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|Preaching to the choir? (long post)||Casper||11-1-03|
|Ok, I've put little time into this. I subscribe to the theory that if you can't justify something on paper you probably shouldn't do it. Look this over an tell me what you think. Also, please let me know what I've forgotten, (I know some of you will say that I've underestimated some costs, but I'm not thinking about brand new dometic fridges here, and I'm a really good scrounger).|
In the past we have discussed acquiring a motorhome. We looked at a 34' Class A Winnebago at C&C Dodge-Toyota recently and were quite impressed. We have agreed that it would be a good item to have, allowing us to enjoy high quality vacations with the children. They will not be with us much longer. We all have places in mind to visit. Dad - Grand Canyon, Mom - New England, Daughter - West Coast, Son - anything automotive (Henry Ford Museum, Indy etc.).
To accomplish these goals in a timely manner at a price we can afford, it would be wise to consider converting a retired school bus into a motorhome. This is not black magic, nor is it uncommon. Many successful conversions have been done using everything from retired Greyhound busses to minivans. There are several resources available offering builders how-to's and advice on each step of the process. Given our track record of accomplishing major tasks like installing city water lines and building houses, it is not out of line to assume that this is a task we can complete with a satisfactory result.
1. Cost. Commercially built motorhomes are not cheap. A used unit with the features we require for comfortable travel with a family of four and the mechanical integrity to allow us to do the long-haul travelling we envision cannot be had for less than $15K. This is more than either of us want to spend. A school bus can be converted on a "Pay as you go" schedule with the costs held to a reasonable level.
2. Durability. Units in the price range we can consider will be equipped with big block gasoline engines. Gas engines in this application generally require rebuilding at 80K miles or so. This is why so many of the affordable motorhomes have 75K miles on the odometer. A school bus is built on a medium-duty truck frame equipped with a commercial quality diesel engine. International Harvester trucks of this type typically last 500K miles in commercial service.
3. Safety. Commercially built units are mostly wood and fiberglass. They do not do well in an accident. Busses are built to rigid federal safety standards. The entire body structure is made of steel.
Motorhomes are generally built on the lightest chassis the builder can get away with, and most of the ones you see on the road are actually running overloaded. Busses are built on real truck chassis and are capable of carrying and (and most importantly stopping) much more weight than a family heading for Yellowstone will ever put inside.
4. Sleeping quarters. The units we would consider will generally have a queen bed in the back as the only permanent sleeping provision. For the youngsters to bed down it will be necessary to rearrange furniture, converting the dinette to a bed and folding out a futon. A bus has the space for each youngster to have a bunk and some storage space. With a curtain installed the bunk becomes a private place - each of them will have their own little hole to hide in. Privacy will become very important to a teenager who has been living in a truck with his/her family for a week.
5. Transmission preference. Motorhomes are equipped with automatic transmissions. This seems to be a law of nature, as I have never seen a motorhome built after 1970 with a stick shift. Busses can easily be found with 5, 7, or even 5x2 speed manual transmissions. Given both drivers' preferences, and the improved fuel mileage a manual transmission provides, this is an important consideration for us.
1. Work. Converting the bus will be a considerable task. It will require afternoons and weekends for a few months. A commercial unit can be purchased ready to go.
2. Appearance. Professionally built motorhomes are very pretty inside. The woodwork and upholstery are professionally done and the look is very pleasing. Most of the wood is actually laminate over chipboard and therefore not very durable. A home converted bus can be done reasonably well and can look reasonably nice, but the appearance will not be as nice as a Winnebago.
3. Fuel. Diesel fuel can sometimes be challenging to locate. Gas is available everywhere.
4. Snobbery. Among the campground crowd people in school bus conversions are considered the "White trash" of the camp. Many of the nicer campgrounds will not let a converted school bus in. (I wouldn't want to join any club that would have me.) This is actually the legacy of the "Dirty Hippy" generation. A nicely done conversion with a sedate, non-psychadelic paint job will be welcome in most places, and in all state and national parks.
Schoolbus conversion Checklist:
"Gotta have" list
1. Bus, Recently retired conventional school bus with 11 or 12 rows of seats. Diesel engine/ Manual transmission. Air brakes preferable. Well maintained with maintenance records. Less than 15 years old. Less than 200K miles. Minimal rust.
