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Old 11-27-2004, 07:13 AM   #1
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Random Newbie Questions...

Hi All,

I've been reading the last few days, with wide-eyed typical newbie intrest, and have come up with a list of questions to start with. But first, an introduction:

I'm 22 years old, and am loving the idea of a Bus conversion. I'm the typical overworked/underpaid guy who would love the idea of traveling on what few days I manage to get off, and can't afford something that won't be built mostly by me. Which leads to my questions.

What type of bus would suit a first timer best? I'd like to use it for week long trips or so, so I guess that will mean a full size skoolie? I plan on just a few thousand miles a year (probably under 5,000), but would greatly prefer diesel. I know mantainence costs will be higher, I will have no trouble putting a few miles on the bus each month to keep everything lubed up and in ship shape.

I get the feeling most of you guys prefer air brakes. Why is this? are they more reliable? What about cost? If air brakes are more expensive, is the initial premium a good investment?

Are diesel engines in buses kin to the diesel engines in 'rigs? I had a neighbor who drove a rig for years, he'd leave it running for what seemed like days on end at times. Can you do this with a bus without ruining anything?

I drive an ambulance part time, and our units have "auto idlers" installed on them, if the juice gets low (say on scene with all the lights going), the engine revs to compensate. Do buses have these? Could one be retrofitted? If so, easily?

I also gather Carpenter buses aren't well liked. Why is this? Are there certain ones that are OK, or are they all something to stay away from? If a Carpenter and another make of bus were sitting side by side, the Carpenter appearing to be in decent shape, and the other bus with some obvious problems, for the same price, would you still stay away from Carpenter?

I'm a tall fella, 6'8", and will most likely need to make my bus a high top. How much skill is required to do this? Is it hard? How about expensive? What's the highest I could make the bus (total height)? Is there any way to offset the center of gravity effects of raising the roof a good deal? Would it be a great deal harder to install the raised portion under the windows, so they'll be at a better height for viewing out of, instead of everyone looking in at my tummy if I were to raise over the windows?

Should I look for an automatic or manual tranny? I wouldn't have a problem driving either, would prefer the most reliable along with the more efficent. If that is one and the same, great, if not, reliability ranks over mileage.

What could one expect to pay for a good bus? Budget is the main factor here, I'd like to start with a basic bus, rip the seats out, and could get by with just a couple sleeping bags to see how I'd like "camping" in my new toy. I would take my time and do everything right, making my neighbor with the Winnabago jealous, eventually.

OK, OK, enough with the questions. This post is entirely too long already, so I'll shut up. I look forward to hearing people's replys, and hope to be a contributiong part of this great group real soon. Take care, everyone.

Also, any idea where I could find a good bus in my area? I'd love to meet some of you guys to get some ideas, any of you near Mobile, Alabama?

Thanks again,
-Brett
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Old 11-27-2004, 07:25 AM   #2
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While checking my post for typos and such, I remembered I forgot to ask one of the most important questions.

What type of engine/transmission will get me the highest ground speed? Are school buses stable at moderate speeds? I assume anything that heavy would be to a point. The little time I have off from working, I don't want to spend it going 52 miles an hour getting flipped off by elderly people in Caddy's. How fast have you guys had your buses up to? (This is not intended to start anything, and I hope you guys don't think that because of my age I don't have the common sense to know when 80 miles an hour in a school bus is unreasonable - remember, I drive amblances!)

Will I have to install a 'rig tranny to get any kind of speed? Have any of you done this? I don't know much about those kinds of trannys, I have driven a few 'rigs (Volvo's and Freightliners with 9 speeds), so I have an understanding of how to use them, but no idea how I'd go about installing one into a school bus. A friend of mine once mentioned something about a Chevrolet 7 speed that came in their heavy duty stuff, do any of you know anything about that?

OK, OK, I really am done this time.

-Brett
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Old 11-27-2004, 11:42 AM   #3
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Re: Random Newbie Questions...

