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Old 11-23-2020, 10:51 AM   #1
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Best (and Worst) to Look for In a Bus?

Hello Experts!

Iíve been pouring over the skoolie.net forums, and am so appreciative of all your expertise! For now, I have nothing to offer but gratitude - as a health care practitioner, I specialize in the mechanics of human beings, not vehicles. And as interesting as being a mechanic sounds, I have a steep learning curve that will not flatten any time soon (and certainly not before we would like to make a decision on a bus!).

We would like to convert a school bus to live in full time, 30-35 ft, and wont be doing crazy road trips all over the country. Rather, we are eager to get back to our roots, and live in the country on a farm set up (we have family already doing so), and in 3 years when my fiance graduates medical school, we'll hopefully be heading out to Washington Sate (from DC). So while we will drive it across the country, and on short vacations, our bus neednt be able to drive all over creation. However, it is still our home, and we want it's bones to be quality.

I was hoping you all wouldn't mind answering a couple questions:

1) what are the best bus models?
2) what are the best engine's and transmissions to look for and avoid?
3) any other "types" to avoid or look for? (brake type, model year, engine size etc)
4) could you offer a list of questions that would be best to ask a seller?

So you all know I'm not lazily relying on you to do all my research for me - I've listed below what I think are the answers to my questions.

1) Blue Bird, Thomas or Crown.
Blue Bird and Thomas because they've been made for decades, proven their worth and reliability, are still common and so repairs are easy and less expensive then, for example, the Crowns.
Crowns because they are made like tanks, and apparently just last forever (though I've been reading in these forums about an engineer gentlemen's many repairs he has had to do on his Crown after purchasing, including a new engine - he is clearly knowledgeable, but I couldnt handle that mechanical challenge).
Any second bests?

2) Best engines would be Cummins 5.9 or 8.3, and International DT 466, 408, 360 or 444E. Best transmissions would be MT 643 or MD 3060 or Allison 2000. Avoid Detroit Diesel and CAT C7, as well as transmission AT 545. Any second bests?

3) I'm a lot lost on this one - there are so many variations of things, and variations change by year. Just ONE example - emissions laws facilitated introduction of EGR valves post 2004, which is good for environment, and good if vacuum operated (as opposed to electrical), but then with 2007, the DEF/SCR were introduced and those are more troublesome - so would it be better to by an old bus with a timeless engine made like a tank, or a new bus with new stuff that runs improves the bus in some ways but is more likely to break? I just dont know - but any guidance would be appreciated (including suggestions for some reading material on mechanical basics).

4)
Can you send me pictures of the bus's x, y, z .... (I have no idea what to ask for) ...?
What is the make, model and year of the engine and transmission?
How many miles and hours does the engine have?
What is the fuel type?
What kind of axels?
Brake type?
What kind of drive train?
AC? Heat? Radio?
Where is the engine located?
Where are the emergency exits located (if any)?
Are the windows all in tact? Any leaks or mold?
Where did the bus live? What was its use (government/personal)? How many owners?
Do you have all service/repairs/maintenance documentation?
Any rust?


Thanks Everyone!!
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Old 11-23-2020, 11:29 AM   #2
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The East Coast, in particular the NE is a pretty bad area to shop for a bus. Mostly you'll find rusty low spec junk.



Questions like fuel type and axle model are kind of redundant since most buses whether Blue Bird or Thomas use the same basic suppliers for most of those components.



You already seem to have a handle on the best engines and transmissions to look for. The other thing I see a lot of people not focus on is the factory roof height. All the school bus manufacturers typically offer their buses in different roof heights so learning how to spot different ones makes a world of difference. You may find that a 72" factory roof may not work for you.
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Old 11-23-2020, 02:58 PM   #3
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A better choice for a 'tiny house' is a trailer that can be moved only when needed.
Clearly you will need another vehicle to drive, not just a bus. A trailer can also taller and wider than a bus, and easier to insulate and doesn't tie the mechanics of a drivetrain to your home. If you enjoy building a house from scratch, you can always find old trailers that you can gut to the walls and build everything just like you will have to with a bus, but those gut-job trailers will be almost free.

Like this old 5th wheel for $1200..
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Old 11-23-2020, 04:56 PM   #4
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You didn't mention Gillig, that's a great bus. Also, Detroit Diesels made some great engines, I'd do a little more research before you write them off.

