Article: Examining a potential conversion bus

By Pete Snidal © 2004

The Examination

When you find a candidate for your project Motorhome, you desperately need to examine it carefully. A few extra hours spent shopping can save years of heartbreaking work later. The examination will aid you not only in deciding how much to offer for the Sleeping Beauty, but, most importantly, whether or not to walk away!

"Turn-Key" or "Project?"

If you're looking at a finished rig, and paying the price for that, more power to you; I envy you! The considerations then just become ones of ensuring that the chassis is still sound, that the cabinetwork and systems are satisfactory and functioning properly, that you can live with the way it's been done, and that the price is fair. However, most Flx Clippers you'll find will need some degree of refurbishment/restoration - from a little "buffing up" to a complete strip-and-replace rebuild and overhaul. This article attempts to deal with the latter cases.

The "Project"

This is the most common kind of Clipper that we find today. One that may have been put aside for a year or two, and the year or two sort of expanded until serious deterioration set in, or one that was just "timed out" by use and years until some serious "freshening" is required.

In these cases, you may want to begin by estimating what the value of your finished project will be. After that, simple math will tell you what you can afford to pay for the project vehicle. If, for example, you figure on a finished cost of $20,000 for your completed motorhome, and it's going to cost $10,000 for parts and labour, you can afford to pay the last 10 for the Sleeping Beauty. But in some cases, you can find that the parts and labour ate up all of your projected finished value and more, so bear in mind that the hulk you're shopping on may have little value at all. As for labour, you should allow yourself at least some value for your time, and factor this into your cost price. Meaning, if you buy a "turn-key" bus, you spend no time and need factor in no cost. If you start with a complete hulk, the time and material costs will almost inevitably turn out to be some number of times more than estimated.

The considerations and approximate values go something like this:

  • Body and Chassis: Will rust repair/component replacement be necessary? This most important part could cost thousands. A solid body and chassis is a bargain at a minimum $500, even if all other aspects will require replacement.
  • Drive Train: Although it may not seem important to start with, by the time your dream project is about ready for the road, you're going to want a decent drive train. A modern diesel and automatic transmission to match can cost $20,000. An auto-wrecker bigblock gas engine and matching automatic will start at $500 for a rebuildable package, and likely end up costing $2-3K and up. So if the rig you're shopping on has a satisfactory power package in reasonable condition, add 2-10 thousand dollars - but onlyif it's the power you know you'll want by the end of your restoration.If it's just barely running, (or can be made to) although it will need replacement, it still has some value - it can save you the price of flatbedding or towing home if it can be made to limp the distance. Thus, even the original Buick and 4-speed Spicer in an old Clipper can be of some value (if runnable) - although you don't want to forget you'll be replacing it.
  • Interior: If the interior is in satisfactory condition, and the bus has been converted in a way you can live with, that can be a big plus. In either event check that any appliances still work (RV refrigerators are famous for having a short life-span). Shopping for RV appliances can give you a bad case of sticker shock, so, even if the interior is going to need replacement, a few appliances can be a bonus.Thus, what's inside can add from a couple of hundred to thousands to the fair price for your prospective new motorhome.
  • Glass: Although not nearly as involved to rectify, is another serious consideration. In the 5 or so years that this writer has been involved in Clipper restoration, windshield glass has been a major concern of many owners. Fortunately, there has always been glass available, but at a price. There were a number of pairs in existence at $US350 per side (plus $100 shipping) for some years, but this supply was suddenly bought up about 1999. Another order of glass was made, and some pairs are still available, this time at $1000 plus shipping. So the condition of the windshield glass should not be overlooked. Good glass adds another $1500 to the eventual value of a prospect.
  • Tires: At first, if it's got round rubber that still shows some tread, (and holds air) it's good enough to drag it home on , and that's your major concern at that point. But a check on the dates of the tires (in the serial numbers) will likely reveal that they're 'way past their reasonable life expectancy (rubber deteriorates), so by the time you're actually on the road, you'll have spent from two to four thousand dollars on new tires and roadwheels - the "split rims" that are likely on there are hard to get serviced, dangerous to the tire techs, and cheap enough compared to the price of the new tubeless radials you'll be buying to fit on them`anyway. So it'll be 2K basic, 4K if you decide on fancy wheels. If your prospect has modern tubeless 10 X 22.5 Radials on drop-center rims, add 2-4K, if the wheels are Alcoa Aluminum, (Check carefully for cracks!) add some more.
  • Brakes: This, like tires, is a job usually left to pros. Many Clippers have drums which reveal the thickness of the brake linings, so you can get an idea of whether a re-line is imminent, but you have no way of knowing the size or condition of the drums without removing and inspecting. This is a fairly large job, best left to a pro. If you guess right, and no drum or lining work is required, you're home free, but drums run about $250 apiece. Then there's the compressor - if the air doesn't built up to the green zone on the dash gauge in 90 seconds or less, you're looking at compressor work - possibly up to a new or good used compressor. So you may want to allow for 0-$2500 worth of brake work.
  • Exterior Finish: It costs a lot of money to refinish something as big as a bus! Check your local Maaco paint shop for the price to do a Honda, and multiply by a big number! If your prospect has good paint with no problems, add a minimum $5000. If the paint will need redoing, but a minimum of sanding will be required, count on a thousand or two. If the paint is in really bad shape, and will require complete removal before refinishing, your total refinish work will cost a minimum of $3000, and could easily go to double that - this if you do most of the work yourself.After that, what about the fluting? (if any) Stainless steel can be polished, (for a serious price). Anodized aluminum cannot. With the aluminum, you're pretty well stuck with what you have - unless you elect to replace it. This means sourcing the material, drilling out all the rivets, and re-riveting. The latter process, to be done right, means first stripping the interior down to the inside of the outer skin. So a shiny stainless fluting job on your prospect adds a LOT to its value! An aluminum one in good condition, less so, but still significant. Some restorers have elected to give up on it and just fill the holes and paint the whole works. Your call.