2. Sheet metal to cover windows. Drills, pop rivets.
3. Exterior paint/supplies. Rustoleum (3 gal), primer, brushes-rollers. Sanding/masking stuff.
4. Lumber for walls, bedframes, countertops, Dinette booth.
5. Propane system.
6. Water system. Tanks, pump, plumbing supplies, toilet, shower, kitchen sink.
7. Interior paint (semi-gloss house paint), Carpet (remnants), Tile.
8. Kitchen appliances (cooktop, fridge, coffeemaker)
9. Cushion/upholstery supplies. Booth cushions, misc. upholstery.
10. Batteries, 12V system wiring.
Total basic conversion = $2,500/$3,500
"Nice to have" list
1. Inverter, 110VAC system w/shore power hookup.
2. Generator (used, Ebay?)
3. AC unit, (Need 2?)
4. Furnace/ Ductwork
6. TV (12V-110V)
$200 - How fast ya wanna go? DVD? VCR?
7. Cruise control,
8. Steel/paint for rear deck/bike rack.
9. Steel/window/latch to upgrade passenger door. Fold-down decking for entry well.
10. Captains chairs, salvaged from conversion van. (4).
Finish out costs = $2,000
Total = $4,500-$5,500.
Note: some items may be available by cheaply acquiring a used/damaged trailer or truck camper.
Other vacation options:
From a cost/value approach, how does bus/motorhome travel compare to other forms of travel?
1. Car/motels: Pro: no new vehicle costs. Excellent fuel mileage. Con: Motel costs, misery while traveling. Restaurant costs.
2. Trailer: Pro: Used trailers are quite affordable. Con: Need to upgrade truck. Misery while traveling.
3. Air travel-rental car: Pro: quick quick quick. Con: expensive expensive expensive.
4. Stay home: Who the hell wants to do that?
Bus vacation costs:
Fuel: 10mpg on diesel. Marietta to San Diego and back = 5000 miles-500 gallons-$800. This is approximately equal to 2 round trip plane tickets.
Campground costs: State parks average $10 a night. Possible to stay most nights at Wal-Mart or other free parking. Many rest areas and truck stops offer free water fill up and sewerage dump.
Food: groceries to cook in the bus. Same costs as at home.
Maintenance: Big diesels require 4 oil changes a year at $50 per. Air filter annually, $75. Tires are approximately $200 per. If the bus has good tires when bought they should last for years.
|Re: Preaching to the choir? (long post)||Bus Tin Out in NH||12-14-03|
I too am doing a bus conversion conversion. I wanted a flat nose, diesel pusher and found a 31' - 91 Thomas with a 5.9 Cummins and Allison auto 4 speed. I drove it home over Hogback Mt in Vt in a raging Nor'Easter. What a trip! My wife finally made me stop because she couldn't keep up in her heavily snow tired VW. The rear engine pushers are quiet and get amazing traction. Highly recommended! My bus was used in Rochester, NY and was in service up to a few months ago. I was pleasantly surprised to find it was turbocharged, had new batteries, a new drag link and no leaks; all after I bought it sight unseen. I would recommend the automatic for resale value down the road. The fact that all motorhomes are equipped this way tells you how popular an item it is. I drive a stick C-5 Corvette, but wouldn't consider another stick motercoach. I did a stick bus 20 years ago and you had to work that baby all the time. The Allison is a breeze to drive. As for the above cost estimates, double or tripple everything. It's wild how quickly brushes, fasteners, glue, bits, lumber, trim, wire, etc all add up. If you can find a wrecked unit, it ca be salvaged for most major items. I'm looking now in fact. On my last conversion I found a 5th wheel that a barn had fallen in on. Cost me peanuts for all the major components and furniture. The dealer let me have it cheap because he just wanted a bare frame back. Hope to get that lucky again. Anyone know where a wrecked Wanderlodge can be had? I'd really like to buy that cool roof rack or have one built. Good luck all you dreamers. See you at Walmart!
|Re: Preaching to the choir? (long post)||Casper||11-1-03|
I don't think we're really talking about the same thing. You're apparently fulltiming (retired?) in a dream machine. I'm a mid 30's guy building something just a notch or two above a portable steel tent to take my kids on vacation and the odd weekend out of town, and doing it on the cheap. I buy nothing that I can build myself, and as a machinist with a woodworking hobby, I can build a lot of stuff. I can buy enough lumber at the outlet store and hardware at OddLots to do servicable if not gorgeous basic cabinets in half a dozen buses for $2500. Used gas powered generators are pretty affordable if you're not afraid to rebuild a small engine.