Another omission I noted, you do not list any manual transmissions, which IMHO if you can drive a manual they make for a great transmission with almost any engine.

Ok for the controversial part and this is my opinion only but I held out for one of 3 options. I needed more power than 5.9 cummins or T444.

All my preferences were pre 2004, there are many reasons for this but trust me, you can find a low mileage pre-emissions bus(EGR not too expensive if it fails IMO).

1. Cummins 8.3/3060/643 or manual
2. DT466/3060 or manual
3. DD 671 with a 10 speed or MT643.

My rationale and so far it has paid off: I'd rather spend 2k-4k more on the purchase price of a bus with a great powertrain and low hours/miles than have to dump thousands into repairs on my way to Alaska or after I got home.

Other pointers, Tires are expensive, you'll save a couple grand buying a bus with 70% or more tire life left.
Get the VIN on any bus you are seriously considering and contact the dealer for a Line Sheet. It will tell you many key details like fuel tank size, all the drivetrain parts as built, any extras you didn't notice like auto chains or block heater. Your rear diff gear ratio, the total length in inches, basically it is the "As Built" for a bus, I pulled at least 10 of these while looking for my bus and found on over half of the buses that the Seller was either ignorant of what the bus really had or was misrepresenting the 545 transmission as something better. Hope this helps!
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Old 11-23-2020, 05:22 PM   #5
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Originally Posted by Sevier View Post
So you all know I'm not lazily relying on you to do all my research for me.... *SNIP* Thanks Everyone!!
I've actually compiled a bit of a primer / pointers guide for newbies. I'll send it via PM... I don't claim to be a skoolie god or know-it-all, but I've learned a bit from others' experience, as well as a few years driving 18-wheelers.
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Old 11-23-2020, 06:45 PM   #6
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Good to see you research things first-focuses the mind!

I'm not a bus expert, so can't help you with your questions but I really like the suggestion to consider an RV trailer. Quick roof over your head, and gives you experience living in a tin can. That experience will definitely help you home in on the other right questions to ask.
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Old 11-23-2020, 06:54 PM   #7
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Yeah, I wouldn't avoid Detroit Diesel by any stretch of the imagination. Their stuff is legendary, but it is getting a bit difficult to find mechanics that understand their older engines. The only one I would say to try to avoid would be the 8.2, because of its fickle injection system and the fact that the exhaust reeks.
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Old 11-24-2020, 09:12 PM   #8
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Thankyou! And yes, have realized East/NE isnt so great on rust. Have begun searching a bit more South or Mid West.
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Old 11-24-2020, 09:19 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Maligator. View Post
You didn't mention Gillig, that's a great bus. Also, Detroit Diesels made some great engines, I'd do a little more research before you write them off.

Another omission I noted, you do not list any manual transmissions, which IMHO if you can drive a manual they make for a great transmission with almost any engine.

Ok for the controversial part and this is my opinion only but I held out for one of 3 options. I needed more power than 5.9 cummins or T444.

All my preferences were pre 2004, there are many reasons for this but trust me, you can find a low mileage pre-emissions bus(EGR not too expensive if it fails IMO).

1. Cummins 8.3/3060/643 or manual
2. DT466/3060 or manual
3. DD 671 with a 10 speed or MT643.

My rationale and so far it has paid off: I'd rather spend 2k-4k more on the purchase price of a bus with a great powertrain and low hours/miles than have to dump thousands into repairs on my way to Alaska or after I got home.

Other pointers, Tires are expensive, you'll save a couple grand buying a bus with 70% or more tire life left.
Get the VIN on any bus you are seriously considering and contact the dealer for a Line Sheet. It will tell you many key details like fuel tank size, all the drivetrain parts as built, any extras you didn't notice like auto chains or block heater. Your rear diff gear ratio, the total length in inches, basically it is the "As Built" for a bus, I pulled at least 10 of these while looking for my bus and found on over half of the buses that the Seller was either ignorant of what the bus really had or was misrepresenting the 545 transmission as something better. Hope this helps!

