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Old 10-27-2018, 07:08 PM   #1
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Longtime Lurker, I finally created an account to get serious

Hello Everyone,



I've been lurking on this site for some years, having skoolie on the brain since my ill-spent youth traveling around (well mostly breaking down) in a '76 International quasi-Skoolie with some band mates.


I think I am finally ready to pull the trigger on buying a bus! My family is looking to convert a bus into an RV to use mostly for 1-4 week trips to various scenic locales, but also potentially to use as a tiny home for extended periods when we can acquire some land. We also are considering "retiring" the RV as a permanent "vacation home" on a plot of land somewhere when it nears the end of its useful mobile life (10-12 years?).



I think I've got the basics down in what to look for, but I could use some help in narrowing down the ideal set of specifications (engine, transmission, FE vs RE, size) for our use case.


Our primary requirements:


Highway friendly - I don't need to speed but I need to be able to hang with traffic on long cross country trips

Mountain friendly - we live at 7000', we have a family cabin in CO, and we want to make long road trips that will most likely involve one if not more mountain passes, I don't want to burn out an engine/transmission playing "I think I can" up the mountain

Space - we have 3 dogs and 3 people, and my wife would like as many amenities as possible (RR, Shower, Washer/Dryer) - I've been looking mostly in the 30-40' range though there seem to be some trade offs with the highway/mountain requirement here. I don't have a lot of heart burn about not getting in to every national park with a bigger bus.

Dirt Road Friendly - not looking at coaches or anything with minimal ground clearance as we'd like to handle at least moderately maintained dirt roads
Ceiling Clearance - I'm 6'4"


It'd be nice to have some towing capacity as well, but that's just gravy.



I anticipate putting between 4000-8000 miles per year on the bus as we have family in CA, SD, CO, SC, FL that we would want to regularly visit, most of these are looooong drives from NM. We'd also be using it for short camping trips throughout the year.



From what I can glean the priorities I should be focusing on in bus selection rely primarily on Engine/Transmission combos and avoiding rust. I trawl the sites I'm aware of (Craigslist, GovDeals, Ebay, PublicSurplus, ColoradoOnlineAuctions, PurpleWave, various used car outfits) pretty regularly looking for that magic combo, but I'm still not completely sure what I should be looking for, or how to prioritize engine/transmission/chassis/body/age/rust/milage/etc.



Based on what I've read I'm looking mostly at Cummins 5.9/8.3 or DT466 Engines with Allison Transmissions, though the perfect pairing for my needs (mtns + long hwy trips) escapes me. I'd love more HP/torque, but I'd also like a FE engine for ease of working in the engine compartment. I also have read that I should probably avoid a 545 Transmission as that is not highway suitable, but then it seems good for mountains, but will it burn out on me long term?? I'm trying to look for buses mostly in the west to avoid rust, but I'm also not entirely sure about model year, as that seems to play a role (mechanical engine vs not), and other things...


While I have some basic auto mechanic skills, I intend to hone them as part of this project, relying of help from friends with more skills and the occasional professional for more advanced work. When it comes to some of the finer details of transmissions, ratios, chassis, air vs hydraulic brakes, etc, I am forced to rely more on others advice, but I am trying to learn as fast as I can, especially so that I do NOT buy the wrong bus for my stated purposes.



I'm actively looking, but willing to wait for the "right" bus. I'm figuring on 2-3 years for complete build out, and budgeting ~$20K for the project, expecting it to go over. I'd like it to run for at least 10 years after completion. I definitely have gotten the message that auctions are where the best deals are to be found.



I'm agnostic about manufacturer as long as it is a solid bus but I find I've been looking at a lot of Blue Birds and I'll always have a soft spot of Internationals, even though that beast seemed to eat belts for breakfast.


I'd appreciate any help/feedback on what good engine/transmission combos would be good for my requirements and any other helpful ideas of areas I should be focusing on/prioritizing based on what I've described.


It's great to finally actively join the community.


