Article I wrote for Bus Conversion Magazine Nov. 2009
Our Journey, as a young married couple, started with a goal. A goal to be self-sufficient, debt free, and adventurous. Our purchase of a 1978 30 foot Gillig, San Diego Citi bus was to be the means to bring some, if not all, of our dreams into “ Transit.”
We started by looking at all the RV dealerships in the county. We were quick to realize the price tags on the newer motor homes were far to much for us. But looking helped create the floor plan to build our own. Together, we felt we had the skill and desire to build the coach of our dreams. I had owned an auto shop for several years. So I had the skills and tools for diagnosing and fixing engines, welding and doing some auto paint and body work. I was currently working with a good family friend or ours, doing Solid Surface counter tops at his shop called “Counter Intelligence.” So I had the tools and skills for doing the cabinets and counter tips. By no means were we perfect at doing everything, but we were decent at doing most things. For us this was about what we as a couple could build together using out two hands and good old fashion brains and hard work.
We purchased the bus frame from a nice old lady who had several buses for $500. we returned often as she had several other parts buses and we were able to get some extra parts off her other buses. We picked the one with the straightest body with the flush metal sides and a nice RV looking structure. We had it towed to its new home, which is where most of the next two years or our nights and weekends of extra work would begin. We began by stripping the outside and the inside. Our parents shook their heads in disbelief. We also pulled out the floor to help to move and refresh the electrical and air systems. But mostly, I had no idea how this bus worked and needed to see it all to understand some of it. We relocated all the underbelly accessories and mechanicals as to maximize out storage bays. We welded up the two entry doors, storage bays, and windows. Maintaining the flush metal work was extremely important. The Caterpillar 3208 needed some parts and fine-tuning but amazingly it started right up once I broke the fuel injector pump valves loose; A true blessing since it had been sitting for 8 years. Also, for my convenience, I converted all the 24v electrical to 12v. It was not that difficult. Mostly a new starter, a couple of solenoids, and light bulbs and heater fan motors. Very important is the cool air bag suspension system. The air bags were converted with 12v electrical solenoids to double as our leveling system. Fully adjustable to level or just let the air out low rider, grass trimmer style. I welded in a custom new entry door using a 7 foot fire truck hinge ordered off the internet. I also reworked the entry stairs, sandblasted the rusty parts, welded in new sheet metal over the windows and then repainted the exterior. The original windows were cleaned up and frames modefied to save money. It really looked good on the outside especially once we gathered enough money to get the used Alcoa rims with wheels.
Year two started with the beginning of the interior and plumbing systems. A lot of extra time and work went into the insulation prep and installation. Well worth the challenge. Ridged yellow poly foam 1 ½ R11 wall insulation was added to the floor, walls and two layers on the ceiling. Janice got me a subscription to Bus Conversion Magazine for Christmas, which was great. This came in so handy because the articles and ads in the accessory sections helped us find the right water tanks, interior lights, mirrors, shower enclosure, gauges and a whole bunch or much needed stuff. We used the biggest water and storage tanks we could fit, the 110 gallon fresh tank was placed under the rear bed frame. While the 45 gallon black tank and 65 gallon gray went down below in the storage bays. The porcelain toilet and glass shower enclosure gave an upscale appearance in the walk through bathroom. We hand shaped and cherry stained the oak cabinets to fit the curved profile roof perfectly. The dash got a fresh look with my custom-built Fountain Head solid surface top. All the counters were done in solid surface in a variety of colors, even the shower pan we custom thermal formed in Blue Fountain Head solid surface. One of the challenges with working with this bus was working around and with the Wheel wells in out interior space.
We went with marine grade appliances starting with the 3-burner propane glass top and wall oven, which was purchased on sale at a local marine trade show. The fridge is a low amp 12v / 110v. The reason here was to try and run it with 3 solar panels, one on the roof and two on the ground, along with the trace 1500 watt inverter system. The 6.5kw 4 cylinder low RPM Marine generator came free; sort of. I agreed to remove it from the owner’s 55 ft. yacht and install his new generator sitting on the dock in exchange for his used generator. Very scary day since I had 3 friends helping me lift and move the used generator out of the fiberglass hull of the boat just hoping that no one would lose their grip or the generator would have surely fell right through the bottom of his yacht. We acted busy while patiently waiting for the owner to leave on a snack run before making our attempt. It was a good find since it only needed a tune up and carb rebuild. I mounted the generator on a heavy roll tray and rolled it into its home in the front of the bus.