Quote:
Originally Posted by JumboFriendly
Hi All,

I've been reading the last few days, with wide-eyed typical newbie intrest, and have come up with a list of questions to start with. But first, an introduction:

I'm 22 years old, and am loving the idea of a Bus conversion. I'm the typical overworked/underpaid guy who would love the idea of traveling on what few days I manage to get off, and can't afford something that won't be built mostly by me. Which leads to my questions.
Hey there and welcome aboard! This is a friendly place with lots of folks with good ideas and suggestions. Obviously, you know every reply you get to your following questions is going to be an opinion based on what was important (or not) to each one of us and reflecting our individual needs and wants. I'll take a turn at it anyway!

Quote:
What type of bus would suit a first timer best? I'd like to use it for week long trips or so, so I guess that will mean a full size skoolie? I plan on just a few thousand miles a year (probably under 5,000), but would greatly prefer diesel. I know mantainence costs will be higher, I will have no trouble putting a few miles on the bus each month to keep everything lubed up and in ship shape.
I'm not sure what you mean by 'type' of bus; say school bus vs. transit vs. road coach but I'll take it to mean what type of school bus. Here, I honestly don't think there's a best; it's absolutely what fits your needs. I chose a full-sized (11 window) bus with a flip hood; I wanted the length becasue our bus will become a fulltimer and we need the room and I chose the flip hood to make maintenance as easy as possible. I didn't want to crawl under the bus or climb into an engine compartment (those aren't bad things per se, just things I didn't want to do). It isn't necessarily true that a diesel bus costs more than gas; true, if you had two otherwise identical buses sitting next to each other in the same geographical area the diesel bus would cost more but that's rarely the case and other factors play into the equation. I chose an International chassis (I wasn't as fussy about the body) because for our long-term and long-distance use a person I trust a lot suggested the best engine (for us) was going to be the DT466 as we live in the mountainous West. I don't think that would have been as big a factor if we lived in the Midwest or East.

You'll need to do some basic rough layouts and figure out how much space you need inside; that will help you determine how long your bus will need to be. The space available for parking may also dictate what your maximum length is. The length of the bus will have an influence on the engine choice as well; I rarely see the larger engine in the 'shorty' buses.

If you're determined to get a diesel then do so; this is all for fun and is supposed to result in a pleasure vehicle. There's no sense in doing all the work on a gas bus and then end up wishing you had diesel. Don't worry about the hard 'numbers' (which in your case (based on mileage) would suggest a gas engine) in the long run it's your money and your choice.

Quote:
I get the feeling most of you guys prefer air brakes. Why is this? are they more reliable? What about cost? If air brakes are more expensive, is the initial premium a good investment?
I think in a lot of cases it's just what happens to be on the bus when purchased. If you're going for a full-sized bus (generally rated 66 to 72 passengers or more) you'll find a lot of those buses have air brake systems (especially as you get into the late 70's and 80's). There are quite a number of reasons big rigs (and larger buses) end up with air brake systems; one of them is that a failure in the air system applies the brakes rather than in a hydraulic system where loss of hydraulic fuid results in the loss of braking (but they have two circuits to provide a backup). While there may be some passionate arguments for one system or the other they both work well if maintained properly. I wouldn't mind hydraulic disc brakes but I'd have avoided hydraulic drum brakes on a full-sized (heavy) bus.

Quote:
Are diesel engines in buses kin to the diesel engines in 'rigs? I had a neighbor who drove a rig for years, he'd leave it running for what seemed like days on end at times. Can you do this with a bus without ruining anything?
They're generally medium duty engines rather than the heavy duty models that are in the Class 8 rigs; they're still very much kin though (just smaller). With size comes longivity so in general the medium duty engines get about half the life of a heavy duty engine.

I too drove big rigs; there's no more reason to leave the bus' diesel engine running than there was to leave the big rig diesel idling...that it, almost none. Way, way back when batteries were pretty flakey and we didn't have the fuel formulas and additives and devices (like fuel heaters) we have now you had to leave the rig running in cold weather or you weren't going to get it started. That really ended about 25 to 30 years ago in all but the most severe cold. Idling wears the engine about twice as fast as running down the road at cruise rpm; it's not a good thing. The only time I ever idled my big rig was to stay warm when sleeping (and these days I'd install a diesel-fired cab heater) or if the temps fell below zero (especially if I hadn't filled up with 'light' diesel); I didn't have a fuel heater installed on my rig.