It sounds like you went first class, and I applaud that if you have the need and the means. I have neither, and I'm shooting a little lower.
Thanks for the reply.
|Re: Preaching to the choir? (long post)||Roger Walling||11-1-03|
|I don't mean to discourage you but my generator cost me $3500, My cabinets, $2500. Good by budget. But if you enjoy the mobility and schedule free atmosphere like I do, Start looking for a per-converted bus and save all the money that the other person lost. You will be way ahead.|
|Re: Preaching to the choir? (long post)||Les Lampman||11-2-03|
I'm only a few weeks ahead of you having purchased my bus on October 18th.
I think your first premise is totally incorrect; if we had to justisfy everything on paper there'd be no Art. Man does not live by justification alone. :-) If the project sounds fun and it'll be rewarding and your family will enjoy the fruits of your (and their?) labors then go for it; it's all the reason you need.
Personally, other than a rough guesstimate I wouldn't even worry about the costs involved. If you have the disposable income to support the conversion and you don't do it and look back 5 years from now there's about a 99% chance you'll have spent the money on *something*. I've put off about 3 major projects in my life waiting for things to be "just right" in order to start. What a joke, I could have done all three, had a great time and still had the same amount of money I have now (Lord knows, it went somewhere!). If you start the conversion and you really want it you'll find the money and or the materials to get it completed. The total cost won't make a hill of beans difference; you'll just decide what you need as you go along and it'll end up costing what it does. I'm not even keeping track since I can afford what I purchase each time; when I get done buying what I want and can afford, the bus will be done! :-)
Who knows if your figures are right? They're totally low if you're buying everything new; they may be high if you like garage sales, flea markets and are "resouceful". You'll be looking for deals, you'll get leads and you'll find what you need.
Your target price for the bus might be optimistic but you never know. I didn't really come across anything only 15 years old or newer with a diesel in that price range and everything I did find that was within the last 15-20 years with diesel also had an automatic. I ended up with a 1979 Internatinal (S-model chassis) with a DT466 turbo diesel with an Allison 4-speed auto and a Blue Bird 65-passenger body. I drove it home 1500 miles and so far I'm very pleased. The major criterium for my bus was the engine; I wanted the DT466 because I live out west where mountain passes are a way of life and I wanted the power to climb.
So start shopping, find your bus and we'll watch your progress and share info.
All the best,
|Re: Preaching to the choir? (long post)||Ron R||11-1-03|
|It look's good on Paper...lot of work...doing one 1981 Crown...water and AC...are cost-ly...there is more to it..go for it it is worth it...RON|
|Re: Preaching to the choir? (long post)||John the busboy||11-1-03|
|Your numbers might need a little adjusting. |
Our approach has been to get the bus configured as a minimal camper, then work on other things. The two most important "other things" for us have been noise and ride quality.
We keep going back and forth between one area and the next. Slowly it is getting done.
More than anything the bus is a hobby. Having a diesel is lots of fun. having something as big as the bus to work on is fun.
If you expect to travel a lot, then get one that is geared for the road. One that the "school team" might have used. This one will have extra storage space as well.
And get the best bus you can afford.
John the busboy
|Re: Preaching to the choir? (long post)||Mark O.||11-4-03|
If nothing else, the best thing you have learned is to ask questions.
As you get closer to purchasing your bus, the most important thing to remember, more than anything else, is purchase the best bus possible. The last thing you will want to do is spend a lot of hard work, sweat, and $$$ on a conversion only to find the running gear is not up to the task.
I realize you want a stickshift but the reality is automatic transmissions have been standard equipment in school buses for more than twenty years now (at least they have been here in WA state). I have seen only one new bus with a stickshift in the last twenty years. And that school had to pay extra to get it!
