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Old 09-22-2017, 11:30 AM   #1
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When did they start making 78" buses? And which buses are CHEAP to operate?

The more I learn about school bus conversions, it seems the more I have to learn.

It would help me narrow down my search if I knew when they started offering 78" interior floor-to-ceiling height as an option in school buses. If you don't know when that FIRST became an option, what is the oldest bus you've ever heard of or seen that had 78" interior height?

Also, I need some direction on cheap maintenance. My wife and I are NOT made of money. We're traveling musicians. I have read other threads that talk about "BOAT" ("Break Out Another Thousand") when repairs are needed, and that would bankrupt us and/or drive us to as-yet-unseen heights of anger. Someone mentioned that certain engines cost ~$12,000 for a complete in-frame rebuild, and some transmissions cost ~$5,000 for replacement.

Yet, someone else told me on my AT545 thread that you can find used AT545s for free (I saw that myself) and that a replacement job on one shouldn't set someone back more than about $1,200. That I could handle, for a transmission. I'd even be willing to double that, if I knew that the transmission would last a long time... I will spend what I MUST spend... but I'm trying to figure out if I MUST spend all of that money that people are talking about. (Someone said $5,000 per year, average, for maintenance. I'd sooner not have a bus.)

Someone mentioned that their bus engine uses 29 quarts of oil. That's an enormously expensive oil change, in parts alone!

If I were willing to sacrifice top speed (I really don't see needing to go above 55 mph, but I'd be pretty bummed if I couldn't see the north side of 50 without red-lining the drivetrain on the bus... and I'd be okay with crawling up steep hills, which is what I did in my class C just to avoid overstressing the drivetrain) and I were okay with a manual transmission (which I am) and I were okay with something old (which I am, as long as it's tall enough), is there a bus type out there which is likely to be inexpensive for maintenance? I don't want to be paying $200+ for an oil change every few thousand miles. I don't want to pay $12,000 for a new engine if it needs one (and every vehicle eventually blows its engine). I don't want to pay $5,000 for a new transmission. I don't want to pay "another thousand" every time it goes into the shop. I don't want to, because I can't. Being a musician is fun, and what we do certainly brings joy to a lot of people, but it ain't lucrative. I anticipate putting several thousand miles on the bus per year, and I don't want to be spending thousands of dollars annually just to keep it operational. Anything that'd cost $700 or more, in my opinion, should be a "one and done" job that won't have to be done again for another ten years at that accumulated mileage rate. (For an ordinary car, anything that costs HALF that much is a "one and done" job.)

But, alas, it would have to be 78" tall, and I doubt we could do much with a short bus. I'm okay with a mid-length (~45 passenger) bus... in fact I'd probably rather have one that size... but I'd take full-size before I took shorty. A shorty just wouldn't have enough room for our needs.

Any ideas?
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Old 09-22-2017, 12:02 PM   #2
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My home costs considerably more than 5,000 a year.
Rent would cost more. Pay yourself "rent" every week for maintenance. As far as height ... My 2002 AA is a tall ceiling bus. A 545 is a stout transmission for a stop and go school route, but it isn't really great on long trips or inclines. It never locks, so there is always slip causing heat build up and wear. A 643 has a lock up and 1:1 fourth gear... Solid trans.
If you aren't mechanically inclined, most repair jobs are going to be expensive, but basic maintenance isn't hard to do on your own... Oil change, coolant change/flush, trans service, belts...
Look for as little rust as possible.
The Cummins 5.9 is often categorized as "under powered", but the parts to repair it are prolific. Any rebuild of any engine is going to set you back +5000.00 and probably more.
Do your research, pay to have your bus inspected prior to buying, it could put high repair bill off for years.
Make a list of what you absolutely must have, what you would like, and what you don't want. Odds are you will come across something close.

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Old 09-22-2017, 12:09 PM   #3
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I'm not sure when 78" ceilings became available on school buses.

As for maintenance and repair costs, that's another matter. I would avoid Cat engines not because they are "bad", but because you can only get parts from a Cat dealer and usually at a premium price. Some parts are simply going to be more expensive than their car counterparts because they are so much bigger, such as tires. Some parts will be fairly priced, because of mass production and how common and widely available (air brake drums and shoes, for example). It's true some engines use a lot of oil. I have a T444E in my shorty which I believe uses 16 or 20 quarts of oil (I have yet to do a change on it). A DT466 or 8.3 Cummins uses somewhere around 20-24 quarts per change. I also drive a Volvo road tractor with a 13 liter engine which holds somewhere around the 40 quart mark. Yes, that's somewhere around 10 gallons of oil. The company we lease it from has it on a 35K oil change schedule (yes, that's a lot of miles), and I don't think I have ever driven any diesel that saw oil changes less than 15 or 20K miles apart.

