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- 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:

First Mistakes

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:

  • If I'd shopped a little more carefully - perused the service records which all school districts keep for each of their busses - I could have saved myself a whole lot of later trouble and expense by sticking to units with fresh brakes and reasonably recent engines, and bidding top dollar for top-condition vehicles only. And I'd Still Have A Useful Bus!

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!

Don't Fall In Love Too Easily

Momma's advice about girls applies even moreso to buying a project bus. Remember at all times, you're gonna spend a pile of money and time on this thing; make absolutely sure you get the best one you can find/afford. Don't let yourself even think favourably about any prospect before, - and LONG before putting in a bid on it, checking a few things out, such as:
  • Climb under with a wrench. If it's air brakes, make sure the slack adjusters have been adjusted, and that there's some adjustment left - check the angle of the adjuster to the linkage rod. Start it and check the air compressor's buildup and recovery times. Walk around it after you stop it, and listen carefully for leaks. Before you leave it, check to see if the pressure's bled down any while you were looking at the other stuff. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, get the advice of an experienced trucker, or read a book or manual on living with air brakes before looking - a Provincial or State driver's manual from the DMV is a good place to start..) (You have of course made sure there's plenty of adjustment left by reading the service record.) (More on the air brakes units: if you don't know what slack adjusters are, find out before you drive one of these anywhere. Most states and provinces have a requirement that you take and pass an air brake course, and get an air brake endorsement on your licence before you may drive a vehicle on air brakes. But if you don't live in a place thus enlightened, take a course or read a book or two on the subject. Get an experienced trucker friend to take you through the realities of keeping air brakes adjusted, and what the differences are in driving air brakes. They are REALLY different! Trust me!)

  • If it's hydraulic, make sure ALL the bleeders will move. Unfreezing a stuck one can be an experience anywhere from difficult to total nightmare, so a stuck bleeder is enough to turn ME off..... now! If you don't already know how _bad_ that can be, you don' want to! - Worst case: to replace a $3.00 bleeder could mean pulling the axle, brake drum/dual wheels, and a $50.00 brake cylinder. Parts $53, labour $200. While you're under there, check carefully inside the wheels for any sign of leakage. That or an immovable bleeder means: add at least $500 to your projected price for a minimum brake job.

  • See that Service Record. If it's been in fleet use, it has one. If you're buying from a reseller, (and why bother - eliminate the middleman; buy direct) and he "can't find it just now," you know it's got problems - probably big ones. If it didn't, he'd be displaying that SR with pride. Move on. When you see the service record, check how long on the engine since rebuild - engines last about 60 -100,000 miles in these babies, depending on service (mountains vs plains, etc.) Check especially the brake drum readings - they must be replaced at .125" of oversize. And they be a)pricey and b)sometimes hard to impossible to find.

  • ACCEPT NO RUST! Rust never sleeps. If it's "just starting" now, it'll be coming along real good by the time you've invested a lot of time, money, and effort in your rolling home. A little body surface rust may be necessary to accept, but walk away from any signs of structural rust, such as flaking frame, rusting-out fender or hood hinge mounts, anything that would be a major problem when (not if) it gets 3 or 4 times as bad as it is now- and it will!

  • Look for ANY signs of leaks, particularly from Automatic Transmissions. Our bus scared me half to death on the Grapevine Pass, going into LA. the first time down. Turns out that a common ailment in Allisons is the front seal getting wimpy and leaking BAD when the trannie gets really hot. I was able to cure this one by putting in a trannie cooler (an air conditioner condenser from a car) at a later time, but it caused me to buy my first case of trannie fluid, and keep one on board at all times. Once I scrounged enough from other RV'ers at the viewpoint I was stranded in to make it to the next town. Anyway, if you see much in the way of signs of leaking - from front or rear seals, forget it! Look for one that doesn't. And don't even THINK about replacing an Allison. You don't wanna know! A conservative estimate? Quite a bit more than you paid for your whole bus would be my guess.

  • Look very favourably on two-speed rear ends and 5-speed manual transmissions. An Allison four-speed is much easier to put in a day at the office - no pumping that clutch like you're riding a bicycle - but the 10 effective gear ratios of a "five and two" make pulling those inevitable hills much less of a strain on the nerves. I got tired awfully quickly of watching that temperature gauge go up, and the oil pressure one go down, praying that we'd get to the top before things got critical. And in many cases, a gear or two "in between" my choices with the Allison would have been REAL welcome. Next time, even though the Alllison is usually such a pleasure to drive, I'll opt for the ol' "five-and-two." the more common plain fivespeed is more common, but the 2-speed rear end is a big plus.

  • Look for - no, insist on - a BIG Engine. Lord Nelson weighed in at 24,000 pounds when I had him reweighed for RV plates. And he's powered by a 391 cube engine! What? The Ford Big Block is 460. And there's plenty of them around. My CAR has a 460 in it! What tightass school district administrator orderd up a 72 Pass bus with a 391? And WHY? Did he think it would use less fuel or something? No, I guess he was just out of the picture. Or out of the loop. Or out of his mind. What a dolt! And me - even stupider. I figured that by jumping up 20 years in busses, I'd get one that was quicker than the old 220 Black Diamond Cornbinder. But the power/weight ratio was about the same. And so was the slowness. Only difference being, now I was pulling a lot more weight. And it sure felt like it. Moral: stick to big blocks. As Stroker McGurk used to say in the '50's HOT Rod magazines, "There's no substitute for Cubic Inches." They last longer, run cooler, last longer, usually use LESS fuel, last longer, stay together better, and - oh yeh - get you up hills faster. And last longer. For some reason, big inches come mostly in Internationals. They make an inline 6 turbocharged diesel (534?) that is from heaven!

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.

Other Considerations

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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