Buslab is a Berkeley repair shop specializing in the VW bus

On a cloudy Wednesday morning in Berkeley, an array of vibrant paint jobs offer a kaleidoscopic contrast to the long stretch of gray pavement on Adeline Street. When I spot the line of vintage VW buses, I know I’m in the right place: Buslab, a 19-year-old auto repair and used parts shop that specializes in what has become one of the most popular modes of transportation in the Bay Area. 

A highlighter yellow bus with a matte, vinyl-wrapped body is parked in front of a beige Vanagon with a plaid-patterned interior and bright orange wheels splattered with mud. The trunk is practically overflowing with camping gear, and a hand-painted Route 66 ashtray rests on the dash. Next to it, a grasshopper green bus with a wooden cabinet setup inside has a string of blue beads hanging from the rearview mirror, while a white van with yellow, red and orange stripes has a knit blanket with a zig-zag print strewn over the fold-out bed that looks like it’s straight out of the basement from “That ’70s Show.” At least 30 other buses are snugly arranged in the nearby yard, waiting for repairs. 

“The customer base is A to Z,” says owner Marco Greywe. “We have people come in that are 16 years old and people who are 82 years old. From the DJ to the old professor at Berkeley, there’s no formula to bus ownership. It’s multigenerational.”

A van on a hydraulic lift at Buslab.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Buslab was born at a 1,000-square-foot Richmond warehouse in 2002. Taking notice of the plethora of VW buses on the road, Greywe and his business partner Steve Perzan began to buy and sell the vehicles, accumulating a vast clientele before moving to a new location on Blake Street in downtown Berkeley, which they “quickly outgrew,” said Greywe. They leased their current building and its adjacent lot on the fork of Adeline Street and Stanford Avenue in 2010, and while it boasts five times the space they once had, the quarters are once again becoming cramped as the shop attempts to meet the demand of more customers than ever before. 

“It is very difficult to find a bigger location in the Bay Area, so we make the best with what we have,” said Greywe.

Owner Marco Greywe talks with a mechanic driving a van at Buslab. 

Owner Marco Greywe talks with a mechanic driving a van at Buslab. 

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Inside the warehouse, the thrums of a string jazz quartet echo from a stereo, occasionally interrupted by the hiss of an air compressor or a mechanical grind as a bus is elevated on an alignment lift. A chocolate Labrador retriever — fittingly named Buster Lab — naps on an overstuffed dog bed next to his canine counterpart, Ladybug. The front counter is a cabinet retrofitted with the nose of a 1972 bus, and behind it, dozens of clipboards with corresponding car keys are neatly arranged on the wall. 

“Repair orders,” explains Greywe. “We’re constantly trying to catch up. I’d say we fix anywhere between five and 10 vans each day.”

The front counter at Buslab. 

The front counter at Buslab. 

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

 He doesn’t think it’s a business that’s going to slow down any time soon — he works the 12-hour shifts almost daily to prove it.  


“It’s hard to say, but I see hundreds upon hundreds of these cars here,” he said. “So much more than in other parts of the country.”

Some customers are fueled by nostalgia, inheriting the VW buses once owned by their parents or grandparents.

The vans were conceptualized in 1947 when Ben Pon, a Dutch distributor of Volkswagen Beetles, discovered flatbed trucks that were repurposed from the vehicles to transport parts around the manufacturer’s first factory. The idea went into production in 1950, and when the campers were exported to the U.S. six years later, they became a countercultural symbol that achieved cult status among the likes of the Grateful Dead and car owners who wanted to stand out, “rejecting mainstream American culture,” Roger White, curator of road transportation history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, told the museum’s magazine. The vehicles were easy to drive, fun to customize and were popularly used during the political upheaval of the 1960s as a form of transportation to protests and rallies, added White. 

A woman stands next to a Volkswagen bus painted in a bold design in San Francisco in this photo dating back to July 1967.

A woman stands next to a Volkswagen bus painted in a bold design in San Francisco in this photo dating back to July 1967.

Bettmann/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Greywe himself has been taking apart — and repairing — cars for about as long as he’s been able to drive, purchasing a 1960 Ragtop Beetle at the age of 17, when he was still living in his hometown of Osnabrück, Germany, not far from a Volkswagen production facility. His parents’ yard filled with cars in various states of repair before Greywe decided to move to the U.S. and turn his hobby into a career. 

One major reason why Greywe thinks he’s busier than ever is the “Van Life” movement, which saw a recent resurgence and gained further traction during the pandemic. 

“It was — and still is — huge,” said Greywe. “When COVID came, it grew immensely again because everyone wanted to get out and go camping. It boosted the sales and the value in my business because everybody was trying to get out of town instead of being stuck inside.”

Prices of some vans have doubled as a result, he added.

“These buses are equally or more popular than they ever were. It’s sad, because some people who want to travel the U.S. can’t afford one of these vehicles anymore so they are forced to drive something else.”

At the same time, the vehicles require a lot of costly maintenance to stay up and running. Buslab offers just about any service you can think of, from brake, engine and transmission repairs to exterior and interior upgrades and customization. But it all adds up: Depending on the job, customers can be billed anywhere from $200 to $45,000 per appointment. 

Parts sold at Buslab.