Quote:
I drive an ambulance part time, and our units have "auto idlers" installed on them, if the juice gets low (say on scene with all the lights going), the engine revs to compensate. Do buses have these? Could one be retrofitted? If so, easily?
A lot of diesel buses have hand throttles on the dash; I'm not certain about the gas models. Newer electonically controlled diesels have a fast idle switch on the dash panel but probably not in the vintage of buses you'll be looking at.

Quote:
I also gather Carpenter buses aren't well liked. Why is this? Are there certain ones that are OK, or are they all something to stay away from? If a Carpenter and another make of bus were sitting side by side, the Carpenter appearing to be in decent shape, and the other bus with some obvious problems, for the same price, would you still stay away from Carpenter?
Some of them were put together so poorly they actually come apart; I think for a lot of years they were a pretty good bus. I'd sure do a lot of research before I jumped on a Carpenter. And then I'd only go that way (personally) on a 'throw-away' conversion; that is, you get a great deal on the bus, you're not going to put a lot of time and money into the conversion and you're willing to let the bus go for next to nothing when you sell it. If you're asking questions about the Carpenter others will too and that's going to affect your resale (not that it's very high on Skoolies to start with!).

Quote:
I'm a tall fella, 6'8", and will most likely need to make my bus a high top. How much skill is required to do this? Is it hard? How about expensive? What's the highest I could make the bus (total height)? Is there any way to offset the center of gravity effects of raising the roof a good deal? Would it be a great deal harder to install the raised portion under the windows, so they'll be at a better height for viewing out of, instead of everyone looking in at my tummy if I were to raise over the windows?
Raising a bus roof is a lot of work; it's not 'difficult' work in the sense that it's an engineering feat but it does mean a lot of hours of actual physical work. I briefly thought about it . The intimidating part to me was the sheetmetal work afterwards (since that isn't a skill I possess (yet)). Basically it's removing all the windows, cutting all the uprights, raising the roof the required amount, welding in new upright sections, and then closing in the open areas with sheetmetal and installing whatever (probably) RV windows are going in. Try looking here: http://busweb.freeservers.com/busweb.htm.

You can go up to about 13'6" which is what most semi-trailers (box style) are. You will find yourself restricted from some roads though if you go that high and you'll have to watch the overhead clearance signs a lot more. I'd try and stay down to 12'6" or so which will make almost all roads available (but not all so you've still got to keep an eye on the clearances).

If you're doing nothing but adding height to the bus you'll not be changing the center of gravity much; especially since you'll be adding a lot of weight at floor (or below) height like counters, cabinets, beds, refrigerator, toilet, and perhpas 100 or so gallons of water. Under the bus you'll probably add waste tanks, batteries and other equipment. Unless you raise the roof and put some crazy amount on weight (like a roof mounted Jacuzzi ) up high you'll be in good shape.

Most folks that I know of that have raised the roof have not used the original bus windows although I suppose that could be done. The reason you would add the height above the windows would be to maintain a view out the windows when seated (and we're seated far more often than we're standing). Typically if you're going to go through the trouble to raise the roof you're invloved in a "go-for-broke" conversion. Just a camper conversion doesn't really need the high roof; compared to the work to raise the roof what percentage of the time you're in the bus do you have to have full standing headroom? However, if you're doing a more eloborate conversion and you're going through the work to raise the roof it really makes more sense to install nice big RV style windows (not all that expensive from an RV salvage yard or out of an old 5th wheel or something) for looks and better visibility from inside. They'll look much more in keeping with the tall sides of a raised roof bus than the small school bus windows would. Since this is a way subjective area all the foregoing are just some of my random thoughts; take 'em with as they're meant.

