By Mark R, Obtinario
The main problem in the bus world is there is no good one size fits all bus. Regardless of which bus you choose it won't do all things well.
There are basically four different kinds of buses with several variations in each kind.
The four basic kinds of buses--school, transit, highway, and commercial.
If you plan on doing lots of highway miles the only good choice is a highway bus--high HP engines with highway gears, lots of underfloor compartments, good headroom, some have 102" wide bodies, poor ground clearance, top heavy, great for the interstate not so good on secondary roads.
If you plan on driving very little a good choice would be a transit bus--high ceilings, 102" wide bodies, usually geared for city and not very suitable for highway use, not a lot space under floor for anything.
If you ever plan on going off pavement or plan on a lot of secodary roads the school bus is a great choice--lots of ground clearance, all of the secondary roads have school buses running on them every day, some came with highway gears with HP to do the job, some came with underfloor compartments, only have 96" wide bodies, some have only 74" ceilings.
Commercial buses are the type you see around the airport--not a good choice for any application--light duty or medium duty chassis trying to do heavy duty use, lots of composite construction that is expesive to repair and hard to reconfigure, poor ground clearance and not a lot of space under the floor for anything.
Once you decide on what type of bus you want you then have to winnow the candidates down to the specific bus you want.
The most expensive parts of the bus are the power package and the bus body. It doesn't matter how good the bus is, if the power package is no good pass on it unless you can find another identical bus with a good power package but bad body you can get for parts. If there is any rust pass on it unless the price is so low the cost of repair is not going to be more than a similar bus with no rust.
Most buses if you have to get into the power package it is going to cost you $$$$$! You can spend $6-12K for an automatic transmission. Double that cost for an engine.
I prefer the mid-mount engine in school buses because the smallest engine is larger than almost every engine available in rear engine buses and every engine in front engine buses.
I do not like front engine Type 'D' buses because of the noise factor and the gymnastics required to hop over the dog house.
Don't worry about the tires at the time of purchase, just make sure the cost of the bus includes the tires (some bus companies lease the tires and the tires won't be going with the bus). If you spend any time converting your bus the tires on the bus as the time of purchase are going to be of no use once you get ready to head down the road.
The one thing to consider about tires is what size is on the bus. Tubeless tires are preferred and standard sizes are preferred. If you ever have tire problems out on the road and have to purchase an odd size tire you can end up paying more for one tire than you would for a whole set of common sized tires.
The most common big truck/bus tire size out there today is the 11:00X22.5.
10-hole Budd type wheels are preferred because they are more common and offers you lots of upgrades if you so desire.
CA and AZ buses rarely have any rust.
CO school buses are required to have auxillary braking systems--really makes a big difference in brake costs.
WA school buses have as standard equipment more options than almost any other state.
OR school buses generallly do not have side emergency doors. They only have emergency exits.
My personal preferences if I were to convert a bus would be to look for a bus with an inline engine with an automatic. The inline engines will out pull V-type engines of much greater HP/torque ratings. Automatics just make life easier and would allow my wife to drive the bus as well (she doesn't drive stick shifts).
Probably the most reliable and cheapest to keep medium duty diesel engine out there is the IHC DT466/530 engine.
If you have a choice among Cummins engines the 8.3L/ISC is the engine of choice. The 5.9L/ISB, even in the higher HP versions, just doesn't do the job as well on steep hills. A 250 HP ISB drives like a real weak sister compared to a 250 HP ISC. Of course, the Cummins 855/Big Cam engines are THE engines to choose. As the hot rodders will tell you, you can't beat cubic inches.
I will freely admit I don't like Cat power in trucks and buses. And I particularly do not like the 3208.
The ideal bus IMHO would be a two axle 35-40' mid-enigne Crown or Gillig with the 855 Cummins--lots of HP for highway cruising with a properly sized cooling system so you won't overheat when climbing long hills on hot summer afternoons. I like the look of the 10-wheelers but the third axle takes up a lot of space, weighs a lot, and in a conversion you usually don't need the extra weight carrying capacity. The Crown and Gillig school coaches (notice I didn't say school bus?) were built to a much higher standard than the east cost bus builders. As a consequence, they stand up to the test of time much better.
Next down the list would be a Thomas Saf-T-Liner rear engine. The Thomas MVP is a low cost version of the Saf-T-Liner and is still a good bus but they went cheap on a lot of expensive parts--power package, suspension, axles, etc. The Westcoaster was a specific option package to compete directly with Crown and Gillig--they went really heavy duty on the expensive parts.
Next down the list or equal to the Thomas would be an IC/RE with the DT530 or DT466. An IC/RE with a DT530 is going to cost a lot because they have only been making them available in just the last 3-5 years. A lot more HP/torque than the DT466 in an engine that is basically the same as the DT466. I would only consider the AmTrans made after the early '90's. Before the early '90's, regardless if the name said Ward or AmTrans, the buses were junk when new.
Next down the list would be Blue Bird. And that is only because of personal preference. Every BB I have ever driven, no matter how new or old always rattled. No Crown or Gillig and very few Thomas buses I have driven ever rattled.
Stay away from any Carpernter, Crown by Carpenter, Carpenter Crown buses. The last ones were recalled with significant problems in the roof bows, the name had no connection to the Crowns made in California, and outside of the engines and transmissions the buses were junk when new. Older Carpenters, as in pre-1985 models, were pretty good buses if you were looking at Type 'C' buses (conventionals).
Superior and Wayne were good cheap buses. But both have been out of business more than 20 years so anything made by them are going to be really showing their age. While a Crown or Gillig could actually do 30 years of service, most of the eastern built buses were pretty much spare parts by the time they were 20 years old.
Stay away from any of the Type 'D' buses on vendor supplied chassis (OshKosh, National, GMC, IHC, Ford, etc). Back in the day they were a very cheap alternative to Crown and Gillig. They were usually put together with every cast off part truckers wouldn't have if they were served up on a golden platter. As a consequence the parts and pieces to keep them running are few and far between (read that as $$$$$$). Can you say custom made parts from a machine shop?
As you noted bus prices are way down.
Currently you can still find some MCI MC-12 buses with good power packages for under $15K. Good running MCI MC-8 and MC-9 buses can be purchased for less than $7K. You can purchase a fleet of transit buses for $15K. And yellow buses that aren't very old and with lots of service life in them can be purchased for less than $10K.
Good luck on your quest.