Parts sold at Buslab.

Amanda Bartlett/SFGATE

I ask Greywe why it’s worth buying and fixing up these aging vehicles, and he tells me that sometimes, it’s not. 

“It’s just because you love driving it,” he said. “Most of my customers are very emotional about their cars. Almost daily, they’re exceeding the value of the car for repairs because of sentimental reasons.”

He’s heard it all: stories of customers who grew up camping in their van with grandparents, or fond memories of road trips taken with kids. 

“Sometimes, I try to talk them out of spending so much money and they say, ‘I don’t care. Whatever it takes. I’m not going to get rid of this,’” said Greywe. “There’s a lot of memories attached to these cars. All I can do is tell them what’s wrong with it and they decide what to do afterward.”

Mechanic Mikey Roesinger inspects a van at Buslab.

Mechanic Mikey Roesinger inspects a van at Buslab.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

One of the mechanics, Mikey Roesinger, tells me about a recurring dream he’s had about his own ride — a 1966 21-window VW bus that he wound up having to sell. 

“I would be driving the bus to meet the buyer,” he said. “I would be kind of apologetic, like ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. I can’t sell this car to you. It’s too important to me. I need to keep it.’ And the end of the dream is always me driving away with it. Of course, I’d wake up, and the car was gone.” 

He channels his passion into the cars he works with today — including what I recognize to be Buslab’s baby, the Land Hopper. A modified van made in the likeness of the Island Hopper driven by T.C. Calvin in the ’80s TV series “Magnum, P.I.,” the staff frequently takes the vehicle out for joy rides in their spare time.

The "Land Hopper" is one of the VW buses owned by Buslab, an auto mechanic shop that specializes in repairing the vehicles, in Berkeley on Dec. 8, 2021.

The “Land Hopper” is one of the VW buses owned by Buslab, an auto mechanic shop that specializes in repairing the vehicles, in Berkeley on Dec. 8, 2021.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Over the years, Greywe has fixed his fair share of vehicles for well-known clients, ranging from Billie Joe Armstrong’s 1954 Beetle to some of the buses that give rides to tourists in the Haight and Alamo Square. He added that a friend of his also has a Syncro Westfalia camper identical to the one owned by Tom Hanks. 

While he didn’t get to work on the car, the best paint job Greywe has seen is the one adorning the original van driven by Sean Penn’s character Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” which can be found in the Bay Area today. 

Greywe’s favorite stories, though, are about the bonds he’s forged with longtime customers, many of whom became employees or friends that he now goes camping with. 

“The business is not an entity. It’s a way of life,” he said. “You start to be part of a family you didn’t know you had.”

Mechanic Tyler Montobbio pats Ladybug, one of the shop dogs at Buslab.

Mechanic Tyler Montobbio pats Ladybug, one of the shop dogs at Buslab.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Greywe’s most recent client, Ted Ackley, drove close to 75 miles from Santa Cruz for a repair on the engine of his blue and white 1990 Westfalia camper, accompanied by his wife, Pam. Buslab specializes in cars from this particular era, which are arguably the most popular on the road today.

“They’re modern enough to have basic functions like a heater that works, and you can drive them on the freeway at a decent speed, but they’re old enough that they have that old VW van feel,” said Greywe. “They’re the newest of the old generation.”

Ackley has been driving Volkswagen vehicles since he was 17 years old, including “a ’58 bug, a ’67 bus and an ’82 van.” His current van, he said, is ideal for surfing and camping, and he’s driven it to Baja a number of times, as well as the Eastern Sierra. He said there’s a popular shop that specializes in VW bus parts in Los Angeles but it no longer performs the type of maintenance his current vehicle requires.

Ted Ackley talks about his van at Buslab.

Ted Ackley talks about his van at Buslab.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

When the newly repaired van rounds the corner, I noticed that it’s plastered in bumper stickers. One reads “Darwin Loves You.” Another says “I tried to see your point of view, but I couldn’t get my head that far up my ass.”

“Something to offend anyone,” he says with a laugh. “Have you ever been inside one of these before? Hop in.”

I climb into the driver’s seat, taking a look around. The interior is outfitted with everything you might need on the road: a fold-out bed with well-worn blankets, a fridge and a storage cabinet topped with a two-burner stove and a sink. 

The most impressive feature, however, is the view from behind the steering wheel, which unfolds with endless possibility. Ackley grins at me knowingly. 

“Pretty cool, right?”

Several buses sit in the lot at Buslab, an auto mechanic shop that specializes in repairing Volkswagen vans, in Berkeley on Dec. 8, 2021.

Several buses sit in the lot at Buslab, an auto mechanic shop that specializes in repairing Volkswagen vans, in Berkeley on Dec. 8, 2021.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Mechanics drive and inspect Vanagons at Buslab.

Mechanics drive and inspect Vanagons at Buslab.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Stickers adorn the back of a van at Buslab.

Stickers adorn the back of a van at Buslab.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Buslab owner Marco Greywe's customized Vanagon was used as Santa's chariot for the San Rafael Christmas parade on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021.

Buslab owner Marco Greywe’s customized Vanagon was used as Santa’s chariot for the San Rafael Christmas parade on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021.

Courtesy of Marco Greywe/Buslab