Quote:
Should I look for an automatic or manual tranny? I wouldn't have a problem driving either, would prefer the most reliable along with the more efficent. If that is one and the same, great, if not, reliability ranks over mileage.
Get the one you want to drive; they both work fine as evidenced by the number of each out there. Having spent hours in traffic in my semi working a heavy clutch I knew that was the last thing I wanted in my bus (I dont' live far from Seattle with its horrible traffic) so it was an automatic from the start for me (and no compromise!). The manual tranny is going to give you better mileage. I got the Allison MT-643 4-speed auto and in general I've heard it's difficult to hurt an Allison. I was warned not to get the AT-545 along with the DT466 as it puts out too much torque (or at least enough that it's hard on the tranny). That AT-545 is probably the most common auto out there with other engines and seems to work really well.

Quote:
What could one expect to pay for a good bus? Budget is the main factor here, I'd like to start with a basic bus, rip the seats out, and could get by with just a couple sleeping bags to see how I'd like "camping" in my new toy. I would take my time and do everything right, making my neighbor with the Winnabago jealous, eventually.
I'd say your range is $800 to $8000 with literally everything in between; an awfully lot of folks seem to fall in the $1500 to $3000 range. A couple of folks just mentioned some pretty nice diesel buses they got in the $800 range. Depends on where you live, how the school districts in your area get rid of their buses, how long they keep them, etc. Because of our use I knew I wanted the DT466 and that's really hard to find in Washington State (they just don't get that big an engine here it seems); I shopped the Truck Trader, Equipment Trader, eBay, etc until I found my bus. It's a 1979 International S-1800 chassis with a DT466 tubo diesel and an MT-643 Allison tranny with air bakes; it happened to have a Blue Bird body (not a bad combo!). I found it in Denver and purchased it for $2100. It cost me about $100 to fly from Seattle to Denver and about $250 (in fuel) to drive the bus home.

Quote:
Also, any idea where I could find a good bus in my area? I'd love to meet some of you guys to get some ideas, any of you near Mobile, Alabama?
I see LOTS of buses come up for sale within striking distance of Alabama; start looking on eBay, do some Goole searches on school buses for sale, etc. There are a lot of them in the Southeast. You should get a hold of Gary in Florida; he's a gem and has many buses available (and he'll give you the 'straight skinny'). He does have a bit of a web site but I've got to hunt around for it. I'll post the info here as soon as I find it.
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Old 11-27-2004, 12:39 PM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by JumboFriendly
While checking my post for typos and such, I remembered I forgot to ask one of the most important questions.

What type of engine/transmission will get me the highest ground speed? Are school buses stable at moderate speeds? I assume anything that heavy would be to a point. The little time I have off from working, I don't want to spend it going 52 miles an hour getting flipped off by elderly people in Caddy's. How fast have you guys had your buses up to? (This is not intended to start anything, and I hope you guys don't think that because of my age I don't have the common sense to know when 80 miles an hour in a school bus is unreasonable - remember, I drive amblances!)
Most school buses are geared for moderate speed (mine tops out at 60 mph) but some newer models and those used for distance travel (band bus, spots bus, etc) are geared higher. I don't mind traveling at 60 but I'd like to re-gear so that I won't be so high in the rpm band at that speed. Even with all my big rig driving experience I'd just as soon move a little slower and stay in the right lane; moving a large (and slower) vehicle to the right is always a little bit of a challenge (did you really! see all the traffic on your right in the mirror?!?). When I'm getting paid for it it's one thing but in the bus I like to relax.

I wouldn't chose to push my bus to a much higher speed than 60 to 65 because it's got the areodynamics of a wall! I can pump up the horsepower on my DT466 to 210 ponies and re-gear the rearend and I'd probably end up with a 70 mph top end but the fuel burn (if I actually tried to run at 70) would kill me! I've had several Volkswagen camper buses; I consider my Skoolie conversion to be a larger version of that. I just chill and enjoy the ride and let the traffic jockey around me. I've got a nice fast motorcycle if I want an adrenaline rush!