Perhaps the one thing that adds the most cost to getting anything done is labor. A DT466 can be rebuilt for somewhere around $2000 in parts and such, a shop will tie up a lot of labor and that's where things add up quickly. Learning how to, and doing much of the work yourself will save you a fortune on keeping a bus going. These school bus transmissions are pretty common and I expect most models can be rebuilt for far less then $5K ... I can get a trans replaced in the Volvo for somewhere around $2500 and that includes labor. The likelihood of it having a failure is very low (it's an Eaton 10-speed), it should easily last well over a million miles.

I think your best bet will be to look for a wheelchair-lift bus as many (not all) have 78" ceilings and they come in various lengths from shorty to full size. A DT466 or Cummins 8.3 should serve you well and they're fairly easy to work on. The T444 engine is good too (I have one), but not as powerful as the others. Manual transmissions aren't common in school buses (said by the one who has that very thing!) but should you manage to snag one, it should easily last the life of the bus. The automatics are pretty good too and if kept serviced, they should last a very long time.
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Old 09-22-2017, 04:38 PM   #4
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Don't discount the 5.9 Cummins 12 valve mechanical engine.
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Old 09-22-2017, 04:51 PM   #5
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Don't discount the 5.9 Cummins 12 valve mechanical engine.
I kind of thought that the Cummins 5.9 would be likely to be affordable to repair, along with the T444E... if for no other reason than because they're the same engines that were installed in pickup trucks of their era.
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Old 09-22-2017, 05:57 PM   #6
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They're both ok, but both WILL cost more to rebuild than a 466 or 8.3, and are just outclassed and outgunned.
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Old 09-22-2017, 06:28 PM   #7
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They're both ok, but both WILL cost more to rebuild than a 466 or 8.3, and are just outclassed and outgunned.
How much will a 466 or 8.3 cost to rebuild?

T444E rebuilt engine: $3,995 T444E NAVISTAR DIESEL ENGINE | eBay

Cummins 5.9 rebuilt engine: $4,000 5.9 cummins engine long block 03-07 | eBay

Cummins 8.3 rebuilt engine: $7,950 REMAN Cummins 8.3L 6CT Diesel Engine Mechanical Fuel Pump CPL# 1566

DT466 rebuilt engine: $4,800 DT466E NAVISTAR LONG BLOCK ENGINE | eBay

Admittedly this doesn't account for how the Cummins 8.3 and DT466 can be done in-frame, but I tried to account for it by not including the refundable "core charge" in the prices for the Cummins 5.9 and T444E. The prices also don't include shipping, but I imagine that shipping would be factored in if a diesel shop were to order parts or a new engine for a bus that needed an engine job.

I guess I don't see how the latter two engines are cheaper to rebuild... nor how an engine rebuild can cost $12,000 or so. Do these numbers look uncommon?
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Old 09-22-2017, 07:08 PM   #8
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The 8.3 and 466 usually do not require the old block to be removed. Parts are probably the same, but labor to remove and machine the 5.9 and 444 will be higher
The 8.3 and 466 have wet sleeves. As long as the mains don't need to be machined, the entire rebuild can be done "in frame"

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Old 09-22-2017, 07:27 PM   #9
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The 8.3 and 466 usually do not require the old block to be removed. Parts are probably the same, but labor to remove and machine the 5.9 and 444 will be higher
The 8.3 and 466 have wet sleeves. As long as the mains don't need to be machined, the entire rebuild can be done "in frame"

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Okay, so what is a reasonable price for a rebuild on an 8.3 Cummins and a DT466?

And when you say "as long as the mains don't need to be machined"... I don't know what you mean, but after 300,000 miles or however many it takes for the engine to wear out completely, wouldn't you think that anything that might have to be machined WOULD have to be machined?
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Old 09-22-2017, 07:34 PM   #10
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The main bearings on the bottom end. They only have to be machined if they wear through the bearing. At 300k I would expect to have the heads checked and possibly redone, change the sleeves (the cylinders are lined and can be replaced) and inspect/replace the cam, new rings, freeze out plugs, inspect pistons (replace if needed). And probably about a hundred little things (like seals and head studs) that need to be replaced.
It isn't hard, but everything is heavy and there are specialized tools.

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