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Old 10-01-2020, 05:23 PM   #1
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A Dream Come True!

I've been shopping around for potential RV projects for the past few years. I started with the idea of a neat little fiberglass camper to tow around and about a year ago I landed on the idea of turning a school bus into a camper. And after a couple nights great winter rest on a friend's skoolie I knew that's the direction I wanted to go.

And last night, we finally brought one home. As my partner's early birthday present to me, a 1997 International 3800. This one has a DT466E, Allison AT545, and the body is a 65 passenger unit by AmTran. It has roughly 200k on the odometer and through my drive home, it runs like a beast.





I participate in a lot of offroad car rallies and other automotive events, so the plan is to make this bus into a comfortable place to sleep on these trips. The rear area is to become a mini motorcycle garage as well.

Like my friend's skoolie, we definitely want to go pretty minimalist. We'll be starting off with seating, a table, bedding, refrigeration, air conditioning, and some form of heat for the winter. My partner knows a bit about plumbing so we hope to have some running water eventually as well.

We're already super excited! I do have a slight concern, however. It appears something sprung a leak last night. I started the engine this morning and while idling there does appear to be a small leak coming from on top of the transmission. I'm expecting maybe the trans breather or a rubber hose, maybe?
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Old 10-01-2020, 05:32 PM   #2
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The AT545 is a fairly basic and weak transmission, and many need attention upon being retired from school service. The leak could be something as simple as a cooler line / fitting, or it could be a seal or pan gasket.

The bad news? When they fail, there's not much you can do about it other than a rebuild or a swap to a better unit.

The good news? You can swap an MT643 in its place, a better and stronger option than rebuilding the AT545. Some applications require a few extra parts that can usually be sourced from the donor vehicle. Be sure to get any shims / spacers / shifter if necessary. Flywheel / flex plate swap might be necessary.

However, the bus looks to be in pretty good shape outwardly, and the DT466E is a good engine. I would say if the AT545 is indeed giving up, it's well worth swapping an MT643, assuming there is not a ton of rust in the floors and frame.

I would ponder long and hard about how you plan to use your conversion. If it will be low speed and not a lot of hills, occasional weekend jaunts, the AT545 may hang in there for awhile. But if you're looking for interstate cruising and lots of hills or mountains, an MT643 swap will be well worth the cost over rebuilding the AT545 if and when the time comes.
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Old 10-01-2020, 05:42 PM   #3
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Congrats on achieving your dream of owning an old school bus.
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Old 10-01-2020, 05:44 PM   #4
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Thanks for the advice! I knew going into it that the AT545 will be a weak point in this particular bus. It shifted fine during the test drive and drove beautifully all the way home. Given that I'll rarely be seeing anything resembling a mountain (good ol' flat Midwest) I figure it'll be good enough until it decides to give up the ghost.

The leak wasn't apparent when I stopped for diesel last night, so I bet it sprung on the final leg of the drive home. I'm first going to check the hoses as given the bus' age I'm willing to bet they're pretty old.
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Old 10-01-2020, 06:35 PM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by CHEESE_WAGON View Post
The AT545 is a fairly basic and weak transmission, and many need attention upon being retired from school service. The leak could be something as simple as a cooler line / fitting, or it could be a seal or pan gasket.
Good news! I traced the leak. It's coming from one of the transmission line hoses. Seems like an easy enough fix, whew! Might have the shop fix that while doing the alignment.
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Old 10-01-2020, 06:54 PM   #6
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typical leak.. ive fixed a couple.. I would change the external spin-on filter for your transmission.. if the fluid is still nice N red there is no reason to change the fluid.


your 545 will do fine on flat ground.. you can add an external cooler if you decide you want to tow a rally car trailer or such with the bus ..


-Christopher
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Old 10-01-2020, 06:59 PM   #7
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Good news! I traced the leak. It's coming from one of the transmission line hoses. Seems like an easy enough fix, whew! Might have the shop fix that while doing the alignment.
Have them check the steering spindle kingpins. Any competent shop should do it, but be sure mention it. It does get overlooked on occasion.
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Old 10-01-2020, 07:59 PM   #8
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I'll note that as well. While tracing the lines to see where they go I just discovered that this AT545 appears to either be a remanufactured or rebuilt unit, definitely not the original. Date on the plate is 2008. Wonder if the original met some unfortunate fate. Ha.
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Old 10-01-2020, 09:03 PM   #9
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I'll note that as well. While tracing the lines to see where they go I just discovered that this AT545 appears to either be a remanufactured or rebuilt unit, definitely not the original. Date on the plate is 2008. Wonder if the original met some unfortunate fate. Ha.
Original lasted 11 years, replacement has been in there 12 years. Get my drift?
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Old 10-02-2020, 08:55 AM   #10
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Nice, you're not far from me.