Speed in and of itself isn't a big factor for me; when my butt hits the bus seat I'm already on vacation. Whether I can run at 60 or 70 has no bearing on my enjoyment since (cliche coming!) it's about the trip and not the destination. Speed is over-rated much of the time (obviously your ambulance service is an exception); if you drive 10 miles an hour faster than I do for an hour at 60 mph I'll catch up to you on your first 10 minute rest area stop. And, I'll be a lot more relaxed running along at 60 than you'll be at 70 (we're talking about school buses here). I won't have endless moves from the right lane to the left lane to pass slower traffic and back again. School buses aren't exactly Type A transportation!

Quote:
Will I have to install a 'rig tranny to get any kind of speed? Have any of you done this? I don't know much about those kinds of trannys, I have driven a few 'rigs (Volvo's and Freightliners with 9 speeds), so I have an understanding of how to use them, but no idea how I'd go about installing one into a school bus. A friend of mine once mentioned something about a Chevrolet 7 speed that came in their heavy duty stuff, do any of you know anything about that?
I know several combinations of engine and tranny that will give you a 70 mph top end but that's about it. You really need to look at the final drive ratio to determine what's going to increase speed; just adding more gears doens't necessarily mean any increase in speed. In other words, if the top gear on a 3-speed, 4-speed and 5-speed automatic is a 1:1 ratio and you've got the same rear-end in each bus the top speed is the same across the board; the extra gears may give you more acceleration and more pulling power on the hills (but not necessarily). Higher top speed is going to come from having enough horsepower and torque to pull something like a double-overdrive tranny; since the overdirve is so "tall" you've got to have enough torque available to "pull" that gear. More gears usually just lets a smaller horsepower engine pull a heavier load by using the mechanical advantage of multiple gear choices.

Quote:
OK, OK, I really am done this time.
No you're not! You'll think of more or you wouldn't be here!
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Old 11-27-2004, 06:38 PM   #5
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Quote:
That AT-545 is probably the most common auto out there with other engines and seems to work really well.
I HAVE to dispute this. We have three 545's at work (2 behind Cummins 5.9's in Freightliners, one behind an International T444E), & they are easily Allison's worst transmission. The biggest problem is that they are true "slushboxes"--the converter never locks up, & thus is ALWAYS slipping, creating heat, wasting fuel, & severely limiting hillclimbing speeds (neither of the Freightliner-chassis buses will break 60 up most hills because the converter slippage puts them on their 2800RPM governors). The Cummins/545 may be the worst-matched engine/trans I've ever seen. The 545 has a fairly loose converter--NOTHING happens (except noise) until about 1800RPM, & the engine spends most of its time between 2200-2500RPM. Meanwhile, the Cummins 6BT is happiest when lugging below 2000RPM. The only diesel I can see that would match well to a 545 would be a Detroit 2-stroke, since they LIKE to run on the governors all the time. The 545 seems that it was designed for gas engines.

It's better with the higher-revving T444E, but still not good.

For highway use, I'd hold out for at least an AT500--at least that locks up in 3rd & 4th gears.

Mine is a gasser: 1984 Ford B-700 chassis (essentially an F-700 with a bus body), ThomasBuilt body, 460 gas engine (was a 370), Spicer 5-speed, 2-speed rear end, hydraulic drum brakes, manual steering, 25,500lb GVWR. Somewhere in its life as a youth center bus, it was re-geared for the highway. It will run 70-75MPH easily, & cruise effortlessly at 65 all day. 65MPH is ~2700RPM with 10R22.5 tires.

For a diesel, there are a few to run away from:
Anything with the 8.2 Detroit--terrible engine, gutless, not very durable. Most common in GMC's, I've actually seen one in a Ford (albeit not a bus).

Anything with the 9.0 litre International--I'm 99% sure these would only be in Internationals.

Early V8 Cats had some problems...uncommon is school buses.

The best of the bunch:
GMC: 5.9 Cummins, 6V53 Detroit (noisy & tends to leak, but BULLETPROOF).
Ford: 6.6/7.8 New Holland (aka "Brazil motors"), 5.9 Cummins.
International: 420V8 (6.9 IDI), 444 V8 (7.3 IDI), T444E (PowerStroke withj different software), DT408 (a little small, but durable, just like its big brother, the..), DT466/DT466E (best of the bunch).