This gives you a rough idea of the replacement cost to anticipate for areas that will obviously require attention. It never hurts at this stage to have an associate in on the exam - from a less-involved friend to a hired-hand professional mechanic. Your expertise and objectiveness should be suspected in a purchase of this nature. Now, let's look in detail at the more important areas to examine.

Rust repair, for instance. Rust never sleeps, and once body rot has begun, it can be a never-ending battle to keep up with it. Not to mention that it will inevitably turn out to be worse than you thought once you get in there. This is a particularly important consideration with unibody construction - there is no heavy-gauge frame upon which the Flxible Clipper body sits - the body is the frame. Thus, a weak suspension mounting point, for example, will mean you need to do some extensive restoration work just to keep the tires from scraping the wheel wells, once it gives out. Personally, I walk away from rust as fast as I can! - And, unless you're an experienced and well-equipped expert, I strongly recommend you do the same!

The places to check are the outer skin - all the way down and under to the very bottom - and the suspension mounting points.

Skin replacement is the easiest of the rust repair chores. It is necessary to have the inside of the coach stripped to the skin to do it properly, but when you have this access you can assess the damage and deal with it. If the frames can be saved, basic skin replacement will involve only drilling out the rivets that hold the panel in question in place, securing a piece of sheet metal of the same gauge and finish (plain steel, not galvanized), and riveting it into place. The riveting process shapes the metal as you work it down a frame. Riveters start with sheet metal screws (or the fancier "Clecos") every few holes to hold the panel in place, and follow by rivetting along the frames, forming the metal as they go. This is serious metalwork, but fairly simple once you have the tools - a riveting gun (a regular air hammer will work, with a "rivet snap" in the tool clip) and a few "bucking bars." It's a two-man job, with the bucker inside while the riveter works on the outside.

Skin replacement gets more complicated if the frame has corroded beyond re-use as well. Then, it's necessary to fabricate new frames, or parts of frames, or find replacements from a parts Flx. Replacement is simply a matter of welding in a fresh piece, or de- and re-riveting the new frame into place before replacing the skin. It's a lot like boat repair.

