How we Bought a School Bus and Drove it 2,603 Miles Home in 77 Hours

 

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Buying a school bus, driving it cross country, and converting it into a full time tiny house on wheels is honestly an idea that borders on insanity to the majority of people, myself included. I am a rational thinker and I make most decisions based on a thorough application of reason and judgement. The problem however was my wife and I had a dream, and it seemed to come from the heart and so we had to take the risks necessary if we were to make it happen. If we weren’t prepared to take risks this dream would nag us eternally but it would not come true, and so my friend Andrew and I flew to Colton, CA to drive this bus home, a wild but necessary first step to nomadic freedom.

Of course, this was a serious undertaking. I had not driven a school bus before let alone 40 footer. I hadn’t even driven cross country before! Questions surged through my head over the 12 days we had to prepare for our trip. Do we need insurance? If so, how will we get it? Is our bus going to break down? What can we do to prevent that from happening and what do we do if it does? Finally, is this even possible in the timeframe we’ve got? These are decisions that you will have to make for yourself, but here is what we did:

How to get Insurance For Your Trip and Why you Need It

It is my opinion that yes you need it. Some may find that their insurance will temporarily cover them while driving a new vehicle home, but will they cover a school bus? This to me is wishful thinking, so call your insurer. We did and were direct about our intentions and our insurer (Progressive) said no way would we be covered. Yes it will be difficult to explain to an agent or insurer what you are doing. We talked to half a dozen that told us “wow that sounds like a really cool idea, but no we can’t insure you.” We ended up being successful by calling a local State Farm agent, telling them that we needed insurance for a “commercial vehicle operated for personal use,” and they offered us the minimum legal requirements for $170 per month (yikes). It was risky taking the minimum requirements. We recommend you insure yourself based on your risk tolerance and your financial situation.  

Do Your Homework Before you Buy or Suffer the Consequences

You don’t want to break down on the road. We would have to be towed to the nearest mechanic that was qualified to work on our engine (Detroit Diesel 6V92), and we would be stuck for an unknown period of time. If this had happened I would be calling out sick for work, scrambling to find transportation home for my friend Andrew who helped me drive the bus and calling his flight back from Charleston a total loss. Here is what we did to mitigate the risk as best we could: We bought from a dealer with a good reputation. We bought our bus from A-Z bus sales in Colton, CA. We had heard from others who had purchased buses from this dealer, we vetted them over the phone as best we could and we made it exceedingly clear to them that we would be driving this bus immediately across country and needed it to make it all the way home. They told us they had faith in this bus having inspected and purchased it, and we paid them to lube the chassis, change the oil, change the oil filters, and change the fuel filters. We considered having a mobile mechanic perform a thorough third party inspection for $500 but in the end we decided to be cheap, take the risk and trust our dealer. We probably got lucky. If you’re buying a bus from Craigslist or Ebay we recommend you have a mechanic check it out before you buy it. Even with publicsurplus.com and govdeals.com you need to have the bus checked out or buy at a rock bottom price and assume that everything that could go wrong will go wrong. Some bus dealers may buy buses from auction or take trade-ins, power wash the engine so that all your friends tell you “wow, that’s a clean engine,” detail it, and it will look exceedingly well cared for. But who really knows? We could have been more thorough ourselves and in the end discovered that our tachometer was off by 1,000 RPM, and our fuel gauge, dash lights and high idle didn’t work.

Things Will Go Wrong, So Get Roadside Assistance

Roadside assistance is a cheap insurance in case things go wrong. Get it! We paid $80 for 15 months of Good Sam Roadside Assistance and they do cover buses. Coach-Net may be another good option and for $250 per year they will send you a mobile mechanic if necessary in addition to towing, and fuel delivery. Yes, day 3 we did run out of fuel! I had been pushing our luck with the assumption that our tank was full of 100 gallons of fuel and that my bus would get at least 6 MPG’s. It turns out diesel fuel will bubble up as it enters the tank which will prematurely shut off the pump. It turns out we were 20 gallons short of full! We drove about 450 miles before we slowly started to lose power and we pulled off to the side of the highway. We called Good Sam and were back on the road in about 2 hours. We recommend that in dealing with Good Sam operators you be very descriptive and clear with your needs. They have my vehicle on file, they know it’s a bus, I told them I need a diesel fuel delivery for my bus, and an hour later (this was painful because we were so pressed for time) gasoline shows up. No diesel!! Good Sam didn’t even call us back!! So I called, got a new operator, got myself another fuel delivery, and believe it or not they had dispatched me gasoline AGAIN. Thank you Alabama fuel delivery servicers for taking care of us in spite of their mistake.