An S1700 Binder with a DT466, Thomas or Blue Bird body, a Spicer 5+2, air-assist disc brakes, & 22.5" Budd wheels pretty much sums up my idea of the ultimate school bus. However, I have NOTHING bad to say about the 5.9 litre Cummins 6BT!
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Old 11-27-2004, 09:16 PM   #6
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I was wondering about the 5.9, because it seems a lot of people on this board won't come near one, unless it's in a Dodge pickup. I see people say it's not very good for bus use, and wonder why that is. I can see now that I'm going to be labeled the "hot-rodder" of the group, and I guess that's ok. I have a friend with a Dodge 3500 with propand injection and a Banks 6 gun engine controller, and that thing screams. I think it'd be awesome to have in a bus, if the tranny could take it. I've see some of the Flat nose buses on eBay, and they mostly seem to have the 5.9 and the bad tranny. Do those type buses come with any other drivetrain combo? How much more space would be on the inside of one of those as compared to a conventional bus? I'd really like to be able to stretch out (not a '60 articulated kind of stretch out though), and am wondering if I'll have enough space to feel comfortable.
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Old 11-27-2004, 09:40 PM   #7
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Stock, the 6BT/ISB is a bit thin on power, especially with the automatic trannies, since most are very downrated (the ISB in the 1998 TranShuttle at work has 175HP). However, that's easy to fix--as simple as a reflashed computer on the electronic engines. Our 'Bird has a lockup 4-speed Allison, but I have no idea of the model.
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Old 11-27-2004, 10:03 PM   #8
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Quote:
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I HAVE to dispute this. We have three 545's at work (2 behind Cummins 5.9's in Freightliners, one behind an International T444E), & they are easily Allison's worst transmission.
I'm glad you did! I stayed away from the AT545 because of my desire to have the DT466; now I'm even happier I did! I didn't know about the non-lockup situation and it's great to learn more. I just drive 'em; it's nice to hear from someone who works on them...thanks!

I'm trying for your ultimate! I've got the S-1800, the DT466 and the Blue Bird body but I missed on the tranny (mine's the MT-643) and the disc brakes. I wouldn't trade out the MT-643 for the 5+2 Spicer but I wouldn't mind having the disc brakes.
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Old 11-27-2004, 10:14 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by JumboFriendly
I was wondering about the 5.9, because it seems a lot of people on this board won't come near one, unless it's in a Dodge pickup. I see people say it's not very good for bus use, and wonder why that is.
It's primarily due to low power; especially with a fully loaded full-sized bus.
Quote:
I can see now that I'm going to be labeled the "hot-rodder" of the group, and I guess that's ok. I have a friend with a Dodge 3500 with propand injection and a Banks 6 gun engine controller, and that thing screams. I think it'd be awesome to have in a bus, if the tranny could take it.
I don't think 'hotrodder" applies until after we see what you end up with. I'd like a bus that would get to 75 mph too; it just takes too much power (fuel) to push that mostly flat object through the air.
Quote:
I've see some of the Flat nose buses on eBay, and they mostly seem to have the 5.9 and the bad tranny. Do those type buses come with any other drivetrain combo?
You'll see quite a few with 3208 Cats.
Quote:
How much more space would be on the inside of one of those as compared to a conventional bus? I'd really like to be able to stretch out (not a '60 articulated kind of stretch out though), and am wondering if I'll have enough space to feel comfortable.
The hood on my dognose bus is about 5-feet long so on an equivalent length bus (mine is 35' overall) you'll gain that in the interior. A lot of flatnose buses are 40' long so you'd end up with 10' more space when compared to an 11-window 35' long dognose bus. I've seen a lot of these listed as 84-passenger buses.
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Old 11-29-2004, 09:15 PM   #10
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You should check out what Greg has for sale. I know I always say it but he really does sell good buses so I like to reccommend him. Give him a call or email him because he loves to talk buses and he knows his buses. His website is http://flbus.tripod.com
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