Can you retrofit a manual for an automatic? Probably. Would it make much difference? Probably not.
We have run 10-wheel harvest trucks with DT466's. The only difference has been in the transmissions. On runs between SW WA and Salem, OR, the automatics got around 6 MPG and the stickshifts got around 6.5 MPG. Hill climbing was just about identical. There is no comparison in the ease of driving, I will take an automatic any day--I prefer to consider myself shiftless, not shifty!
One question that comes to mind is why limit yourself to a conventional school bus? There are still a lot of good Crown and Gillig mid-mount buses out there. A Crown or a Gillig with a DD 6-71 or a Cummins NHH will blow the doors off of any other school bus while giving you 35-40' of interior room.
If you are convinced a conventional is the way to go, since you say you are a welder, a bus with a Carpenter bus body may be a very good choice for you.
Ever since the problems surfaced in regards to faulty welds in the roof rails the resale value of Carpenter body buses has fallen through the floor. I have seen buses less than 10 years old selling on E-bay for less than the salvage value of the running gear.
In regards to the paint, don't use brushes or rollers if you don't want to have the dirty hippy look. For just a little bit more $$$ you can purchase fleet colors at NAPA and spray it on. Not only is the paint made for vehicles like buses but it can be easily applied by just about anyone with an air compressor and a paint gun.
Good luck and happy trails.
|Re: Preaching to the choir? (long post)||buster||11-10-03|
|I've got a thomas with high head room and i love it. allison all the way. you'll never find anyone to relieve you at the wheel if you buy a stick. |
i painted with a brush and roller using hammerite paint. gives an attractive if different finish. rolled the roof with white primer.
honda eu series generators are the only way to go. they are an inverter of sorts. quiet and efficient. from your original estimate i would only say your short on insulation and a sound system. skip a lot of the interior work and take the kids to the first festival that has donna the buffalo playing (shakori hills grassroots probably next spring) every weekend you spend working on that interior is one less you spend with your kids.
|Great thread. 2 more ?'s||Casper||11-7-03|
|Good thread, good discussion. Thanks to all of you who responded.|
I was planning to brush paint with Rustoleum, which can turn out pretty well if done right. I had feared automotive paint because of the $100 a gallon factor, but I think I'll swing by NAPA this afternoon on the way home and see what they've got. I was thinking two tone with dark green and white. Those are definitely "Fleet" colors around here, so maybe they'll be a little more affordable.
The mileage figures I quoted before were for a run from Marietta Ohio to Chicago Illinois. The northern halves of both Ohio and Indiana are very flat, and the automatic in the little van really needed another gear. Droning along at 65mph at too high an rpm is what killed my mileage. I'll have to be sure our bus has highway gears or I'll be right back in that boat.
Most of the places we want to go around here will involve traveling through Appalachian country and some hills, but we don't have mountains like you guys have out there. I can't wait to travel "out west" and see some of that country.
Two more questions for the group:
1. A lot of what I'm seeing as I shop around are DT360 and DTA360. Are these good engines? As I've mentioned before, we don't live in the rockies. Hill climbing power is not a big issue for us. Durability, ease of service, parts availability and fuel efficiency are very important. I do have an International Harvester truck dealership in town, so that'll help.
2. We have a neighbor who used to have a class-c motorhome with a Ford 460 gas engine. He only used it once or twice a year, and it seemed that every time he wanted to use it he had to spend a few days working on it. It would first refuse to start, then it would smoke like a train, etc. etc. I learned a valuable lesson from this, and we plan to use our new toy regularly. My experience with diesel engines and big trucks is limited to commercial haulers who run 1000 miles a week minimum, so I don't really know anything about this. I do know that diesels like to be run and run hard, and they tend to grow algae in their fuel and get condensation in ugly places if left to sit. My plan is to run a 50 mile round trip to work every other week at least, and a weekend out of town with a good couple hundred miles every few months. And of course the annual summer vacation when we'll try to run the wheels off of the thing. Is this enough usage to keep a diesel engine happy?
|Re: Preaching to the choir? (long post)||Mark O.||11-6-03|
|Any Crown or Gillig with the Cummins NHH is going to be hard to find. They just didn't make very many of them and they stopped making them quite a while ago.|
I have painted several buses outside. I will admit I am not a body and fender person and the paint jobs reflect that lack of experience and knowledge. Having said that, unless you are less than two feet away you really can't tell I don't know how to apply automotive paint.
