and his wife will be able to sleep in the outdoors and feel the evening breeze.
"No matter how much cargo, how much stuff you have downstairs, in one or two minutes you have a penthouse upstairs," Mr. Bittenbinder said.
He is now moving on to the next phase: a removable galley so that the van can be used for camping, or for hauling a rebuilt Porsche engine to a customer.
But few Sprinter owners — let's face it, few humans — have that level of skill or patience.
Owen Connaughton, the president of Creative Mobile Interiors, said his company provided the kind of luxury conversions that the well-heeled might use for tailgate parties or to ferry executives around.
One customer who was divorced and had three teenagers simply told him, "Build me something that makes them want to hang out with me."
That van, which cost $157,000, included four flat-screen televisions with separate DVD feeds, a 1,200-watt surround sound stereo and in-motion satellite television.