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This is a reanimation of the Vicaribus blog as lived by Miro Kazakoff and Ehren Foss in 2004 and 2005. The photos may be spotty.

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June 30, 2004 near Cruftlabs | Printable

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Choosing A Bus

Posted by Bus Conversion

Choosing A Bus

As I found in the spring of 2004, there is a wide but not infinite variety of buses. The differences are sometimes subtle, but extremely significant in terms of potential RV conversion.

Rule Number One

Get a diesel. They're twice as efficient as gas engines (8-10mpg vs 3-6mpg!), and last twice as long. They're less powerful, but you aren't going to race your bus, are you? ...Are you? Our 165+ hp Cummins turbodiesel is just barely enough to climb mountains. But it's enough.

Coach Bus

Think Greyhound. MCI (Motor Coach Industries), the Canadian company started to supply Greyhound with a fleet of buses, is the GM of the bus industry. In terms of comfort, size, ride, and reliability, coach buses are the best buses. They come with air ride suspensions, powerful engines, and fantastic ventillation systems built into the walls. They have large luggage compartments underneath, more than enough space for water tanks, batteries, etc. You can buy customized RV conversions off the assembly line for up to $3 million, with marble countertops, hot tubs, leather furniture, etc. John Madden, who is terrified of air travel, uses a Prevost RV conversion.

Structurally, these buses feature a 'monococque' design: Their strength lies in their external frames and metal skins, and there are no large internal beams running lengthwise under the floor. Thus, if you saw off the roof of a coach bus, they'll sag in the middle or collapse. Frame modifications (roof raising, slide-outs) require extensive undercarriage support, and care. Older coach buses are 35-40 feet long, and either 96 or 102 inches wide. Newer coach buses are usually 45 feet long, some as long as 60 feet.

Entry level coach buses are around 10-15k, and even those are in suspect condition. For $30k you could get an 80s MCI in good shape, but ultimately these were outside our price range. When searching, I found a few huge double-decker Neoplan buses for $3k, but according to the wisdom of the internet, they were so cheap because Neoplan just went out of business and spare parts would no longer be available.

Eagle Model 10 and GM 4106 buses are an extremely popular choice, though rust is a problem with some model years.

Transit bus

Almost always municipal city buses, these are cheap and widely available, almost all rear-engine, and run on a variety of fuels (CNG, gas, diesel). They lack the storage of coach buses, and since they're built for city driving, can manage perhaps 50mph tops. Transit buses are cheap because cities only deign to sell them when they're on the cusp of exploding or falling apart, and their speeds and clearance are not sufficent for cross country driving. For $2-3k on eBay, you can attempt to drive one home. No promises.

School bus

School buses are trucks in disguise. Same frame, same suspension (no air ride, no shocks...just leaf springs), same engines, similar handling. They are extremely simple and very sturdy. The school bus bodies built on top of them are comprised of stamped sheetmetal beams (the resulting cross section looks like a square beam...ish, in a "U" shape that follow the roofline and drop to the floor between the windows. I didn't know what the frames would be like until we cut a section out of our 1984 Bluebird, but luckily it was easy to work with.

Bluebird and Thomas are the largest bus body companies (often, GM or Ford will supply the engine and frame). California used to have several boutique firms that were bought up by the nationwide firms in the 80s. Crown buses have classic lines and a small but extremely dedicated following. We also saw a few newer Genesis models in Santa Barbara.

School buses are cheap. Almost every state has a law on the books requiring that no bus older than 15 or 20 years, or past a prime of 250k or 300k miles be used for transporting school children. According to some of the forums, a stoned bus driver in Texas sat on a set of train tracks for too long with a load of children, and the politically sensitive thing to do (because of unions? i'm not sure) was legislate away old buses. As we found, a substantial crust of chewing gum and child detritus builds up on a 20 year old bus, but they do not become unsafe with age. A diesel bus engine, when well maintained, is expected to last into the 700,000 - 1,000,000 mile range.

So each year thousands of school buses are dumped onto the used market. Typically boy scout troops, churches, and crazy bastards like me are the only customers, so that keeps prices low. You can get a gas burning 35' bus on eBay for $500, but 4-15k is more appropriate for a reliable vehicle.

Our bus

Wise enough to stay away from transit buses, or weird specialty coach buses, I started inquiring about school bus purchasing in May of 2004. eBay usually has a dozen or more auctions going. Otherwise, the large national school bus service companies (Ryder has been renamed "First Student America") have used bus departments in various parts of the country. They specialize in bulk purchasing, however: I requested prices for 6 of their used vehicles and got back a discounted quote for all of them together (30k can get you 6 school buses in great shape, but I only wanted one!).

I bid on two Crown buses. One belonged to a group of California Hell's Angels, and was already half converted, with a badass paint job of skulls and flames. A roof raise would have ruined the beautiful curved sheet metal look of the Crown, though, so it's for the best that I didn't win the auction.

When I saw the eBay photos of a set of 1984 Bluebird All American buses on offer from the Jerry McKinney company of Dallas, I knew they were perfect. Well maintained, classic lines, 250,000 miles approx., 40' long, and fairly priced. I watched several auctions fail to meet the reserve price, and eventually called them up to negotiate. We agreed on a price of $5,500 (I estimate the buses were worth around 10-12k each, but Jerry didn't have a big lot and was in a hurry to get rid of them), and I made arrangements to quit my job on the 23rd of July, and fly to Dallas on the 24th of July.

At a 4th of July party Miro signed on to help with the conversion and partake in the adventure to follow. He says he was listening to me tell our incredulous friends what I had planned, and thought "It's too bad I don't have the time or savings to do something like this... wait...actually..." My first response was that of course it was a great idea, and lucky he asked since I would only consider help from someone who wasn't an engineer, since the Cruftlabs shower had taken around 18 months to complete, with much wagging of tongues and oneupsmanship among 7 technical egos.

The conversion would have been impossible without Miro's help. I would have given up, or ended up sleeping on the bare floor of an empty bus shell for a year instead of enjoying the luxury motoryacht we created.

I enjoyed my exit interviews at EMC, wherein the HR lady basically said "I'm supposed to advise you that your best option is to stay working here... but that sounds really fun."


Photo Album

Ehren's Posts:
(Aug 1): This Is The End
(Jul 28): Tulip the Bulldog
(Jul 25): On Fumes
(Jul 23): 500 Miles
(Jul 20): Oofda.
(Jul 19): Are we there yet?
(Jul 18): Leaving the North Country Fair
(Jul 16): The Greatest Province on Earth
(Jul 14): My name is Gus, I'm a Longhorn Steer, and I weigh 1600 lbs.
(Jul 12): The Million Dollar Rodeo

Miro's Posts:
(Jul 27): Minnesota
(Jul 23): Angry Blacksmith
(Jul 17): Aurora Borealis
(Jul 13): Cowboy Up
(Jul 3): A selection of Butte's finest
(Jun 26): A Continent divided
(Jun 18): Snow in June
(Jun 12): Smelly Cat is an Excellent Campfire Song
(Jun 11): Interior Canada
(Jun 9): Yuk Yuk

See all log entries.

Miro's Recipes: (See All)
(May 25): Zhurek (Sour Polish Soup)
(May 23): Atomic Noodles
(May 22): Campfire French Onion Soup

Bus Conversion: (See All)
(Oct 9): Electrical System
(Sep 19): Design
(Sep 10): Roof Raise

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