Cheers!
Marc
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Old 10-27-2018, 10:32 PM   #2
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I'd look for a well-spec'd conventional "dog nose" style bus in whatever length you like. A Cummins, Cat, or International would be a good choice up to about 2004.
A 545 sucks at highway speeds AND it sucks equally in the mountains. They're THE least desirable transmission choice in a bus.
My bus has one. Its a short bus so I'm living with it till I can afford a 643 to swap in.
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Old 10-28-2018, 06:12 AM   #3
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Originally Posted by EastCoastCB View Post
I'd look for a well-spec'd conventional "dog nose" style bus in whatever length you like. A Cummins, Cat, or International would be a good choice up to about 2004.
A 545 sucks at highway speeds AND it sucks equally in the mountains. They're THE least desirable transmission choice in a bus.
My bus has one. Its a short bus so I'm living with it till I can afford a 643 to swap in.

Thanks for the reply EastCoast!

What would be the most desirable transmission for hwy + mtns?
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Old 10-28-2018, 06:39 AM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by EastCoastCB View Post
I'd look for a well-spec'd conventional "dog nose" style bus in whatever length you like. A Cummins, Cat, or International would be a good choice up to about 2004.
A 545 sucks at highway speeds AND it sucks equally in the mountains. They're THE least desirable transmission choice in a bus.
My bus has one. Its a short bus so I'm living with it till I can afford a 643 to swap in.


Yep, I agree
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Old 10-28-2018, 07:55 AM   #5
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Thanks for the reply EastCoast!

What would be the most desirable transmission for hwy + mtns?
3060 is the best, but a 2000 or 643 are both great too. 2000 has OD, 643 is 1:1 like the 545 but stronger and has luckup TC.
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Old 10-28-2018, 08:34 AM   #6
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There's no magic answer to your question. I wanted a lot of what you wanted and I just had to look around. It would seem that when a bus was spec'd from the factory, you could start out with the basic chassis or model, and then check off any of a whole bunch of options. Thus, in my case, I have a 2004 IC CE300 72 passenger with 6'5" headroom, DT466E, AD2000, three interior heaters, and no A/C. That doesn't mean that every 2004 IC CE300, even of the same passenger size, will have the same headroom, engine, transmission, and climate control package.

But of course I can tell you that it is possible to have that stuff, because I have it. I'm 6'2", my wife is 6'3", our son is probably going to grow up to be taller than us both... so we looked for a bus with high headroom. This one gives us at least 6'5" based on an informal measurement. The stepwell is the widest I've seen, which is good if you or anyone else likely to ride in this bus regularly happen(s) to be an unusually wide person. I'm not positive how the powertrain would handle mountains - I know that on flat road it will pull strong up to its governed maximum of 65 mph, but it tends to lope in high gear even on a relatively small incline. It'll kick down to 4th gear around 55 mph and I would say that it could handle a fairly steep hill as such. The DT466E engine is so named because it displaces 466 cubic inches, which by my estimation is 7.6 litres. This gives it a displacement advantage over other common engines like the 5.9 Cummins, T444E, VT365, etc. The 8.3 Cummins is bigger, but very rare, and mostly found in really big rear engine buses as far as I've been able to tell.

I get 11 mpg without even trying to conserve fuel, and even if a 65 mph maximum won't mix it up with people going 80 in a 75, do you really want to be driving a 10+ ton vehicle at 80 mph? From my perspective, if you have to drive your bus that fast, it's your life you have to adjust, not the top speed of your bus.

I think mine has fine ground clearance. I'm not a small dude, and I can slide underneath it even with the air suspension deflated without having to put it on jacks. I can even sit up underneath it on the sides.

Don't knock the Internationals of relatively recent years just because one that was ~20-30 years older than anything you'd realistically buy these days used to eat belts. I'm sure that that engine was carbureted and gasoline-powered... and modern diesels are neither.