The Key to Success: Sacrifice

The last piece of the puzzle was actually executing this plan successfully and I can tell you now what it really took us to get home in time: we gave up almost all creature comforts and turned into dirty, disgusting animals keeping each other alert and alive with camaraderie, conversation, and we took care of each other as best as we could at all times. We missed our wives, I missed my baby, but we didn’t even have time to express it to them; we were stuck in survival mode. We ate the same sandwich as we drove over and over again. When ingredients started to run out we ate whatever we had which eventually was just hummus and bread. We kept our hunger at bay but we kept driving. We only had time for one daily priority beyond driving and sleeping and that was of course more fuel (and sometimes oil). Since our fuel stops were every 300 miles or so the bathroom was inevitably ignored most of the time. We slept in rest areas and truck stops in our hammocks with sleeping masks to keep out the lights but it hardly mattered; we were so exhausted that our allotted 6-7 hours of sleep came easily.

We did have some fun on the road if you consider manual labor to be fun which next to driving all day it absolutely is. We removed the seats and it was rewarding to see them pile up in the back as the miles slipped away, creating more and more space for sleeping and cooking. Luckily with the Gillig Phantom our seats were not bolted to nuts on the bottom of the bus as is typical, but simply screwed into the plywood floor with large bolts (a ½ inch socket will remove them, and you’ll need a 1/2 inch wrench, a breaker bar and a battery operated impact drill with 2-3 full batteries or a way to charge them). I worked on my kickflips in the back of the bus (maybe don’t do that, it’s plenty dangerous but if you’re a reckless skateboarder you’re used to risking life and limb so I’m not going to tell you what to do). Andrew hung a 2×4 from the emergency exit with carabiners and rope so that we could do pull ups and stay active.

We got home 77 hours after paying for the bus. It took long days that blended into short nights. We took I-10 the whole way and slept in Brenda, Arizona, Van Horn, Texas, and Denham Springs, Louisiana. Andrew was a champion behind the wheel. He drove many more hours than I was capable of as we pushed further and further each evening. In the end, we made it home 3 hours later than planned. Our first school bus adventure was behind us, and I was once again in the loving arms of my wife watching my beautiful daughter sleep peacefully, maybe dreaming of her future skoolie adventures.

A Few Quick Notes on Driving a Detroit Diesel 6V92

Our engine burned 4 gallons of oil in 2,600 miles. Check it at fuel stops (while giving it 10 minutes after turning off the engine for the oil to seat). Bring Delo 100 40W, the recommended oil for this engine.

Watch your temperature gauge. If you see it reaching 200 degrees the recommended action is to pull over and put your engine in high idle. You may have a serious problem that you don’t want to make worse.

When you’re climbing hills and your bus starts to lose power and slow down, shift down one gear until you clear the hill. The bus likes to run at a high RPM and if high RPM’s can’t be maintained when climbing a hill you can overheat your engine.

The DD6V92 will be cruising highways at around 1,900-2,100 RPM’s. It is governed from the factory and will not go over 2,100 RPM’s.

Listen to the engine while driving, if there is something wrong you should begin to hear an audible change in it’s sound.

Enjoy the sound of your two stroke diesel, because it sounds real sweet.

-Justin

4 Comments

  1. Hi Justin and Val! My name is Matt. Small world. Before I left on vacation to my Mom’s on Kauai last year, I found ‘your’ bus on craigslist and kept my eye on it for weeks before I left. I tried to rationalize buying it before I left for 3 weeks to just store it in my driveway the whole time I was gone. I figured it would still be there when I got back. And if not, then it wasn’t meant to be. Low and behold, when I got back, the ad was still up. So I hurried to my phone and called A-Z Bus Sales. (I’d bought a 1983 MC-9 from them in 2004, so I have a good history buying from them already). The salesman that I spoke to was happy and chipper, even as he told me “ohhhhh… I just sold that unit to a guy that’s driving it across country and building a tiny home out of it for his family.” I was devastated! But knowing someone was building a tiny home for his family to live in, made it easier to move on. I used to drive one just like your bus for Goodalls/Greyline. The bus I drove was actually used in a movie! So I wanted to get one just like it and do what you’re doing. Just, not to live in. But to travel in for sure.

    Anyway, it was really cool to see that it’s in fact YOU that bought ‘my’ bus. lol!! Congratulations!! They’re great buses. Flaws and all. Be careful though. The phantoms have a little bit of a longer wheelbase than most other school buses. Almost the same wheelbase as a highway coach 5′ longer than yours. But the turning angle of the steering axle is awesome!! Really makes up for the longer wheelbase. I hope to keep in touch with you as I do with the “Roll With It” couple, Scott and KJ. And I intend to follow you as I did with them, while you build your bus. I left a comment on their ceiling removal vlog with a link to yours. HAHAHA!! They’re gonna hate me for that. If you haven’t already, watch their ceiling removal and compare it to yours… You’ll quickly see why they’ll hate me for showing them. lol!! I hope to find my bus soon and start vlogging. My youtube channel isn’t published yet. But at the moment it’s called “Quondam Bus”. I’m pretty sure that’s the name I’m going to use.

