Article: Bus Conversions – Making the Decision

Bus Conversion: Making The Decision

So, you’ve decided you have in interest in converting (or re-converting) a Flxible Clipper! Deciding on buying, restoring, and converting an old bus is not a decision to be made lightly. Before embarking on such a project, you may want to consider the following issues carefully.

Dead? – Or Alive?

So, the first question is “Dead, or Alive?” That is to say, do you want to find a “turn-key” “going proposition” conversion, or will you go the “do it yourself” route? The latter, of course, can be anything from a simple refurbishment of a previously converted bus to a complete “start from scratch” bare shell.

A. The “Turn Key” Proposition – The “Alive” Bus

Of course, you may find a complete, running, functional bus conversion. One that you can climb into, turn the key to start it, drive it for a few hours finding no problems with overheating, stalling, stumbling or any other intrusions into the dream. The water runs when you turn on the taps, the refrigerator is cold inside, the air conditioning and heating work fine, the paneling, cabinetwork, carpets and flooring are clean and in good condition, and the exterior paint and glass leave nothing to be desired. It has fresh, radial tires, mounted on modern drop center rims (22.5 X 10 Tubeless). A careful and complete examination of the undercarriage reveals no problems whatever with deterioration or extreme wear of any of the suspension parts or attachment points, and there is no unrepaired rust on any of the body panels, underneath or on top. This is a “Live” bus, and in the long run (or even the short one!), is going to be a much less expensive and troublesome alternative than any“dead” one!

B. The “Dead” Bus – A “Cheaper” Alternative?

Now for the more likely alternative – the “Fixer-Upper.” Just a little messing around with some rust, replace a few minor items, and come away with a winning Motorhome for a few thousand dollars? Although this is sometimes possible, the far greater likelihood is that you’re embarking on a much longer adventure than you could possibly anticipate without having already done it a few times, but if you’re suitably equipped – emotionally, financially, and in terms of tools and skills, you just may succeed!

Reality Check

When you find yourself contemplating the “fixer-upper” – which most of them are – it is very important to do a complete reality check! That many prospective buyers fail to do this one is evidenced by the large numbers of such busses that have obviously had multiple owners since they last ran. One dreamer after another has towed it home, only to discover, after some degree of “work,” that the project was just too much for his capabilities. This is nothing to be ashamed of; it’s a very large and complex job to revive a Bus-based motorhome – or to build one from scratch. But you can save yourself a whole lot of time, trouble, heartbreak, and expense by making a realistic decision at this stage of the game!

It is important to note that most purchasers of one of the latter category manage to fool themselves into thinking they’ve found a “simple refurbishment” project, but end up discovering that they’re committed to going the whole route – complete repower, re-finish, and stripping out the entire interior and starting over from scratch. In fact, once you’ve had it towed home, you’ll likely find that this is not the first tow job – it will likely have been towed from happy new owner – having turned into discouraged would-be restorer – to the next happy new owner, and this in a succession of many of each. If you’re considering becoming the next in line, – and of course The One Who Revives It – you’ll do well to do some serious thinking on the following considerations. You’re probably not the first would-be prince to kiss this princess – and she hasn’t woken up yet! Hopefully, you may be the one – but it won’t be easy, and it won’t be cheap!

1. Major Conversion? Or “Buff-Up” Restoration?

Of course, since at the time of this writing (2005), any Clipper will be at least 50 years old, it is likely that the ones you look at with an eye toward ownership will already have been converted at some point, and will now be at some stage of disrepair and/or neglect, needing some level of “buffing up” to be brought back to usable condition. This could involve as little as a wax job and an oil change, or as much as complete re-powering, completely gutting the old motorhome conversion, and some degree of bodywork – as well as, of course, repainting. Of course, there’s a chance that the current power pack (engine and transmission) are just “resting,” and that a bit of TLC will bring it back to starting and running reliably, but in most cases, it was problems in this area that took it out of circulation, so you’ll be looking at a complete re-power – meaning engine, and likely transmission as well. Rebuilding may be a possibility, but in most cases the engine will be something old and obsolete, meaning parts are rare and expensive, and the engine once rebuilt will still not hold a candle to more modern alternatives.

When you find that Once Splendid Flx, the first question to answer if whether or not it’s still being used on a regular (at least seasonal) basis. In most cases, the answer will be “No.”

The next question should be, “Why Not?” The answer to this one will be varied – and there will likely be more than one. Advancing age of the present owners will be one possibility. Advanced age of components will be another – the most common reason why old busses get taken out of service is that the driveline – from fuel line to tires – just got too old and unreliable, and the unit was put aside to await replacement of the worn-out components. Thus, although the usual attitude of the new buyer is that it just needs someone to take a little time to get it running again, it’s going to need more than just a new battery and a little TLC. A LOT more! The engine, for instance, that seems only to need a little work to “get running again” will in most cases need to be replaced as part of a complete re-power. The peeling Formica counter tops that seem only to need simple replacement usually end up being just the first sign that the entire cabinetry needs to be stripped out and replaced. The grief goes on and on. The best way to look at the “non-turn-key” proposition is as an empty shell that’s not yet gutted – and if you can’t drive it home, it’s going to need that re-power! So pay and plan accordingly.

What’s Involved?

Once you commit to the job, you’ll soon find that the major variables are:

  • 1. How careful (and lucky!) you were going in – ie, the starting point
  • 2. Your skills – you’ll have to buy some shop time from somebody at a minimum of a few stages; how often this happens depends entirely on your expertise and resources (consistent, of course, with point one above)
  • 3. The tools and other resources you have at your disposal – including the ability to use them

Restoration of any vehicle is not a simple chore. The larger the vehicle, the less simple the chore. And the restoration of the chassis and body is only the first step in turning your new-to-you highway bus into a Motorhome. After that the next step is the Conversion – getting the systems and cabinetwork into place to make it the dream home-away-from-home you envision in your dreams.

To do this yourself, with any degree of success, you will require the mastery of a number of trades – or be able to hire someone who has the required skills and tools. These trades are:

  • Mechanic – engine, gearbox/transmission/drive line work, brakes suspension, and steering. Also tires. Some or all of these may easily be “hired out” to shops in the business. Few of us do our own tire work, for example.
  • Body Person – welding, prep and finish painting, glass replacement
  • Electrician – 12V and 120/240 for shore power
  • Cabinetmaker – from framing basic cabinets to making drawers, hanging doors, finishing counter surfaces, etc.
  • Plumber – for the water system, including hot water tank, sinks, toilet, holding and freshwater tanks, pump and/or filter system, and rigging it all together.

Most important of all, perhaps, is the ability to know when you need to hire help, and to “farm out” the jobs that are above your expertise or logistics. And remember, you will need not only the abilities mentioned above, but also the necessary tools and equipment, and a safe and secure place to do the work.

Your project can be a lot of fun, and fairly inexpensive (compared to the price of a new WanderWinnie 2000, or some such!) – or it can be a never-ending nightmare, more expensive than anything you’ve ever contemplated.

Ready to roll?

If you feel up to the job, it’s time to do a detailed examination of the Sleeping Beauty, so you’ll have an idea of what it’s worth, and therefore of how much you should be willing to pay for it. For info on how to perform a detailed inspection of a potential bus, read the follow-up article HERE.