I like the one I have, but you may prefer something different. My mother-in-law, a bus driver for 15 years, said she always preferred the feel of conventional ("dog nose") front-engine buses because you had more "stuff" in front of you to absorb impact in case of an accident.
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Old 10-28-2018, 10:24 AM   #7
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Side Note...


If looking for a Colorado/mountain friendly bus...shop Colorado.


Many of the Skoolies from there are ordered with most of the right equipment & options to handle mountain driving (more HP, better trans, better brakes, retarders, etc.).
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Old 10-28-2018, 10:29 AM   #8
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Kentucky is another state to shop for hill-friendly busses.. they tend to over-buy.. i see lots of RE busses with high torque engines and lockup transmissions in that state. they also dont seem to use as much salt there as they do in some of the other northern states.. the downside is they do tend to hang onto to their busses longer than some states.. though several people in my various enthusiast groups have scored nice nusses by poking around some of the larger districts directly vs just the auctions..



as stated colorado has some good mountain busses as well..

-Christopher
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Old 10-28-2018, 01:15 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by RomaniGypsy View Post
Don't knock the Internationals of relatively recent years just because one that was ~20-30 years older than anything you'd realistically buy these days used to eat belts. I'm sure that that engine was carbureted and gasoline-powered... and modern diesels are neither.
Not knocking Internationals, I do have a very soft spot for International because of all the good times on that bus; even memories of 3AM emergency head gasket replacements done in a Tucson junk yard in sub-40 degree temperatures have a fondness to them 20 years later That WAS a carburated, gasoline powered bus BTW.

I found an old snapshot of it from our ancient website on the wayback machine:

Screen Shot 2018-10-28 at 12.02.54 PM.png

Speaking of CO buses, what do you think of this one?: https://www.govdeals.com/index.cfm?fa=Main.Item&itemid=113&acctid=9567

It looks like this has the DT466 at least, no contact info to email, but I sent a msg requesting what transmission it has.

There is also this one though it is not a dog nose, it seems to have the right transmission and engine combo, I do worry about rust since it is from Washington.:https://www.govdeals.com/index.cfm?f...34&acctid=8445

How do you guys feel about buses from Ohio, I've been seeing a lot on GovDeals lately. Obviously not a lot of hills in OH. I've read to stay away from Kentucky and the like due to the humidity/rust issue?
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Old 11-04-2018, 12:51 AM   #10
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Since the bus in WA has sold it is sort of moot point now. But some of the things that were in favor of purchase IMHO. First, it was a WA state spe'c bus so it would have had a minimum of 210 HP in that model year. It may have had as much as 250 HP. Second, since it saw service in WA it would have had very little rust. Third, it was a high roof model. Fourth, it had air brakes.

The in CO has some real potential if you don't mind the low roof model. First, since it is a CO it most likely has in addition to air brakes it will have some sort of auxiliary braking system. Whether that took the form of a transmission retarder (good), engine retarder (better), or a driveline retarder like a Telma unit (best) any sort of auxiliary braking system is a good thing to have if you intend to drive in the mountians. Second, since it is a full size bus with a DT466 it will have the MT643. Third, it has skirt mounted luggage compartments which suggests it was purchased to do double duty as a trip bus so it most probably is geared to go faster than 55 MPH.

Personally I don't like Blue Birds. Part of my dislike is definitely a Ford vs. Chevy vs. Dodge sort of dislike. Part of what I don't like about BB's is the eyebrows over the windows. Without a full length drip rail the body has a tend to do a lot of flexing above the windows. I have seen BB's that have seen service on routes that were off pavement that had stress tears in the metal going up from the eyebrows. One district locally orders their BB's with an addition rub rail above the windows to stop that problem. IC/Ward/AmTrans and Thomas have drip rails so that isn't a problem with them.

I do not like the Thomas C2 buses. The early ones had some real teething problems with the multiplex electrical system. I am sure they have all been fixed but that is something to consider. For that matter I would not want to try and mess with any bus with a multiplex electrical system. Some who post on this website are real electronic geeks and thrive on working on that stuff. I am old school and would rather not have to learn all of that geed stuff.