Super helpful, thankyou! I will research Gillig. DO you know of a good resource for where I can learn about all the things to look for, and to avoid, on a Line Sheet?For example, the rear diff gear ratio - no idea what is good or not good.
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Old 11-24-2020, 09:22 PM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by CHEESE_WAGON View Post
I've actually compiled a bit of a primer / pointers guide for newbies. I'll send it via PM... I don't claim to be a skoolie god or know-it-all, but I've learned a bit from others' experience, as well as a few years driving 18-wheelers.
Thankyou thankyou thankyou!

I read it and its awesome (couldnt reply by PM bc I'm not "trusted"), and am really cementing the importance of educating myself prior to making a decision. I am happy to find I already knew much of what you shared (have read so much about buses, I think Im turning yellow! , but again, encouraged by your confirmation of how important it is to buy a good bus, and not rush after something that is deceptively appealing, but not really, fully, a good choice.

Will be reading your Maintenance Check List next, and will ABSOLUTELY make sure I get a bus inspected before purchase. I dont know any mechanics, so hope can find one through a forum such as this one. Otherwise, I guess I could call up a large truck garage and ask an unknown to do the inspection? Seems one step above trusting the seller to get it inspected.
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Old 11-24-2020, 09:28 PM   #11
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Good to see you research things first-focuses the mind!

I'm not a bus expert, so can't help you with your questions but I really like the suggestion to consider an RV trailer. Quick roof over your head, and gives you experience living in a tin can. That experience will definitely help you home in on the other right questions to ask.
Ohhh, I want the experience of building something, creating something with my own hands. We've always wanted to live off grid, just thought it would be further down the road. But this has been a painful year, working as a health care practitioner (and small business owner) through a pandemic - and part of my healing process has always been to build something - each project gets bigger, and converting a bus isnt just a project, but is a creation I can carry with me (or be carried by, rather for a long time (as opposed to the wobbly kitchen island I made after my first adult break-up
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Old 11-25-2020, 04:24 PM   #12
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Quote:
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Ohhh, I want the experience of building something, creating something with my own hands. We've always wanted to live off grid, just thought it would be further down the road. But this has been a painful year, working as a health care practitioner (and small business owner) through a pandemic - and part of my healing process has always been to build something - each project gets bigger, and converting a bus isnt just a project, but is a creation I can carry with me (or be carried by, rather for a long time (as opposed to the wobbly kitchen island I made after my first adult break-up
This website and google are where I started my skoolie education, use the Search bar at the top and you can learn a lot about every part of the bus.
As far as rear diff education, I'll give you a brief lowdown as simple as I can though I'm not a gear head, I'm a Registered Nurse who is in love with learning so I push myself to learn something new about the bus daily!

The higher the number, the slower your bus will be top speed. The lower the number the higher your top speed. It's more complex than that by far but in a nutshell that's the first thing to take away. Also, they call a 5.83 like I have "low gears" and something in the 3.xx range would be called "high/tall gears", backwards AF I know and initially confusing. So if you plan on lots of highway/flat driving you'd want high gears in the 3.xx to low/mid 4.xx if you can find for better top speed. If you want more power aka a "mountain bus" like mine, you'll have a ton of power in most of your transmission gears (get's you to 50 faster and handles weight better, but you won't be doing 65+ mph...ever).

Having said that, I do not feel that the rear diff is a deal breaker on any bus. You can find hundreds in scrap yards and have your pumpkin swapped later on. If you have a really good heavy duty mechanic friend, 2 guys can do this pretty easily and in a short amount out time assuming you don't have to do any other modifications to the driveshaft or 3rd member.
I bought a manual transmission with a 5.83 rear end because I will be driving through the Alaska Range and Canadian rockies multiple times so for me, cruising at 50-55 mph is just fine. I also plan on putting in a 2-speed rear end in a couple of years.
A 2-speed rear end gives you both short and tall gears, effectively giving me 10 gears instead of the 5 gears I have at 5.83. So you can get say 3.83 and 5.83 in the rear diff and have both a higher top speed and also power through your lower range of transmission gears.