The key to successful painting outside is doing the prep work well, painting when the temp is not too cold or too hot, and don't spray if the wind is blowing.
I am thinking you will find going up and down the hills out here on the left coast the differences between automatics and stickshifts are not quite as much. But if you need to be shifty, so be it!
If you don't mind 2-Cycle DD's, Western
Bus Sales in Clackamas, OR has a good used Gillig with a 6-71T for sale for about $2500.00. I can't remember but I don't think it had an Allison.
Good luck and happy trails.
|Re: Preaching to the choir? (long post)||jason||11-28-03|
|As far as paint is concerned for my bus, i went to sherwin williams paint store and told them i wanted some cheap durable pain thats easy to apply. for $15/gallon i bought some acrylic based paint that's generally used to paint dumpsters and commercial machinery. I sprayed it on and have been very happy with it. I probably spent 100 dollars total on paint and primer. There's lots of prep work involved in taping over all the windows !!!!!!!! http://www.geocities.com/blackplaguetour/|
|Re: Preaching to the choir? (long post)||Casper||11-3-03|
Thanks for the encouragement. My figures for the bus are based on what I've seen them go for at a few live auctions and of course on Ebay. As for the manual transmission issue, they are out there. Look at these two.
Here's something like I'm looking for. The reverve wasn't met, so I just wonder what it might have sold for.
This one for sold $1,300
As for my figures for the other things, a few of them may be a little low if I get impatient. For example, I have a welding machine and a buddy with a metal salvage yard. So if I'm patient enough to get the steel from him and weld up my own tanks, my $250 guesstimate for the water system is probably more than adequate. On the other hand, If I get impatient and just go out and buy some tanks,
Unfortunately, you're more than a few weeks ahead of us. My wife just finished her education and went back to work, so we'll be saving our pennies for a while. I hope to buy the vehicle and get started sometime in the early spring. Good luck with yours, and I'll be watching this board for progress reports.
We just finished up my sons 8th grade football season, and as a coach I spent a few hundred miles in school busses. You're right, it's loud and bumpy in there (especially bumpy in the back). What have you done about the ride, Air ride? How about the noise? Insulation? I've given some thought to these issues too. I am planning to carpet the interior, and I wondered how much a nice thick pad under the carpet up in the firewall area might quiet things down.
Thanks to all for the replies.
|Re: Preaching to the choir? (long post)||Les Lampman||11-3-03|
|Cool Casper, but you're not suppossed to share that info with someone you already BOUGHT their bus!!! :-)|
Really, the looked pretty good. I'm very surprised by the first one in particular...that was darn near a give-away price. But that makes you wonder too!
Maybe others will chime in here but I really wanted air brakes; I suppose in part because I'm already familiar with them and I know they work really well when adjusted properly (Which is not difficult).
Here's a post by Mark O. (owns Cowlitz Coach Company):
There some engines that are good engines and some that are best used as boat anchors.
In gas engines, any of the IHC engines are good, the 345/392 V-8 is the best. GM big blocks are super, small blocks just not enough HP. Ford engines are okay but most in school buses (331/361) just didn't have much go.
In diesel engines, inline sixes are okay and most of the V-8's are so-so. The Cummins old style 'C'-series (C-165/170/180/190) and '555' are engines you do not want. The IHC 6.9/7.3 are too small for full size buses and the 9.0L is a real loser. The GM 8.2L is so-so (it can be real good or real bad). The Cat 1160/3208 is so-so as well (it can be really good or really bad as well).
2-cycle Detroit Diesels have been used. If you understand the 2-cycle DD, it can be a great engine. If you don't understand them, they can become a real money pit.
The best diesel engines in school buses are the Cummins 'B' series (virtually indentical to Dodge pick-up engines), the new Cummins 'C' series (ISC), the Cat 3126, and the IHC DT466.
The DT466 has been in school buses the longest so it will be in the lower end of the price spectrum. The ISC, ISB, ISX, 3126, and DT466E are the newest and will be priced accordingly.