As far as the older Thomas buses are concerned, for the most part they are really nice buses.

Ward was a great bus body builder for many years until they got into financial problems in the late '70's and early '80's. Those problems were somewhat solved when IHC purchased a part of the company and the name was changed to AmTrans. Some of the buses built in the last days of Ward and through the transition to AmTrans were really poorly built buses. Quality control was not in their lexicon. The later AmTrans and particularly after IHC purchased the rest of AmTrans and changed the name to IC Bus the IC buses really became great buses. So depending upon the year a Ward/AmTrans/IC bus could be really good or really bad.

As far as engines are concerned, stay away from V-8's of any make. I would also stay away from Brazilian Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Cat, and the 4-cycle Detroit Diesels. It isn't that those other makes are bad engines. For the most part they are okay for what they are. But parts and service tend to be much more expensive and harder to find. Qualified service techs for IHC or Cummins engines can be found just about anywhere. Finding qualified service techs for the others, not so much.

Good luck and keep us posted as to your progress.
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Old 11-04-2018, 05:21 AM   #11
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For the most part this seems right , I’ve heard about some of the stress issues with bluebirds not to mention the brows make skinning a little more challenging.

Carpenter And Corp em by Carpenter had structural issues at some point as they started to get in financial trouble. The mate between chassis and body on mine was done horribly esp the driver floor. I discovered when I started my mt643 swap .. finally after 2 years of why I about died all summer even with AC.. and have had to rebuild the floors in the driver area.

I wouldn’t totally diss the V8 diesels.. the cat 3208 and the t444e were solid runners. Not powerhouses st all esp in large busses but in smaller busses both were reliable and still have good availability of parts.
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Old 11-04-2018, 05:30 AM   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by knandermueller View Post
...I think I am finally ready to pull the trigger on buying a bus! My family is looking to convert a bus into an RV to use mostly for...

...1-4 week trips to various scenic locales... to use as a tiny home for extended periods when we can acquire some land... "retiring" the RV as a permanent "vacation home" on a plot of land somewhere...

I think I've got the basics down in what to look for, but I could use some help in narrowing down the ideal set of specifications (engine, transmission, FE vs RE, size) for our use case.

Our primary requirements:
Highway friendly
Mountain friendly
Space
Dirt Road Friendly
Ceiling ClearanceI'm 6'4"
...towing capacity...

I'm actively looking, but willing to wait for the "right" bus...
What about the "perfect bus"...?

The Gillig Phantom has a lot going for it in terms of skoolie potential. I am in work on my conversion here.

Fellow forum member Juicifer (Justin) is currently also in work on his Gillig here; nice work, much further along than I am...

The guy I got mine from had a few more Gilligs still in service, including one (of 4 ever produced according to these guys) with a 10 speed manual transmission. For me, a Gillig Phantom with a manual transmission is the CROWN JEWEL of skoolie candidates (no offense to Crown...).

Here is a pic of mine on the morning I picked it up almost one year ago.


And here is a pic of the cockpit of the manual trans Gillig, which as far as I know is still in service, although it is likely nearing retirement from school bus service...
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Old 11-04-2018, 08:14 AM   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Tango View Post
Side Note...


If looking for a Colorado/mountain friendly bus...shop Colorado.


Many of the Skoolies from there are ordered with most of the right equipment & options to handle mountain driving (more HP, better trans, better brakes, retarders, etc.).

Exactly this. Our CO bus came with an electromagnetic retarder, automatic chains, air brakes, 250HP engine and a MT643 transmission. Also, had very little rust. CO seems to really take good care of their buses, at least Eagle County where we got our bus.
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Old 11-04-2018, 11:08 AM   #14
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Thank you for the detailed response cowlitzcoach!! Without this site, I kind of feel as though I'd be throwing a dart blindfolded at a wall filled with dartboards, hoping for the best. There are other sites that have bits and pieces of good info, but nothing as comprehensive as this site, and no other site has the amazing user community that I see here. We're all lucky to have such a tremendous resource available to us. This kind of community really highlights the "best" that the internet is capable of.