This is just glossing the surface, I'm by no means an expert on drive trains and if you want to know more I'd read a lot and ask some of the bus gods who spent a career as heavy duty mechanics to give you a primer. I hope someone corrects me if I have mispoken on any of this, I want to have a correct understanding and not mislead you!
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Old 11-25-2020, 04:50 PM   #13
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Super helpful, thankyou! I will research Gillig. DO you know of a good resource for where I can learn about all the things to look for, and to avoid, on a Line Sheet?For example, the rear diff gear ratio - no idea what is good or not good.
Before I started seriously looking, I made my "wishlist". I broke the bus down into 3 categories, musts, flexibles and doesn't matters(I know you love my technical terms!!)
Must have one of 3 Diesel engines. Must be pre-2004. Must have tires above 70% wear. Must be under 150,000 miles. Air brakes only. Must have service records I can review. Must have been driven recently/maintained and not been sitting for years. (these are mine because I'm not capable of fixing a complex mechanical issue on my own right now).
Flexible: Transmission, basically anyone but AT545, prefer 3060 or Manual. Rear diff, gears Lower than 4.60 otherwise didn't matter. Length, greater than 28 feet, less than 38 feet(to accomodate off grid systems and everything I eventually want in it) Dognose or RE pusher, didn't want flatnose front engine. Underbody storage, I ended up getting a bus with 4 nice bins already built in for no extra cost to me, BUT if I bought a RE pusher I would not need any bins as I would fabricate my own during the build.
Doesn't matter: body manufacturer(other than Vista or Thomas, I personally didn't want those). Number of extra doors doesn't matter to me. Height doesn't matter to me, will do a roof raise if needed with a journeyman ironworker friend of mine. Type of floor doesn't matter to me, will remediate rust or replace plywood as needed. And lastly, this is gonna blow your mind but PRICE - I would rather have paid a few thousand more to get a bus with all of my MUSTs than have a catastrophic issue that derailed me. I call it a prudent investment to spend more than 2500 or 3000 on my bus because I'm not prepared to spend 3000 on new tires after a double blowout that almost kills me. Or few thousand more as other issue crop up, plus the opportunity cost of your time.

My advice, save 6 to 10 grand and keep your eyes open for the RIGHT bus for you. While you wait, take classes in welding, carpentry and electrical. I've taken 3 carpentry classes, 2 electrical, 2 welding/ironwork and 1 heavy duty mechanics class while I waited to get my bus home. I feel much better prepared for what comes next, even if I'm not technically capable at this point, I know where to find answers now and have made valuable friends in my area who are excited to lend a hand or knowledge when I ask. Oh and I have a CDL class lined up next spring just because. Hope this helps and again, this was my approach and my desires, everyone will be different!
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Old 11-25-2020, 05:44 PM   #14
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As to rear differential gearing versus mph, another factor is the engine's safe RPM limit. Diesels don't like RPM the way gassers do. You should figure on most skoolie diesel options being most efficient around 1800-2200, and a max safe RPM of 2400-2750, depending on manufacturer.

For instance, Cummins rates the 8.3 as safe to 2750 rpm. However, I can tell you that the higher the cruising RPM, the harder it will be on fuel. I recently moved an RE with the 8.3 from NE to the NorthEast, and while it cruised at 70-72 quite comfortably at 2200 RPM, it also got 7.5 mpg. Respectable for a 14,000-lb flying brick, but not great.

Granted, it was experiencing issues about 1200 miles into the trip due to an important engine component nearing the end of its service life. Owners elected to bring it in the rest of the way themselves after repairs were made. No hard data, but based on what they told me, it was getting 9-11 at 55-60, which tells me it likely had a 4.56 axle gear. Which would give 71 @ 2200 rpm, and 60 @ 1800 rpm.

I'm set to move another with the T444E soon, and even though NaviStar says this engine is governed and safe to 2600, I don't plan to run it over 2200, regardless of speed. I might let it get to 2400 going down a hill, but that's it. From the info I have on this one (5.29 rear axle, Allison 2000 with 0.74 top gear, and what appear to be 37-inch tires, 2200 rpm will give 62 mph. If the engine truly is safe to 2600 rpm, that would give 73 mph with 5.29 gears and 37-inch tires.

If you insist on cruising the interstate at 70, I would caution you to think twice. The average bus will need about 500-700 feet to stop at 60. 70, more like 800-900. But if you must, you'll need a minimum of approximately 25% overdrive in top gear (most 4-speeds are 1:1 in 4th), 22.5 wheels/tires at about 37-39 inches of overall height, and a rear axle ratio of 4.56 or higher (numerically lower). So 4.56 - 3.08 is what you want for a diesel highway cruiser.

