The Great American School Bus Conversion: Part 1

One of my favorite movies of all time is Road Trip. It’s not exactly the pinnacle of cinematography, and the acting isn’t going to win any awards, but it does include a couple of my favorite themes:

1. Ditching school
2. Road tripping

My first experience road tripping was when I graduated from high school. Five friends and I took one of those cool vans (“a REAL van.. this was before all that minivan crap”) from Texas to Florida, and then all the way up to Maine. I got off in Massachusetts, but the rest of the crew continued on to Chicago and then back South.

After that one trip, I was hooked. However, regular readers of this blog know that when I do something, I tend to do it to a ridiculous degree.

It was a boring week. When I have a boring week, I actually get slightly worried. Have I run out of interesting things to do? I mean seriously… I’ve had some awesome adventures, but they’re bound to run out eventually. My friends were over so we threw on a movie. “Road Trip” got picked.

When the scene came on where they stole a small school bus, I had an idea.

“Guys. We need to do that.”
“Steal a schoolbus?”
“No. Let’s buy one and pimp it out.”

Now, I love my friends for a lot of reasons. One of those reasons is that besides coming up with great ideas themselves, they never think any of my ideas are too crazy. Being avid roadtrippers themselves, this one was quickly latched on to.

We decided that a short bus would be plenty. Austin got some graph paper and we began to sketch out our layout.

“You know… if we got a bus that was slightly larger, we could have a little kitchen area for making food,” Austin noted.

We all agreed that we should buy a slightly larger bus, and Austin drew in a little kitchen area.

“What if we got one that was a little bit bigger and put some beds in? Then we wouldn’t have to pay for hotels,” offered Terry.

It was hard to argue with that logic. Of course, this pattern continued until they didn’t make bigger buses. It was universally agreed that we had to buy the largest of the buses – the venerable forty footer.

With our floorplan completed, we went to sleep.

The next morning… ok… afternoon… I woke up and began the task of finding us a school bus. Since I’d never actually seen a school bus for sale, I didn’t really know where to start.

Ebay had a few buses, but none that were close to us.

I started calling schools.

Finally one school told me that they were setting up an auction to sell off some school buses and invited us to come visit.

Apparently college kids aren’t the usual buyers of school buses. They were caught a bit off guard at first, and then leery that we would actually buy one. By the end they thought it was a great idea, but unfortunately they weren’t going to be selling their buses for several months, and red tape prevented them from making an exception for us.

They invited us to talk to the mechanics in their bus barn to ask questions about what to look for in a bus. The guys in the barn were extremely cool, and told us that almost any bus would be ok because there were laws requiring strict maintenance up until the last day the buses were in service. You know… child safety and all that nonsense.

As the day progressed, my spirits waned. No one would sell me a bus, and no one knew where I could buy one. I was disappointed because I knew that if we didn’t buy one immediately, we would get distracted and never do it.

My parents, as they often said, told me that buying the bus would be the worst mistake of my life, and urged me to drop the idea.

Finally, late in the afternoon, I got a call back from one of the school districts that I had called.

The caller claimed that there was, in fact, a place a place in Austin that would sell me a school bus. Even more outlandishly, he claimed that there was an entire used school bus dealership. I was skeptical, but thankful for the tip and I wrote down the address.

Terry, Austin, and I piled into the car and drove down to the dealership, eager to see what it had to offer. Finally, in the distance we saw it. A giant blur of school bus yellow vehicles corraled over a couple acres.

There must have been at least sixty or seventy school buses for sale. The offerings ranged from rusty short buses for $1500 to nearly-new-gleaming-diesel-flat-fronted buses for over $50k.

The owner of the yard approached us.

He was in his sixties, had a thick Texan accent, yet somehow still had that creepy used car salesman vibe. We told him about our plan, and he didn’t blink an eye. He did tell us that we weren’t his usual customers – most of his buses got shipped to Mexico for some reason.

Not having a large budget, we started off with the $1500 buses. We picked a large one with little rust. He tried to start it – unsucessfully. Further attempts yielded the same result, and despite his insistence that it would eventually start, we decided to move up.