Keep after it and I wanna hear about your new bus!! (when you get it)
All the best,
|Re: Preaching to the choir? (long post)||Casper||11-4-03|
|Hi again Mark, Thanks for the good advice to a question I posted earlier on this board.|
I agree with you about buying good equipment. While anything can be repaired and rebuilt, it's best if you don't have to. I'm just learning about bus conversions, but trucks are something I know a little something about. Me and the old man used to rebuild 290 Big-Cam Cummins' for kicks, but it's better not to if you don't have to.
About the stickshift. I was just looking at the sale list for an auction to be held in Pittsburgh this Saturday (November 8th, check out www.422sales.com ). 300 buses for sale, mostly '87 to '92 models. 58 of the 300 are equipped with manual transmissions. We have them here, maybe they're more rare over there on the left coast.
I used to do a lot of trade shows for an employer. When I did a show, I'd short-term lease a 24' box van from the local Mack dealer. Sometimes I'd get a Mack "Manager" cabover with the straight 6 diesel and the 6speed. My Mileage across Ohio and Indiana would run 11mpg (I kept excellent records for expense accounting). Sometimes the Mack dealer would stick me with a Mack "Manager" cabover with the the straight 6 diesel and an auto trans. My mileage would be 9mpg. Same route, same load, same truck except for the transmission. 18% better fuel mileage with the stick in my (admittedly anecdotal) experience. Add to that the reduced brake wear and the ease of maintenance and repair and for my money the choice is clear. Over 40 years after the invention of the allison automatic, most of the big boys who burn diesel for a living still run manual or automated manual for these same reasons.
My grandfather drove a Deuce-and-a-half up the beach at Normandy, then worked the rest of his life in the trucking industry. My father hauled everything everywhere for the majority of his working life. I learned to drive in an R-Model Mack. Obviously I come from a trucking family. If I really couldn't find a bus with a manual transmission, I'd be shopping for a good used box van with a 7 speed Spicer.
I apologize for the rant, but a clutch pedal is something I'm pretty passionate about. I guess I am shifty, LOL. Can you believe I'm married to a lovely woman who feels the same way? What are the odds???
About the Crown, Man I wish… What a great piece of equipment. I'd love to find a 35 footer with the Cummins and a 10 speed. Unfortunately, those beauties are rarer than hen's teeth over here east of the Mississippi. They don't call them "California Crowns" for nothing. My choices for transit style buses on this end of the country are limited to Bluebird AA's or TC2000's, and the occasional Thomas MVP, and you never see one of those with a manual trans.
The brush paint-spray paint thing is something I'm still wrestling with. I'll probably paint my wheelbarrow with one and my garage refrigerator with the other this winter just to get a comparison. I agree that the spray will look better, Henry Ford quit brush painting his cars years ago for that very reason, but the logistics are tough. I have the compressor and gun, but finding a garage that big will be tough. I probably COULD spray outside, Just one of the many decisions still to be made.
Good points, and thanks for the feedback.
My wife would probably drive a bus with an automatic, but she wouldn't be very happy about it. We are a family of gearheads, and we love to shift gears and change oil and strike arcs and run the lathe. We're weird, but we have a lot of fun.
I'm still wrestling with the paint question. I don't think anyone is ever going to mistake a conventional school bus for a Wanderlodge or a Winnebago, and I'm not sure I'd want them to. (Look at me! I spent seventy five thousand dollars!) The point here is not to fool anybody, but just to make your bus look nice. I've seen a few brush jobs that looked pretty good, and I'm really considering taking that route.
In our case the weekend spent working on the interior will be a weekend spent with the kids. They are 13 and 15, and they both kind of like getting dirty and doing things with mom and dad as long as we don't ask them to do too much of it. Time with friends is important to them too. This is a family project that we'll all work on together.
I agree with you about the insulation, but I have a couple of AM-FM-CD sets laying around so the sound system won't cost much. I'm considering putting a radio and 2 small speakers in each kid's bunk so they can have quiet time with their own tunes. If we spend much time in the bus those radios will pay for themselves in Walkman batteries saved.
Thanks for the reply, and for the reminder about the insulation. Maybe we will see you at a Donna show someday.