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Build your own RV

Can't afford a real one?

By Cliff Maurand

What do you do when the desire to own an RV hits, but you can't afford what you really want? The key words there are "Really want" as I already had a 2004 Hybrid Travel Trailer. But I really wanted something bigger, something without tent ends, and the way things were going, I wasn't going to be able to get the financing on the Motor Home I wanted. So I decided to build my own.

First I had to find a big old bus for sale, one that I could convert. I searched for months, and though I really wanted a great big Hiway bus like an MCI, Eagle, or Prevost, those were out of my budget. I did find several school buses that were in my price range, and after months of searching I finally got the winning auction bid on one at publicsurplus.com, and bought that bus sight un-seen. Oh, I did call the city bus barn that was selling it before I placed any bids, they assured me the bus ran fine but was taken out of service due to age, apparently the city takes them out of service at 15 years of age.

I wound up with an 1989 Thomas Saf-T-Liner, it was a 12 row diesel pusher school bus, with a 3208 Caterpillar engine in the rear. I had to rent a car and drive to Harrisonburg Va to get it, then drive the beast back to Chesapeake Va, a 5 hour trip each way. When I first headed out with that bus I was worried sick, didn't know if it would make it all the way or not, but had to try. I put $300 worth of Diesel in the tank and headed home.

I quickly found out the bus was governed at 60mph, couldn't go a lick faster even down the mountains! But it did climb the mountains well, barely lost any speed at all. The motor was strong, ran smooth, the automatic transmission shifted perfectly, and the thing actually rode pretty well. I did (and still do) have issues with the air powered windshield wipers, they worked ok, but I just didn't like them, and the passenger side wiper had an air leak and wouldn't go as fast as the driver side.

Be that as it may, I made the trip back and parked that bus at our shop parking lot (I just happened to work for a heavy truck dealership). There the bus stayed for 2.5 years while I did the conversion. It turns out the mechanics didn't like it when I was there working on it when the shop was open, I had to pull it up by the building to plug into the power, and that would block the dumpsters and the parts bay. So I resorted to working on it only when they were closed, Sundays and an occassional Holiday.

First thing I had to do was remove school bus lighting, stop sign, and of course all the seating had to be removed. That was a big job all by itself, the seats are bolted on from the top with nuts underneath for most of them. I had a friend help me, using an air ratchet on top and holding a wrench underneath we got as many of them loose as we could. But that amounted to roughly half the bolts, the other half needed something a little more drastic. I wound up buying a small 4" angle grinder at Harbor Freight for $10, and this little tool turned into the most relied upon thing I had for the whole rest of the conversion. I had to cut each of the bolt heads off with that, took many cutting disc's to accomplish this, and working the rest of the time alone took me about 3 Sundays to get all the seats out. After they were out, I had to strip them down too, throwing away the covering and stuffing, and taking the metal frames to the scrap yard for a few bucks.

While all this was going on, I'd take some measurments and during the week when I was at home I'd work on floor plans, sometimes having to return to make new measurements and then more layout. I also had to make several trips to Lowes with a tape measure in hand to measure certain items so I knew how to piece it all together. Before the last of the seats had been removed, I had 3 different layouts that interested me, but one of them made more sense than the others, and that was the one I wound up going with. I'm actually quite surprised that 2 1/2 years later the bus has come out remarkably close to the original floorplan.

To be continued...


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