The $2500 buses weren’t much better. He finally got one started, and we went on a test drive. An illegal test drive. Things like laws didn’t seem to bother the owner of this lot.

It was fun driving the bus, but we just couldn’t get it over forty miles an hour. Also, it would occasionally let out a loud hissing sound.

“What’s that noise?”
“What noise?”
“The loud hissing sound?”
“I didn’t hear anything. It’s fine.”
“You didn’t hear that? It was really loud?”
“It’s probably the wind.”
“There it is again…”
“Oh… that. Hmm… I don’t know”

We passed on that bus. I began to wonder how far up the price scale we’d have to climb to find a roadworthy bus.

The next bus we looked at was priced at $3000. We’d rounded up six people to split the cost of the bus between, so it wasn’t too bad. We wanted to preserve as much money as possible for the upgrades we planned, though.

The nice thing about this particular bus is that it had a ceiling of just under six feet, meaning that we could comfortably walk in it. We cautiously eased the bus onto the highway and found that unlike the previous bus, this one had wings. It accelerated smoothly, rode about as well as a bus can ride, braked surprisingly quickly, and seemed to be in good shape.

Looking for some assurance that our imminent investment would be a solid one, I asked the dealer, “So this one seems pretty solid. Do you think it will last a while?”

“Ha! No way of telling.”


On the ride back home we decided to buy the bus. It was a decent price, seemed to be in good condition, and promised us immeasurable adventure.

The next morning we returned, plunked down our $3000, and drove off about as happy as we’d ever be.

Terry and I ran up and down the aisle as Austin drove, taking time to admire the view out of each and every window. We tested out all the lights on the bus, including the red flashing ones which caused four lanes of traffic to stop. The power was awesome.

Our first stop was the car wash. The bus was dirty, but we didn’t really care. We just wanted an excuse to climb all over it and to flaunt our new toy to the peons driving their much smaller cars.

Austin’s parents, a very open minded couple, had volunteered their house to be the construction site. We pulled it up and parked it next to their house, where it was to remain as we worked on it for the next three months.

Eager to get a head start, we decided to remove the seats that night. This is a much harder task than one might expect. Each seat was bolted down with six bolts, three of which require one person to get underneath the bus and hold the nut with a wrench as the person inside the bus unscrews it.

With at least 40 benches to detach, we had our work cut out for us. Dan, who later dropped out of the bus project, and I did most of the unscrewing while the others frantically tried to transport the benches to dumpsters. At one point the police found out what we were doing and made us recover a lot of the benches. Once they were gone Austin found alternative dumpsters.

When we finally got all of the seats out, we stood in the hollow carcass of the bus and admired our handiwork. I think that was the moment that we all realized how awesome of a project this was going to be.

Continued In Part 2

Published

12 comments

  1. Hi,

    I’m thinking of buying and converting an American school bus (50 seater) for use in Haiti to assist identifying children in need of referral to specialast agencies. The Bill Brookman Foundation seeks volunteers with enthusiasm ansd expertese to help in this venture. We work in quite dangerous areas.

  2. Old schoolbuses are often taken to mexico and the like for one very good reason: watermelon trucks. Pull out all the seats, and cut off the roof right below the windows, and you’ve got a beast that’ll hold a helluva lot of watermelons. Often they leave the roof up in the front for a little cab, so the truck controls and the like won’t get wet.

    You can do this yourself with a sawzall and a lot of blades, or (much easier) a plasma cutter or welding torch

  3. so…where’s this place in austin you can buy buses?

    I’m in Alaska right now but am looking to buy a short bus in texas soon.

    Laura

  4. So… Would you recommend buying a bus from that guy?
    If so, where is his lot? I’d like to do a similar project.

  5. You guys rock. After reading your blog here, I’ve been trying to get a bus to do a cross canada tour. It’s not as easy to find a bus here, but we’re trying. Can’t wait to have an adventure of our own. Thanks for the inspiration.

  6. hi I’m interested in doing this same sort of thing, I live in Austin and was wondering if you still had the name, address, or any information that could help me find the bus dealer you talked about in this post.

    Thank you

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