Drive far enough down West 7th Street and you can find pockets of St. Paul that haven’t yet fallen in step with the capital city’s gentle amble toward modernity. Past the faux food trucks and industrial upcycling, you’ll find steakhouses that still sport cigar burns from “legitimate businessmen” and lunch-counter diners with checkerboard on the walls.
Drive just a little farther and you’ll spot them: a proud convoy of VW camper vans in all of their chunky, retro-futuristic glory, still whispering the same promises of freedom they did from the folds of glossy ’80s magazines. Though, if Crystal Frank-Shannon had her way, these Teutonic beauties would be parked a little less conspicuously. “I’m usually the person that has to say, ‘Hide the vans!’” she jokes. “Sometimes it’s like a museum! It’s like 15 vans. People are gonna think we only do vans.”
Therein lies the catch-22 for VanGo Automotive’s co-founders and owners, Crystal and Jordan Frank-Shannon. When they spent 11 months hatching their plan to establish a shop that put equal emphasis on rentals and repairs in 2017, they knew that the iconic look of Volkswagen’s Vanagon Westfalia camper vans would be a marketing platform unto itself. They just didn’t realize how effective it would be.
“I think it’s just about people getting to know that we are a rental shop for vans, because that’s what we love, and we’re a repair shop for all the imports because we love that, too,” says Jordan. “We’ve been saying it since day one: We take care of customers, we treat ’em well, we create relationships, and everything else follows.”
Toweling his hands on a rag and climbing behind the wheel of VanGo’s newest Vanagon (“Blue Dream”), Jordan looks like Central Casting’s platonic ideal of an auto mechanic. Sporting a striped work shirt that’s just dirty enough to make his occupation plausible, Jordan radiates a folksy charm and competence honed by years in the garage.
Jordan landed his first wrenching gig in Minnesota back in 2003 at a shop specializing in German brands and stayed there for 10 years, sharpening his skills by day and moonlighting to earn extra cash in order to work on his own vintage car projects after-hours. Eventually, he moved to the other side of the desk and managed another shop for six years before tying the knot with Crystal and welcoming the birth of their daughter, Ivy. “Then we decided that if we were gonna get married and have a baby right away, then we might as well quit our jobs and go after our dreams,” Jordan cracks.
Despite likely hearing that joke for the hundredth time, Crystal’s face still creases into a genuine smile when she looks over at her husband from the van’s passenger seat. The two bonded over a love of travel and adventure years ago, and share a chemistry that still crackles like a campfire. “I think we both really, really value the outdoors—it energizes us, and we want to give that to others,” Crystal says. “Most people can’t afford or maybe they don’t want to invest in a van; it’s very expensive. So that’s where we come in, to help people get out of town in something cool.”
Crystal’s background is in social justice—she spent almost a decade as the director of Our Saviour’s Housing, a homeless shelter and housing program located in South Minneapolis. As the couple talks about clearing zoning hurdles and finding van rental insurance providers, it quickly becomes apparent that Crystal’s strategic acumen is just as crucial to VanGo’s success as Jordan’s toolbox. She’s wrangled loans from skeptical banks and women-centric investment firms, stood toe-to-toe with planning commissions, and doggedly hunted down the perfect location for VanGo. As luck would have it, the Frank-Shannons discovered their shop by knocking on doors all over town until they were able to persuade the site’s original owner (an old-school mechanic whose carbon-paper invoices were perfumed with cigarette smoke) to sell.
“It’s really hard work to be a business owner. It’s pretty intense,” Crystal says. “We’re almost two years into it. We’ve been making bold moves and we trust in our product and our service, so it’s really just about getting the word out because once people come through our doors, they stay.”
VanGo’s owners work to win that return business by focusing on the customer first and the vehicle second—a 180-degree difference from how many auto repair shops operate. Their hope is to change some of the crooked stigma that surrounds their industry: by emphasizing transparency and building relationships, the Frank-Shannons and their sole employee, a full-time mechanic, are actively disrupting standard industry practices.
“[Mechanics] usually get paid by the job,” Crystal explains. “Isn’t that incentive to go really quick so you can get that job done and then you’re on to the next? Where’s the quality, where’s the ability to be meticulous if you need to be, even though you’re not going to get paid for it?
“I think that’s so important—the work ethic and the way techs typically are paid doesn’t really set a tone for that,” she continues. “So we recently changed that to salary, with a possibility for bonuses every week, and it’s been a game changer for our staff member and for us.”
With Jordan’s automotive repair acumen creating a solid backbone for their business, the Frank-Shannons knew they needed an eye-catching way to get clients in the door, and the curb appeal of the Vanagons provided that in spades. Jordan was intimately familiar with the vehicles from his years spent working in import shops and a few camping trips in a buddy’s Westfalia, but just to make sure, in September 2016 he and Crystal packed up and took a trip down the West Coast to learn more about van culture. Along the way they visited six companies, including Peace Vans in Seattle, whose combination of vintage van repairs and rentals served as an inspiration for VanGo.
“We don’t want to be Peace Vans, but we love what they’ve been doing,” Jordan says. “The Pacific Northwest is so different than the Midwest, even the kind of money that’s in the pockets of people is different, but we look up to them and to all the other van places that have been doing this for years.”
The Frank-Shannons now have five vans available for rental: Bernie, Blue Dream, The Wolf, Blue Ox, and Cruisin’ Rex, the latter of which almost stranded Jordan on a Montana mountaintop during a blizzard. Once they were safely back in the VanGo garage, Jordan lovingly rebuilt and upgraded each vehicle to improve the reliability of their 1980s engineering.
“It’s old-school technology and a little outdated, but these things kind of make you step back with simplicity,” Jordan says reverentially. “You have more manual levers than you do electronic buttons, so that’s kind of fun.”
The genius of the Westfalia Vanagons is in the particularly German way they pack so many amenities into such a manageable, drivable package. The vans sport pop-top tents, two-burner propane stoves, two fold-out beds, sinks, mini fridge-freezer combos, storage closets, a table, and more, all while weighing about as much as a big pickup truck. Jordan and Crystal also outfit each vehicle with a full complement of supplies (including sleep, kitchen, and camp gear), taking much of the hassle out of planning a weekend trip. The one thing you will need to plan for: getting asked about the van.
“That’s one thing about the van culture, they like to talk about their stories and adventures, and so you’re sitting there for a while,” Crystal laughs.
Since the launch of their van rental service, VanGo has seen an influx of business from people from all walks of life: a young Muslim family renting two vans for their first weekend camping trip, college boys going to a music festival, a couple from Washington who rented a van for a week to celebrate their 27th anniversary. Many renters become regular repair clients. More importantly, the Frank-Shannon’s number one client already seems enamored with the van lifestyle.
“Two days ago Ivy and I are outside the shop, and she says ‘Hey, let’s go see the vans!’” Jordan says. “She leans over without me saying anything, and she goes, ‘I love you, van; I really love you, van.’”