    Well, have a great time building your future home! CONGRATULATIONS AGAIN!! I’m excited for you and excited for what your future holds with your bus!! Look for me in the near future!

    -Matt

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    1. Matt!!

      I’m so happy that our two great minds think so much alike!! I’m sorry that this one got away from you but I’m happy that you’re satisfied with where it’s ended up! As you saw, we really went out on a limb to get this one!! I want to mention now, that since we’ve bought this bus I’ve surprisingly seen maybe HALF A DOZEN Gillig Phantom School Buses come up for sale in just the past 3 months. All on Craigslist or Ebay. There were 3 or 4 on Ebay selling at once and 1 or 2 of them didn’t even sell! Be patient and you’ll find this same bus but you’ll also get a deal on it. There is a Facebook group full of Gillig school bus experts like you wouldn’t believe. They’re mostly into the older Gilligs but someone will post a photo of an old Gillig school bus and people will start chiming in about the history of that particular bus sometimes down to the upgrades/replacement parts it has!! Anyway if you want to find one they’ll be of great help. It would have been smart if I’d dug in on that group a little more before impulsively buying ours!!

      Val and I were watching Roll With It and also Ian Robinson’s conversions when we caught the Skoolie bug and started shopping. I remember cringing at that ceiling removal video, thinking about my own sore neck. I figured lets get a bus that’ll take care of us and make it easy on us. With almost no rivets and it’s huge undercarriage storage the Gillig Phantom is that bus. As long as you’re willing to sacrifice the 8MPG+ of the Cummins 8.3 engine for the Detroit Diesel 6V92’s oil churning 6MPG’s, it’s the one to get (there are many other great buses out there though of course). Thanks for dropping that comment. I am kind of chuckling about that because I know exactly what you mean, and in our video my wife is just effortlessly unscrewing those panels while our baby takes a nap! Their struggle did make for some entertaining viewing though!! They really know how to create and tell a story in their videos.

      You aren’t lying about that wheelbase!!! It’s going to be limiting. They did make this bus as a 37 footer but it’s rare, and the wheelbase I think is the same size anyway.

      Thanks for being excited and the congratulations. We’ll be focusing on Youtube and Instagram for a while before we get this website up to speed, but hit us up in the comments as you watch and let us know as soon as you’ve gotten a bus and started building so we can follow along!!

      Thanks Matt!!

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      1. There’re pluses and minuses to ALL buses, cars, trucks, etc… That Detroit you have is really easy to work on (so I’ve heard) and is a workhorse!! Being well maintained, it should last several hundred lifetimes. =) As far as bus driving goes, with normal wheelbase 40′ buses, always remember that you’re ALWAYS driving the rear wheels of your bus! Point your big flat mirrors down so you can see the rear tire making contact with the ground and use your convex mirrors for lane changes and such… Typically when making a right turn, slowly roll straight forward, looking straight over your right shoulder, then when your shoulder lines up with the curb on the ‘recovery end’ of the turn, you turn full-lock to the right and the rear wheels just wrap around that curb. (starting the turn at around 18″ from the curb). With your bus, just go a little passed your shoulder, then full-lock right and you should be good to go. **just as in your car, never hold the steering wheel hard against the full lock mark. You’ll hear the steering pump hissing because you’re putting pressure on it. Just as you hit the lock, just straighten the wheel enough that you’re not holding the wheel against the lock** The turn angle of the front wheels is damn near 90 degrees! lol! makes it way easy to make turns. Always look at the recovery end of rights AND lefts (looking for obstructions like light poles, power poles/lines, mailboxes, etc. Anything fixed to the ground/sidewalk. Never put yourself into a situation where you might have to back your bus. if the recovery end of your right turn is blocked (such as the opposite lanes of traffic are full and your lane is narrow) just be patient. The other lane will clear enough for you to make your turn. There’re your tips for the day. =)

        I’m looking at a lot of different things trying to make up my mind as to which direction to go. There’re a bunch of gillig phantom school busses for sale now, but They’re all different and not exactly what I’m looking for to start with. But still nice buses out there. I don’t like the way Thomas school buses drive and bluebirds are too short inside. (I don’t want to raise the roof of my first project). lol! There’re a lot of skoolies channels now. Even other types of bus conversions. ALL of them, including yours, are helpful! I’m going to use PLENTY of ideas all of the conversions have. Anyway… I’m patiently waiting to see what you all do next!

        Matt

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  2. Matt! I don’t know if I missed your comment from two years ago or if I’ve just forgotten to respond but wow that was so helpful to read! I actually still haven’t driven the bus much but I really appreciate your tips and they make a ton of sense. Especially appreciate the tip about waiting patiently for a lane to clear so that you don’t have to back up. I see tractor trailer drivers do both at a certain turn and backing up always looks extremely sketchy!

    Did you buy a bus? If so let me know where I can follow along!

    Like

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