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The Sprinter Van’s Glamorous Turn

The Sprinter Van’s Glamorous Turn

When Kendall Jenner attended the 2022 Met Gala in a Prada gown with an enormous flowing skirt, getting her to the Metropolitan Museum of Art required special transportation. A limousine would not do, nor would an SUV — walking in the dress was a challenge; sitting, impossible. The solution: Ms. Jenner would be driven, standing, in a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van.

On the way to the event, as a way to relieve her anxiety about running late, Ms. Jenner relieved herself in an ice bucket while standing in the van. “Best decision I ever made,” she said of that moment in an episode of “The Kardashians” on Hulu.

The Sprinter van, a towering box on wheels with nearly six-and-a-half feet of head room, is a direct descendant of the earliest motorized caravans developed by Karl Benz in 1896. (Some 30 years later, he and Gottlieb Daimler founded the Mercedes-Benz company.) The Sprinter, first released in Europe in 1995, started being sold domestically in 2010. Last year, Mercedes-Benz unveiled an electric version.

The van — which can be used to transport up to 15 passengers (or cargo) — is appreciated by automotive enthusiasts for its build quality, reliability and versatility, as well as for the thrust and longevity of the diesel engine in most versions.

But other people have come to recognize the Sprinter for different reasons, among them its proximity to celebrities. The van has become a preferred mode of transportation for actors, singers, athletes and “Real Housewives,” and is now a staple in streets outside star-studded events like the Oscars and the Met Gala.

The vans have become so popular as transportation to the spring gala in New York that demand for them can outstrip the local supply. “Sprinters are being brought in from Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami,” said Etienne Haro, the general manager of the Mark Hotel on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where many Met Gala guests spend time both before and after the main event.

In recent years, between 50 and 70 guests have traveled to the gala from the Mark, with about 40to 50 of those people riding in Sprinters. Many of those vans are rented and driven by guests’ personal chauffeurs. On the day of the gala, the Mark has a team of about 30 people tracking vehicles’ locations to ensure their passengers arrive punctually, Mr. Haro said.

Sprinter riders often take advantage of the van’s roomy interior to ensure they also arrive looking flawless. “The entourage, glam team, stylist — everyone can hop in to put on the finishing touches,” Mr. Haro said.

But occasionally, he added, some Sprinter passengers have hit bumps in the road on their way to and from the gala.

“Getting out of a Sprinter with a voluminous gown and high heels can be challenging,” Mr. Haro said, noting one instance in which a Mark employee caught a Met Gala guest “in midair” as she was falling out of a van. He recalled another guest “whose dress was so intricate that she could not enter her vehicle.”

Though it bears Mercedes-Benz’s three-point-star logo, the Sprinter has an otherwise innocuous exterior that, for some famous fans, has as much appeal as its capacious interior.

“Our clients say, ‘The paparazzi are chasing us around; we don’t want to be in something that’s sticking out like a sore thumb, like a Rolls or a Bentley,” said Howard Becker, the founder of Becker Automotive Design in Southern California, which has customized Sprinter vans and other vehicles for people like the director Steven Spielberg, the actor Mark Wahlberg and the television host Steve Harvey.

“The Sprinter kind of fades in,” said Mr. Becker, 75.

The starting price for a diesel-engine van is about $50,000; electric Sprinters start at about $72,000. But models outfitted by Mr. Becker or by Gabi Mashal, whose Southern California company Bespoke Coach also customizes the vans, typically cost between $350,000 and $450,000.

Their distinctive features can include temperature-controlled, lie-flat seats with built-in massagers, secure internet routers, state-of-the-art stereo and video systems and onboard bathrooms for their owners.

“These people can’t use a public restroom,” said Mr. Mashal, 60, who has customized vans for the singer Mark Anthony and the boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr.

The Sprinter’s size and luxurious reputation are reasons it has replaced vehicles like limousines and SUVs as the rental transportation of choice on many versions of “The Real Housewives,” said Nate Green, an executive producer of “The Real Housewives of Miami.” He described the Sprinter as a friend of the “Housewives,” using a term given to supporting characters in the franchise who appear regularly in episodes.

Mr. Green said his show’s crew also favors Sprinters because the van’s cabin has enough room for camera operators to stand — and to film from several angles.

“This is really important,” Mr. Green said, “because ‘Housewives’ is sometimes more about the reaction than about the actual dialogue.”

Throughout the reality TV franchise’s 18 years on Bravo, Sprinter vans have been a place where housewives have drunkenly fallen down, signed divorce papers, passionately kissed co-stars, engaged in verbal spats and been approached by officers with the Department of Homeland Security.

“When people see a Sprinter van, they know that there’s going to be something that happens that’s going to be iconic,” said Lisa Shannon, an executive producer of the New York and Salt Lake City installments of “The Real Housewives,” as well as its “Ultimate Girls Trip” spinoff.

The Sprinter, while strongly associated with the “Housewives” franchise, has appeared in more than 4,000 movies and TV episodes. Like many tokens of pop culture, it has been imitated on “The Simpsons,” and it recently joined one of cinema’s most distinguishable automotive fleets: the vehicles in “Ghostbusters.”

In the series’s latest film, “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire,” released in March, a new van called Ecto-Z — a black Sprinter outfitted with racks for proton packs — is featured alongside the tail-finned 1959 Cadillac ambulance known to many as the Ecto-1.

Eric Reich, an executive producer of “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire,” said a Sprinter was chosen for the Ecto-Z role after Mercedes-Benz and Sony, the film’s distributor, had meetings to discuss product placement. He added that a Sprinter, like a Cadillac, made sense for transporting the Ghostbusters and their gear because both vehicles blend “luxury and function.”

That amalgamation has also made Sprinters popular among so-called vanlifers — people known for cavorting, traveling and sleeping in customized vans. Many of them document their lifestyles online, including Peter Holcombe, 51, who has spent much of the last decade living with his wife, Kathy, 50, and daughter, Abby, 19, in four Sprinter vans outfitted by the motor-home company Winnebago. (The Holcombes are brand ambassadors for Mercedes-Benz and Winnebago; they bought three of their vans at a discount.)

In their vans, the family has visited all 50 states, several national parks and 19 European countries. (Last year, Abby moved out of the family vehicle and into one of her own.) The Holcombes are currently driving what’s known as the Pan-American Highway, a network of roads that runs from Alaska to the southern tip of South America.

“We’ve done over 400,000 miles in Sprinters,” Mr. Holcombe said.

Wes Siler, a backcountry camper and a columnist for Outside magazine in Bozeman, Mont., is less of a fan.

Mr. Siler, 43, who camps out of a converted pickup truck, said the cost of buying and customizing a Sprinter for outdoor exploring is excessive for what he described as little more than a “poseur backdrop.”

“They’re cool on Instagram,” he said. “That’s, like, the entire story.”

But even Mr. Siler, who grew up in Europe, recognizes that the van has a certain appeal. He recalled getting to prom at his high school in London in a Sprinter that had been outfitted as a party bus.

“You couldn’t want a better limo,” he said.

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