BUYING THAT FIRST BUS- by Pete Snidal, Busbilder (C) 1998
Obviously, the first step, after making the decision to build a home
on wheels inside a good used schoolbus shell is to buy the bus. This is
the most important step by far, and the one where you can make the most
irreversible mistakes. Let me take you through some of our experiences:
TOO LITTLE, TOO SOON - Our first - and biggest - mistake was being in too much of a hurry to "git that bus and git started." Our second was trying too hard to save that last little bit of money on the buy. We paid dearly for both of these mistakes - many times over. And a third was in deciding to avoid Internationals I'd had a really hard time getting parts for our '53 during my impromptu rebuild the previous winter.(Parts Guy: "You want rings for a '53 _What_? ahhahhahha. Hey, Harry, Get a load of this...........") So I figured I'd best stick with Ford/Dodge/ GMC for parts availability. I guess I didn't notice that by '73, 2 out of 3 schoolbusses seemed to be Cornbinders. As things turned out, , I looked all over for a couple of years for a set of front brakedrums for the Ford I bought, and never _did_ find any!
So I shined on what was probably the best deal I could possibly have found - and right in my backyard, my own local school district. The first bus we looked at was a 60 pass Cornbinder. Flip front end, beautiful condition, new exhaust system front to back. The service records showed it had almost new brake drums and linings, and that the engine had about 30,000 miles on a rebuild. Had a big engine, too - bigger than the 391 I eventually bought. In fact, it was so good, that another school district bought it and put it back into service! And it went for $2400 - a high bid at the time for a surplus bus, but now I know one thing - expect to bid high, and bid only on the very best you can find. I still regret passing on this baby - and that was 16 years ago!
What we did instead was chase down a story a friend told us about an Auto Wrecker in a town a few hours from here, who had won a casual bid on a 72 pass Ford, and who might be willing to sell it. This sounded too good to be true - no bidding and waiting, just go there and dicker, and maybe drive it away the same day.
Which we did - and it turned out to be the most expensive luxury on which we could possibly have invested. He "didn't have" the service records - said they were "around some where", but he didn't know where just now - he could send them to me later. I should have listened to the alarm bells ringing away in my head, but I was so anxious to get to work on our new bus, I just didn't pay enough attention.
So, anxious to get to work on a bus for the coming winter in Baja, I found myself driving home in a "pig in a poke," which I'd managed to buy the same day I first laid eyes on it, and for only $1500. Lucky me. ("Hey," I said to myself, "He's entitled to make a little money on the deal, and I don't have to mess around with bids and stuff. Bells should have started ringing when I found out he'd won the bid at $300, but they didn't, and I proceeded to get to work on cabinets and such.)
I'm not going to talk about the nightmares which ensued once we hit
the road with greasy brake shoes, from leaky seals, worn-out brake drums,
frozen bleeders (a hydrovac brake system - common in BC.,) and of course
after burning 3 quarts of oil in the 2000 mile trip to San Quintin, BC
(Baja California Norte) from Grand Forks, BC (British Columbia,) Fortunately
the ol' 391 held out for that last couple thousand miles (I had no idea
how many miles it had on it when I began the trip,) and I ended up rebuilding
it in Mexico. Fortunately, I had all my tools with me!
Rust Never Sleeps
Believe it. I knew better, but I chose to
ignore the rusted-through places on this thing. "Oh, hell, I can fix
_that_ with a little sheet metal/bondo/(insert TLC medium of your choice
here.)" Besides, it wasn't too bad at the time, but of course I needed
to remember: RUST NEVER SLEEPS. Once it starts, it just
keeps on eatin' away at things until the unit is finally unusable. That's
why, after a lot of work, although fortunately also a lot of usefulness
(we lived full time in Nelson for 6 years,) he finally got _so_ rusty,
he's been relegated to service as a guest house. It's a nice retirement
- in our "trailer park," down beside the creek, next to our garden.
Shade trees, fire spot, outhouse - a nice little place for summer visitors
to hang. But still, by ten years after we'd bought him, he was relegated
to Donor Bus - driveline, wheels, and tires for our current project. Body's
still airtight, but front clip is so loose I was worried about losing the
rad into the fan some day, and the brakes are so rusty they're basically
unrepairable. Front drums are +.250, with shimmed linings so the adjusters
would stop camming over - they worked, but are illegal as hell. Most of
the adjusters are frozen up, even the ones I was able to get out and replace
with new cad-plated ones.
If we'd been more careful to buy a well-documented, good condition rustfree starter bus, by shopping a lot harder, and maybe (or not) paying a little more, he'd still be a perfectly useful member of the family.
Oh, yeah - another thing. He's Too Heavy. 24,000 Pounds converted, dry. Although I could have dropped quite a lump by stripping out the inside sheet metal, he's still just Too Big. Two less windows makes a 72 pass a 60, - long enough, and by stripping the inside out as well, I would have had a much better start.
Let Me Say This Once More:
They don't necessarily come up for disposal because they're worn out - there are lots of other considerations which cause districts to drop busses - decreasing enrollment, quantity deals on new busses, stuff like that.
So take this advice - shop REAL carefully! You don't have to settle for the junk. The thousand dollars (tops) you save by bottom feeding can get eaten up REAL FAST when you start pulling wheels and replacing brakes (BIG job!), buying tires, and rebuilding engines and/or trannies. Just remember - you're going to put THOUSANDS of dollars worth of time and materials into building your "home on wheels," and, just like a house, saving a few bucks on the foundation is very false economy.