That being said, most skoolies will top out 55-60 without stressing the engine. Also, keep in mind that higher gearing (numerically lower) will also stunt acceleration. The gearing required to reach 70 mph with a diesel will make for a slug around town.
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Old 11-26-2020, 08:30 PM   #15
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As to rear differential gearing versus mph, another factor is the engine's safe RPM limit. Diesels don't like RPM the way gassers do. You should figure on most skoolie diesel options being most efficient around 1800-2200, and a max safe RPM of 2400-2750, depending on manufacturer.

For instance, Cummins rates the 8.3 as safe to 2750 rpm. However, I can tell you that the higher the cruising RPM, the harder it will be on fuel. I recently moved an RE with the 8.3 from NE to the NorthEast, and while it cruised at 70-72 quite comfortably at 2200 RPM, it also got 7.5 mpg. Respectable for a 14,000-lb flying brick, but not great.

Granted, it was experiencing issues about 1200 miles into the trip due to an important engine component nearing the end of its service life. Owners elected to bring it in the rest of the way themselves after repairs were made. No hard data, but based on what they told me, it was getting 9-11 at 55-60, which tells me it likely had a 4.56 axle gear. Which would give 71 @ 2200 rpm, and 60 @ 1800 rpm.

I'm set to move another with the T444E soon, and even though NaviStar says this engine is governed and safe to 2600, I don't plan to run it over 2200, regardless of speed. I might let it get to 2400 going down a hill, but that's it. From the info I have on this one (5.29 rear axle, Allison 2000 with 0.74 top gear, and what appear to be 37-inch tires, 2200 rpm will give 62 mph. If the engine truly is safe to 2600 rpm, that would give 73 mph with 5.29 gears and 37-inch tires.

If you insist on cruising the interstate at 70, I would caution you to think twice. The average bus will need about 500-700 feet to stop at 60. 70, more like 800-900. But if you must, you'll need a minimum of approximately 25% overdrive in top gear (most 4-speeds are 1:1 in 4th), 22.5 wheels/tires at about 37-39 inches of overall height, and a rear axle ratio of 4.56 or higher (numerically lower). So 4.56 - 3.08 is what you want for a diesel highway cruiser.

That being said, most skoolies will top out 55-60 without stressing the engine. Also, keep in mind that higher gearing (numerically lower) will also stunt acceleration. The gearing required to reach 70 mph with a diesel will make for a slug around town.

Ohhh man - so then (and this is for you too Maligator) - how does one finally decide?

Lets say the best of all worlds combo isnt available - the DT466E; MT643; Air brakes; pre emissions and electrical; the right length for our needs (28-32'); affordable ... what do you sacrifice?

Go with a AT545 bc thats the only way I can get a DT466? Or go with a post emissions/electric and DT Maxforce bc thats the only way to get a better transmission? Go with a Dognose thats longer and scarier then we want, because thats the only way to get the internal space we need and ideal engine/trans combo, or a shorter flat nose bus with the ideal engine/trans but at far higher the price then what I can really swing.

Its not just about my "wishlist", I can have total clarity on that, and on our needs (we'll be driving distance and up/down mountains at some points) but rather the trouble is about finding what is going to give us the best and safest home on wheels. Especially bc I will never be a mechanic, I just cant make decisions in the same way alot of the experts on this forum can. And it seems everyone's ideal bus has long been scooped up by others!
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Old 11-26-2020, 08:49 PM   #16
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First, the AT545 is not the kiss of death, it's just limited in what it can do. You can still re-gear for highway (3.91-4.56), it will just be very slow on hills and around town.

The DT466 could be had with other trans such as the MT643 and even the MD3060. Hard to find, but they do exist. And there's nothing stopping you from swapping an AT545 for an MT643, or even an MD3060 if you can handle it or know someone who can.

There's really nothing stopping you from sourcing a manual setup from an equivalent truck (I recommend the late-model 7-speeds over the old 4-speed granny-low Spicers) either.
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Old 11-26-2020, 09:41 PM   #17
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First, the AT545 is not the kiss of death, it's just limited in what it can do. You can still re-gear for highway (3.91-4.56), it will just be very slow on hills and around town.

The DT466 could be had with other trans such as the MT643 and even the MD3060. Hard to find, but they do exist. And there's nothing stopping you from swapping an AT545 for an MT643, or even an MD3060 if you can handle it or know someone who can.