Where did you get the bus? That one looks like it could have been from a local contractor that went out of business in my town a few years back.
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Old 10-02-2020, 10:28 AM   #11
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school-route service is one of the hardest things you can do to an automatic transmission.. other than an AT545 climbing mountains where you overheat it..



but in route service you shift constantly.. allison transmissions are all clutched, no bands.. anyway each time it upshifts or downshifts a tiny bit of clutch material is worn away... if the fluid is maintained on a tight schedule for severe duty then you always have clean fluid at those clutches.. if the fluid is left dirty then each time a clutch engages there is "grit" in the fluid which wears it a little faster..



in effect you can just plain wear out that transmision. as eventually the clutch material is gone.. and its just metal on metal which will "slip" and make heat.. then it warps the steels which means the clutches will get even hotter and wear more.. until finally it slips so much you either cannot move or you lose 1 or 2 gears..



so then you pul the trans apart, replace the clutches, bushings, rebuild the pump, clean it all up nice, put it back in and go..
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Old 10-02-2020, 10:58 AM   #12
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Quote:
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Original lasted 11 years, replacement has been in there 12 years. Get my drift?
Oh yeah I do. Our plan remains essentially the same. Run it until the trans gives up on life and either install a better trans or maybe even by that time we'll even have a different bus. But it's definitely good to know to watch out for when it decides to give up the ghost.

One thing I carry over from working on cars as well is that I know a "rebuilt" transmission doesn't even necessarily mean it'll be good as new.

Quote:
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Nice, you're not far from me.

Where did you get the bus? That one looks like it could have been from a local contractor that went out of business in my town a few years back.
Just north of Milwaukee in Germantown!
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Old 10-02-2020, 11:11 AM   #13
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I'm west of Madison so probably little over an hour from you.
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Old 10-02-2020, 11:19 AM   #14
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thats what I did.. ran my AT545s until they blew up then Upgraded them... and it happened in both of my roadtrip runners a year apart..



I drive my busses over the smokies and the appalachains fairly frequently so the transmissions lasted a few trips of that each before dying.. now those transmissions are upgraded..
-Christopher
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Old 10-02-2020, 11:27 AM   #15
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I'm amused to find out that AT545s are the 4L60Es of the skoolie world. lol It's a free bus to me so no complaints here!

@WIbluebird I actually live near the border in McHenry County, IL. Madison is roughly 2 hours from me.
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Old 10-02-2020, 12:02 PM   #16
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the 4L60E is a damn good transmission.. and it has lockup..



just have to do some things to the 4L60E.. corvette servo, hardened sungear shell, upgraded pump, block the lockup valve, shunt the accumulators.. or heck just Z-pack it
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Old 10-02-2020, 12:24 PM   #17
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the 4L60E is a damn good transmission.. and it has lockup..

just have to do some things to the 4L60E.. corvette servo, hardened sungear shell, upgraded pump, block the lockup valve, shunt the accumulators.. or heck just Z-pack it
I'd rather have the 4L85E myself if I had to settle for a 4-speed. TH400/TH475 is better than either.
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Old 10-02-2020, 02:06 PM   #18
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old 3 speeds with no lockup.. Bleh old tech only good for race cars not for highway cruisers..



the 4L80E / 4L85E are great units .. obviously TH400 roots that carried onward.



cant wait till some of the newer 8 and 9 speeds start showing up in the junkyards.. more gears = better in my mind.. and if I can have 9 gears and not have to row em thats a real win
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Old 10-02-2020, 03:57 PM   #19
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old 3 speeds with no lockup.. Bleh old tech only good for race cars not for highway cruisers..

the 4L80E / 4L85E are great units .. obviously TH400 roots that carried onward.

cant wait till some of the newer 8 and 9 speeds start showing up in the junkyards.. more gears = better in my mind.. and if I can have 9 gears and not have to row em thats a real win
More gears = more moving parts = more to break. Hybrid car owners have already seen their fuel savings vaporized come battery replacement time. CVT trans owners are also forced to admit their gas savings go up in smoke when the transmission does.

I'm all about overdrives and fuel savings where it makes sense, but larger, heavier vehicles put more stress on the internals, and they just don't last as long. $200 in fuel savings a year with an SUV doesn't mean much when a trans overhaul can run $2500-$3000 at a shop. Granted, the Allison units in larger skoolies are better built (AT545 excepted) but you'd be hard pressed to show me a 4, 6, or 8 speed modern automatic in a GM, Ford or Dodge that will last longer than a TH400, TH475, TF727, C6, etc.
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Old 10-02-2020, 07:19 PM   #20
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Since you're into it for no cash outlay, you can now likely afford to put a few $$ into it to fix the small stuff and also on a preventative maintenance side.
How are the tires and what are the date codes on them?

Am I the only one noticing the exhaust hanging precariously close to the pavement???
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