There are some phenomenally good deals out there - busses that originally sold for ~$50,000.00 are regularly being had for 1 to 4 Grand, so why would you want anything but the best you can find? Be a sport: spring for the extra thou! It'll save you a ton o'money in the long run. And, if you haven't got much cash, Shop Harder!
ONLY after you're satisfied that the above conditions are met should you even consider having a closer look at whether you can afford it, whether you like it, and whether you want it. Momma was right, and picking a project bus is a lot like picking a wife - you're gonna live with this thing a long time!
One Last Hint: Try for a service manual: If you've decided to bid on a bus in a fleet, such as a school district's, enquire about the service manual. They may have been enlightened enough to buy one for each vehicle, or yours may be the last of the litter using the manual they have. Don't hurt to ask; they may throw in the manual - very good for you; no big deal for them.
A Basement: The big seller for highway busses is the luggage compartments - the bins underneath where you can keep a ton of stuff, as well as hide your water tanks, etc. Lately, a lot of school districts have been ordering baggage bins in schoolbusses, too - for sports equipment, gear for field trips, and what have they. These are an important plus for your bus as well - not to put your tanks in - there'll be plenty of room under the floor in other places for them.
An important consideration is Conventional or Flat-Front Pusher. For some reason, Flat-Front pushers are much easier to sell. Must be the Wanderlodge Look or something. Personally, I prefer a conventional flip-front - much better engine access, and easier to aim down the road. A tad longer, but no front wheel wells inside to have to build around.. But pay attention to the prices they go for, and you may want to opt for the pusher. They run a little quieter, and, should you decide to sell sometime in the future, your resale value will be a lot better.
And finally, Don't go too big. School districts these days often opt for the huge busses - 72 Passenger. It's tempting to think about what you can do with all that room, and maybe it's still a good idea if your planned parking/driving ratio is going to be quite high, especially if you're cruising the prairie, but personally, I really wish we'd got a 60. That's two less windows of length, and gotta be a few thousand pounds of weigh. We could do without the desk in the back bedroom, and the bathtub (cheeky, but not really necessary.) Don't forget, the drop in length doesn't only reduce the weight of the shell, but also makes for less room to put Stuff - from cabinetwork to canning, all of which weighs. And weight in a schoolie, with their teeny little power plants, is the MAJOR consideration.
How Do You find Out About Busses For Sale?
Simple. School Districts are always disposing of busses. Just call the Board Offices in your area and ask what they have coming up for sale. Write it all down, and when you've found some interesting prospects, go to the bus garages of the districts in question and strike up a conversation with the mechanics. Don't be a pest, but you can generally find somebody who doesn't seem to be too busy - and explain what you're there for. These are the guys who know all about the busses - they do all the work on them. It's part of their job to talk to prospective buyers, and show them the maintenance records and such. When you tell them you're planning on a conversion, they usually take a shine to you, and you can find out all sorts of stuff. They generally have a really close idea of a good price to bid - they watch them sell all the time, and can give you a rough idea of how much interest is being shown for this particular group of busses up for sale. Talk to 'em Real Nice!
So, How'd _We_ Do?
You ask. Well, considering all the mistakes we'd made, not too badly. We got old Nelson into liveable condition that summer - all systems in place, all the cabinetwork built and mostly finished, and got on the road before any snow even started to fly. We were 10 or 15 miles into our 2000+ mile trip to the Baja, on our way to Vancouver, actually, by the time the brake warning light came on . We stopped at a truck service station a few miles later, and had the mechanic pop each bleeder while I held down the pedal, as a makeshift pressure check. He couldn't get all the bleeders open, of course - uh-oh! - _There's_ some trouble comin'! There are two separate braking systems on ol' Nelson, with two cylinders (and bleeders) on each wheel. So, although he couldn't get ALL the bleeders open, he was able to get enough of them open to relieve some air, and ascertain that yes, we did have some pressure on each wheel. So I decided to go with it. After all, the next big downhill - the famous Osoyoos hill, is only 3 or 4 miles long, and not much more than a 7% grade. Serious 1st and 2nd gear work with the ol' Allison. (A little problem I discovered later was that when the Allison overspeeds, it doesn't stay in 1st, or 2nd, or whatever you put it in. It shifts UP! What fun!) But the brakes, although they had to be pumped a couple of time to harden up, worked well enough to keep the RPM's down below the shift point. Good thing, too!
Thus began a trip of driving with airy brakes, bleeding regularly the few bleeders we could get loose. They were never really right until we got all the wheels off, honed all the cylinders, and replaced all the linings. All things we should have known were necessary by reading the non-existent service records. Never again! I've looked at such records many times while helping friends buy busses, and let me tell you this - it's much easier to look through the SR, and to find units with freshly attended to brakes. Brake work is BIG work on these things. Get one with reaonably fresh brakes! You have of course, checked the bleeders, and they're all free. While you were under there, you saw NO signs of leaks, in lines along the frame, or ESPECIALLY of dripping out from behind the backing plate, indicating leaking cylinders requiring removing those MONSTER wheels for service. And the first thing you did when you started it was to push the brake pedal, and it went no more than 1/2 way down - the FIRST time, and stopped HARD - not spongy. Right? Wish I'd been this smart when I bought mine!
Still and all, we had huge fun with Lord Nelson. We came back home after a winter on the Baja, and that summer we rented out our house to some old friends who showed up after a few years up north. We moved into our bus "permanently," and full-timed it for over five years. And we loved it! It's just possible you would, too! But I hope you start with a much better bus!
* Alarm Bells Should Ring Here
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