There's really nothing stopping you from sourcing a manual setup from an equivalent truck (I recommend the late-model 7-speeds over the old 4-speed granny-low Spicers) either.
I may have, perhaps, read one too many horror stories about a 545 bus plummeting of cliffs, carrying its passengers to their death. I get that driver error is likely involved, and I'm not an idiot, I'll do my best to learn how to drive safely and correctly, but it also sounds so complicated - when I read posts about how to drive a 545, I have to look up 50% of the words in each sentence. So, wanting to make the right choice, and not one driven by cosmetics (which would make the purchase process much easier!), so this can be overwhelming!

May I ask everyone, assuming all else created equal, would you go for a 1995 International Genesis w a DT408 or Cummins 5.9 w a 545 and air brakes over, for example, a 2009 DTMaxForce w air brakes and an Alison 2500, or a DT444 w air brakes and a 545?
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Old 11-26-2020, 10:43 PM   #18
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May I ask everyone, assuming all else created equal, would you go for a 1995 International Genesis w a DT408 or Cummins 5.9 w a 545 and air brakes over, for example, a 2009 DTMaxForce w air brakes and an Alison 2500, or a DT444 w air brakes and a 545?
The 1995 hands-down. MaxxForces are junk. I wouldn't have one if they gave it to me.
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Old 11-27-2020, 02:32 PM   #19
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Join Date: Jan 2020
Location: Alaska
Posts: 89
Year: 2002
Coachwork: Bluebird
Chassis: IH3800
Engine: DT466E
Rated Cap: 77
May I ask everyone, assuming all else created equal, would you go for a 1995 International Genesis w a DT408 or Cummins 5.9 w a 545 and air brakes over, for example, a 2009 DTMaxForce w air brakes and an Alison 2500, or a DT444 w air brakes and a 545?[/QUOTE]

Clarification, do you mean T444 on the last bus or is that a typo and really DT466? If so, what year?
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Old 11-27-2020, 02:53 PM   #20
Almost There
 
Maligator.'s Avatar
 
Join Date: Jan 2020
Location: Alaska
Posts: 89
Year: 2002
Coachwork: Bluebird
Chassis: IH3800
Engine: DT466E
Rated Cap: 77
Agree 100% with Cheesewagon, NO to the maxxforce for me. I'd get the DT466 with the AT545 over the MF. You can learn how to drive the AT545 and as Cheese said, the rear gears will play a big role with that Tranny. Just be prepared to drive it carefully and slowly in the mountains, you can also get an add-on cooler for it so it doesn't burn out. Also if you plan on replacing it in the future and you know it's just there for a couple years it's very livable. Many people on here have and live with that tranny.

Again, agreeing with Cheese, my bus has an older "granny gear" 5 speed, my 1st gear will rip a house off its foundations but tops out at 5 MPH ROFL!! Get a 7 speed if you find a manual, which IMO a manual is solid and desirable but I'm a one off kinda guy.

Here's a little perspective on length, my girlfriend wanted 26-32 feet so when I picked a 35 footer(sight unseen to her) she wasn't happy with me. Now that she's been in it and understands that it will fit more of everything(batteries, solar, water, CLOSET space ROFL) she's totally sold. And let's be logical for a second, 3-6 extra feet is only 10-20% longer. They engineer these to be drivable, so the difference between driving a 30 foot bus vs let's say a 35 footer like mine is negligible at best(still going to take corners the same way). Parking will likely be the biggest challenge and with help or cameras installed it's pretty easy. Go to an empty mall parking lot and practice parking for a couple hours.

I would pose a solution to your discomfort with the extra length(you aren't scared, just unfamiliar, fear comes from lack of understanding, nothing more). Why don't you pose as a potential buyer for several different lengths, engine and transmission buses? A dealer has dealer plates and will ride along and coach you so you will be fine for test drives my man. Go test drive a 28 foot cummins 5.9 lets say, see how it handles, accelerates etc. Go test drive a 36 foot DT466, same parameters. You get where I'm going with this, before you decide have a go at driving a couple of these platforms, I promise it will help you make the decision and you won't be as apprehensive.

I'm assuming as you build out your bus you are planning on back up camera and maybe side cameras? If not, you should put that in your build, it will help you feel at ease with any size bus.

Also, what's the transmission, mileage and brakes on the DT408?
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