The Really Heavy-Duty rust repair is the kind which involves the chassis metal, particularly the spring mounting points. During examination, look at each of the springs in turn, and identify the chassis members which provide the mounting points for the shackle pins which connect the springs to the chassis. Carefully scrape away all mud and road grime, and use a strong light to look for any signs of excessive corrosion. There will inevitably be some surface rust, but if you use a small hammer, wrench, or other such tool, you should hear a solid clunk to the metal, and not a weak wimpy dooof. If in doubt, attempt to drive a center punch through the metal - if it goes through, you know you'll need to be cutting out some metal and welding in replacement chassis parts on this one! Not a job for the lightweight, although a good bodyman can do wonders with a plasma cutter, and a heavy-duty sheet metal shop can reproduce the parts he cuts out, and he can weld them in place with a mig machine. This has to be done right, though, and by an expert. Just knowing where to cut is half the battle. This comes under the category of major restoration.


Next, the Power Train. Does it run? If it doesn't, will it really just require a new battery and a little tuning up? In almost all cases, the answer will turn out to be no, definitely not. The major reason for abandonment of the Motorhome will have been that it just wasn't reliable any more - when it gets to the point where it takes all day to get it started, or it's overheating so badly it just won't climb hills, or it won't run at all, that's when it gets parked to await a rebuild or re-power - or, most likely, the arrival of a new would-be owner. In most cases, it goes through a few of those before one comes along who realizes what it needs, and factors a repower into his plans before proceeding any further. Careful shopping, doing all the work yourself, and settling for a big-block gasoline engine can get you through for as little as a few thousand dollars, but going Deluxe with a new diesel and matching 5 or 6-speed automatic will soon put it on the windy side of ten! So, if a recent repower has been done, consider the value of this little extra in your contemplations.

It's nice to dream that the existing engine can be made to run with just a little TLC, but, trust me, it's usually the reason the bus came out of use. And often, like the famous "one-hoss shay," the rest of the unit was in about the same condition. Add to that the deterioration of years of storage/neglect in the weather, and you've got a serious complete rebuild and restoration project on your hands.

And don't forget the radiator, which will generally need a seriously expensive re-core. That can be another G-note.

How about the exterior finish? It will be at some stage, from simply needing a wax job to complete stripping, priming, and painting. The existing paint will in all likelihood need redoing, but an even more important question is whether it will suffice as a base coat for new finish, or require complete stripping to bare metal. Peeling, reticulation ("crazing"), or just too many chips will mean the much more intensive total refinishing. The price of repainting can vary widely. While examining, don't forget that body rust under the stainless or aluminum side panels is also a consideration - in some cases, you'll have to remove it just to refinish (or replace!) the steel underneath.

Check also the aluminum or stainless fluted panelling. This can be very expensive to replace, and replacement will require access to the backs of all the rivets, meaning completely stripping the inside walls - or using a one-side rivetting process, such as Cherry Rivets, or the less strong Pop Rivets.

And finally, the House Part. The more astute among the readership will have noticed that we have not yet begun to discuss the actual home part of our motor home - if there is one. This will consist of clean and dirty water tanks, cabinetwork, appliances - such as furnace/air conditioners, stove, water heater, fridge, etc -, flooring, counter tops, drawers, closets, and all the things that make a bus a home. These, if they exist at all, will be in varying stages of repair - from good usable condition to throw-me-away. But if you're attaching any value to what's there, examine the condition carefully. It's well worth the time to hook up a propane tank (your barbecue likely has one) to the system and test the appliances before attaching any value to them - the time will be well spent in the long run. Be especially critical of the refrigerator - a new 3-way RV fridge can cost close to $3000, and they are the most likely of all appliances to fail. In my experience they have a short lifespan, and the one in your Beauty will most likely require replacement. If in doubt, try it - if it won't freeze a plastic container of water in a few hours, it never will. Stoves and water heaters seem to last a lot better and usually work for many years. Still, don't even consider them there unless tested and passed. If acceptable, they can save a lot of money in your refit, but if they don't work, they'll just be more junk to dispose of. (Fridges can sometimes be brought back by being set upside down for a week or so, but don't count on it!)

Similarly, inspect the cabinetwork carefully, paying particular attention to doors, drawers, and countertops. "Homebuilts" particularly often turn out to be so unsatisfactory in condition that you'll end up tearing them out and completely replacing them, anyway, so why pay for them? You'd be better off if they weren't there!

Only after you've sussed out the requirements in these areas - and made realistic projections of the costs involved in bringing them "back up to snuff" - can you begin to come up with a realistic dollar figure for what it's worth to you.

Skip to toolbar