Quote:
Originally Posted by cowlitzcoach View Post
The [one] in CO has some real potential if you don't mind the low roof model. First, since it is a CO it most likely has in addition to air brakes it will have some sort of auxiliary braking system. Whether that took the form of a transmission retarder (good), engine retarder (better), or a driveline retarder like a Telma unit (best) any sort of auxiliary braking system is a good thing to have if you intend to drive in the mountians. Second, since it is a full size bus with a DT466 it will have the MT643. Third, it has skirt mounted luggage compartments which suggests it was purchased to do double duty as a trip bus so it most probably is geared to go faster than 55 MPH.
Height definitely matters, I am 6'4". Are you able to tell about the height just because of experience? If so, what tips you off? I have tried so many different ways to try and determine vehicle specs from googling for manuals, to looking up VINs, to just asking Sellers (surprising how many refuse to spool out a measuring tape) and I've not had tremendous luck, am I missing some great resource or technique?

I am going out to look at the CO bus tomorrow, I thought I had a list of good questions but you brought up a bunch of things I didn't think about, like the implications of the luggage compartments, the auxiliary braking system, etc. Are there any specific questions I should ask other than the obvious? I know it has a MT643 with a DT466. It "starts" but they won't let me test drive it due to liability, I think the best I'll get is they'll back it up and pull it forward. It also has a lot of miles, and they are unsure if the ODO is correct.

If you're confident about it having really low ceilings, that may be a deal killer right from the start. I tend to get excited about a bus and want to pull the trigger and get started on building, but the rational part of me knows I need to be patient and wait for the right bus or pay the price for the life of the project. This one sounds pretty ideal, barring the height, and provided it's not a rust bucket, as far as things I "think" (read: I've read here ) I want, but if there is something I'm missing about the model year, manufacturer etc. please let me know.

So this brings up an important question for me....

Tall Skoolians (Skoolistas? Skoolliers?) out there, how important is the interior height of your bus actually? I figure more than 50% of the time I would be in the bus I would be sitting/laying anyhow. I can envision that it would be annoying to have to duck my head a good portion of the time, but I am 6'4", and keeping the height requirement firm REALLY seems to cut down on my available options. I can and will be patient if it is pretty critical, but even looking back on our old 76' Loadstar International, I suspect it did not have a super high ceiling, and I don't recall feeling overly annoyed by that.

Quote:
Originally Posted by cowlitzcoach View Post
So depending upon the year a Ward/AmTrans/IC bus could be really good or really bad.
Is the CO bus a good model year? From what I understand the 90s was a solid decade for International?

Thanks again for the input!
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Old 11-04-2018, 11:27 AM   #15
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Hi ComfortEagle, thanks so much for taking the time to provide input to the discussion!

Quote:
Originally Posted by ComfortEagle View Post
What about the "perfect bus"...?

The Gillig Phantom has a lot going for it in terms of skoolie potential. I am in work on my conversion here.
Four things about a Gilling worry me without doing much more research (which I could be talked into since I love me some research).

1) I've never even seen one up for sale or auction, so my pool of potential buses just got even smaller than the already small pool I feel like it is, which brings me to issue number two..

2)How hard is it to get parts for these? And how expensive are they?

3)I'm not sure if I could talk my wife into a manual transmission, hell, I'm not sure she'll agree to drive an automatic.