My parents may disagree with our plan to save the scrap metal and junk from the demo. Sure it leaves the yard in a mess but worth the cost of buying new metal when you need it a few months down the road, or in the case our driveway. But once the outside and heavy welding was over, we gladly took the metal to the recycling center. Actually, we ended up with three truckloads and put more than a few extra dollars in our pocket. Another great place we saved some money is in the oak lumber. I found out that the local cabinet shop tends to throw away cabinet wood lengths less than 30 inches. I did some dumpster diving with the owner’s permission and practically got all my oak wood for free since most of my bus cabinets are smaller than normal house cabinets. Upholstering was new to us, but we had to give it a try. We did what we could in that department. I saved a lot of trouble by ordering specialty self-taping metal screws of different lengths for the ceiling and walls off the internet. House roofing tar was painted on all the inside walls and ceiling to prevent rust and it was far cheaper than using automotive paint. Tar was also heavily used on the frame and bottom wood flooring. Easy and cheap. Every attempt to silicon and seal the interior was used to keep bugs out and keep the cool a/c in.
installing ducted vents in the ceiling is one of the things we may change if we did another bus conversion. Possibly raising the roof, adding ½ inch insulation foam board over the 1 ½ inch side wall tubing to help with heat coming in from the steel beams. This is not a problem with the ceiling since we did that on this project. Using all electric seems to be a good option now with all the full hookup camping sites. Certainly a household frost-free fridge sounds good.
“To build or not to build” was never the question. The question for us, and often reminded by our curious on looking parents and neighbors who seemed to gain more faith in us and our project as the conversion progressed, was “how long will this take to finish?” when you start a project like this, I noticed the traffic on my street seemed to graduate upwards as the locals seemed to be changing their usual way home from work to drive by to see how far our project had gone. Many just pulled right into the driveway to get a closer look. And then others would come over for a quick chat. We defintitely made some new friends during this project. Expect to be noticed. We put on a good show by continuing on. In some ways the tourists helped to keep us going. A good friend once made the comment “you show me one man working, and I will show you 10 people watching.” the two plus years spent on our coach project were truly some of our best memories. Along with the memories, we still are using what we have built. Our bus conversion has taken us many places, from California to the East coast. We consider it our home and our home away from home.
We recommend the journey of building your dreams. And to all those who have knocked on our door at RV parks we say, “Thanks for looking and admiring our bus conversion. We welcomed the experience, and appropriately named it “ Prospector Coach .”
PROSPECTOR COACH SPECS.
* 50 amp cord
* Suburban 6 gallon water heater propane / 110v
* 135 gallons Diesel fuel tank ( 14 hr driving time : )
* 110 gallon fresh water
* 65 gallon gray water
* 45 gallon black water
* Sea Ward Princess 3-burner glass cock top. Marine grade
* Norcold 6.3 cu. ft. fridge. 12v. / 110v. Low amp marine grade
* 3 photowatt 75 watt solar panels. One on top. Two on ground
* Trace solar panel with trace charge controller
* Heart Freedom 1500w inverter / charger
* Traveler porcelain toilet
* Recessed 12v. Lighting
* Alcoa 22.5” wheels
* Ramco heated electric mirrors
* Chevy tilt steering column
* 2 Duo therm 13,500btu heat pumpls
* 24v system converted to 12v for my convenience
* 4 x 6v house batteries. Interstate long lasting deep cycle
* 2 x 12v interstate starter batteries
* whisper quiet shur flow 12v water pump ( we can still hear it )
* 7.5 kw Kohler 4 cyl 1800 rpm generator (60 amps) super quiet. Shhhh
* 34 lbs propane