4) Finally, everything I've read seems to talk me out of going with a CAT engine, not just on this site but fairly universally on forums across the interwebz. Now I understand that specific models/years may be relevant to this discussion, so please enlighten me if I am missing out on some good CAT options out there.

cadillackid (thanks for the input!) has this take on it:

Quote:
Originally Posted by cadillackid View Post
I wouldn’t totally diss the V8 diesels.. the cat 3208 and the t444e were solid runners. Not powerhouses st all esp in large busses but in smaller busses both were reliable and still have good availability of parts.
I've seen quite a few buses out there with CATs in them, but I've really been focusing heavily on Cummins 5.9/8.3 or DT466. If the parts are available, inexpensive, and there is enough support, I would be willing to look at CAT engines since it significantly expands my pool of options. Without getting into a religious war, I've just seen an overwhelming general consensus that states that CATs are "generally" inferior to Navistar/Cummins.
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Old 11-04-2018, 11:57 AM   #16
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It looks to me like that CO bus has a retarder. Our bus has a similar lever mounted on the right side of the steering wheel, and those 4 button lights above the steering wheel look like the indicators for our retarder (we have a Klam, but that might be a Telma....I dunno). If you've got the time, it wouldn't be a bad idea to look at the bus regardless of the height issue. As a 6'1 individual, I'm very comfortable in our tall bus. Even with the 3/4" floor insulation, 3/4" subfloor, 1/4" laminate and 3/4" ceiling (insulation plus plywood) I've still got 3-4" of space above my head. I don't think I'd feel comfortable tilting my head when I stand up. In my 20s? Yeah, in my 50s? Not so much. We're going to be full-time though, and you're going to be using it as an RV for the most part.
Even still, though it's not a tall bus, it will be worth checking out if you've got the time. You might be comfortable in it, and it might be tall enough for you. I believe ours was 6'-6" when the original floor was taken up. I believe there are 3 different roof lines. Straight, like the one you're looking into. Short, with a dip just past the entry door. A tall bus will have a sort of rising "hump" at the front like ours in the pic.
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Old 11-04-2018, 01:32 PM   #17
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Thanks for the info Drew Bru!

I looked at your build, it looks pretty awesome, I especially like the paint job, the solar, and what you've done with the cast iron stove. I envision a similar set up for a cast iron stove for our build.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Drew Bru View Post
I believe there are 3 different roof lines. Straight, like the one you're looking into. Short, with a dip just past the entry door. A tall bus will have a sort of rising "hump" at the front like ours in the pic.
This info is especially helpful, at least for this model of bus. I don't suppose you (or anyone else) know what the straight vs dip heights are off the top of your head? I guess I'll find out tomorrow worst case.

How long did you look before your found your bus? It looks pretty ideal as far as my requirements go. I worry that this model is old enough that most school districts won't have then anymore so they'll be harder to find.
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Old 11-04-2018, 02:27 PM   #18
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Originally Posted by knandermueller View Post
How long did you look before you found your bus? It looks pretty ideal as far as my requirements go. I worry that this model is old enough that most school districts won't have then anymore so they'll be harder to find.
Thanks, man. We're proud of our work and love how it turned out. Had a blast building it out, it's been a really fun/challenging project. We looked for probably 6 months, casually, and got real serious when we saw this bus at auction. We jumped on it and got lucky. We did hire someone to take a look at it for us first, which gave us a lot of peace of mind. As far as height, I don't know for sure but the rise seems to be around 3 inches or so. We got it a year ago so buses of that vintage are still out there. It was a Colorado bus and so it was built for the mountains.
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Old 11-04-2018, 07:12 PM   #19
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Drew's bus is pretty much my "ultimate bus". I'd like an 8 window outfitted like that.
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Old 11-04-2018, 08:01 PM   #20
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Join Date: Oct 2018
Location: New Mexico
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Drew Bru View Post
We did hire someone to take a look at it for us first, which gave us a lot of peace of mind.
How did that work, was it a mechanic? Any references, since it seems like it's about the same area as the one I am looking at? That seems like a good idea. If you don't mind my asking, how much did you pay at auction? Since yours is pretty close in spec to the one I'm looking at, it might give me a feel for what a good ceiling is on price, since I've been seeing numbers all over the place. You can direct msg me if you don't want to post it.

I have to agree with EastCoastCB, your bus checks pretty much all the boxes for what I've been holding out for.
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