One FMCA couple’s hard work and ingenuity breathed new life into a 1965 Blue Bird school bus.
By Vernon Haik, F192245
I began building boats in 1954. In 1961, I started my own boat-building business in San Diego, California. We moved to Alameda, California, and in 1965 my wife, Ellie, opened a boat upholstery shop while I continued to build boats, mostly commercial fishing craft and small yachts. In 1981, we moved again, this time to Fallon, Nevada, and continued our business as a boat repair and upholstery shop.
In the fall of 1989, I spotted a yellow Blue Bird school bus with a for sale sign on it and stopped to look it over. Someone had already started converting it into a motorhome: the walls had been furred out with 2×4 studs, insulated with R14 fiberglass, and covered with 1/8-inch Masonite hardboard (inch-wide metal bands covered the seams between the sheets). Two layers of carpet covered the floor, and the walls and cabinets were built on top of the carpet. For heat, the half-converted motorhome was equipped with an oil-fired heater with its smokestack exiting out the roof. Fortunately, with all my years of experience in designing and building boats, I could see past all this and visualize the Blue Bird’s real potential.
I asked my friend Mike McConnell to take it for a test drive. Since he is a semi-truck driver, I thought he would have a better feel for the condition of the bus. When we got back, he said everything seemed fine. I paid the seller $4,200 and drove the Blue Bird home. Well, you can imagine the negative response I received from family and friends. I just ignored everybody and started the conversion.
The first thing I did was strip off everything that was not going to be used. I pulled out all the unfinished interior modifications, all the wiring (including instruments), all the sheet metal that covered the outside of the windows, and a large square steel tank that was intended for black water (fortunately, it hadn’t been used yet, as the drain was 2 inches above the bottom).
With the bus stripped to its core, I made a scale drawing of the floor plan showing the layout I wanted. What governed the layout more than anything were the locations of the wheel wells; they controlled what went where. Once the layout was complete, I knew where the windows, the door, the air conditioners, and the vent openings would be.
I bought 400 feet of 1-inch-square tubing and seven sheets of 3-foot-by-10-foot 16-gauge sheet metal. My brother-in-law, Bob Palmer, came over from Sonora, California, and spent two weekends doing all the tube cutting and welding necessary to frame in the door, the windows, and the vent openings. The previous owner had raised the bus’ roof about 6 inches, but he had also cut the frames in the middle of the radius and then bolted in short pieces of angle iron to hold everything together. Therefore, we cut the framework, raised it, welded it back together, and added a length of tubing to complete the frame. Bob then made a steel cage to hold the generator, and he welded on a heavy-duty hitch.
The next step was to install the new skin. I used 16-gauge sheet metal to minimize any wrinkling that can happen with lighter-gauge sheet metal. I made all the cuts with an electric hand shear, even the radii for the windows. I also bought a new piece of sheet metal from Blue Bird to fill in the opening where the door had been. (I wanted the metal ribs to run all the way through.)
After the skin was completely attached with Pop rivets, I ran all the wiring (both 120-volt AC and 12-volt DC) that would be enclosed in the walls, and then I had the interior completely covered with spray foam.
Next, I glued and screwed down 3/4-inch exterior-grade plywood over the entire floor. This gave me a good base on which to transfer my layout from the scale drawing. At this time, I also secured to the plywood the cleats necessary for attaching the walls, dinette, cabinets, etc. The walls were covered with 1/4-inch mahogany plywood up to the curved portion at the roof junction. For the rounded corners at each end and for the sides, I used two layers of 1/8-inch mahogany. I secured all the plywood with Pop rivets. During the Blue Bird’s conversion, I used a large number of screws, rivets, and staples, but I also glued every piece of wood. After using the bus for 10 years, I have yet to have any of its joints come loose.
Building the interior per my plan, I started with a new dash, which was made of 3/4-inch plywood, into which I installed VDO gauges, a broadcast scanner, a CB radio, and a radio with a 10-disc CD changer. Above the driver’s seat is a backup camera monitor, a 13-inch television, and controls for the generator and the remote-controlled spotlight. We covered the top of the dash with marine-grade vinyl. Reddish-colored Carpathian elm burl wood was added to the front of the dash and then coated with epoxy resin. To accentuate the dashboard, I set the brass Blue Bird name and logo into the epoxy while it was still wet.
We found our captains chairs in a wrecked 1983 Cadillac and mounted them upon custom-made pedestals. We were able to reuse the six-way power controls that came with them. Ellie, thanks to her expertise in the boat business, was able to cover the chairs with the same vinyl material as the top of the dash. (By the way, the same Caddy also yielded the radio and speakers, the headlights, some wiring, and the heavy-duty receiver hitch.)
Since the Blue Bird’s four interior wheel wells pretty much determined the floor plan, I decided to use them as much as possible. I built boxes over each wheel well except for the left front one under the settee. These boxes were constructed of 3/4-inch plywood and then anchored in place. Next the air space between each box and its metal wheel well was filled with pour foam, which gave us insulation against both the outside weather and road noise. The boxes also gave me good fastening points for the oak cabinetry that was to come.
On the curb side of the coach, aft of the passenger seat, I mounted a computer station on a pedestal formed by the wheel well box. I also mounted a swivel chair to the box. The computer station can accommodate a laptop computer (which can be stored under the lift-up top), a scanner on a rollout shelf, a printer, and a CD burner. There is also a drawer for paper and supplies. With the top folded down, the station becomes a small table.
Across the aisle from the computer station, I installed a settee (covered in matching vinyl), which folds down like a futon and makes into a nice bed. I located most of the electrical equipment under the settee: a 45-amp convertor, a 30-amp automatic battery charger, a 120-amp isolator, and a 600-watt sine-wave inverter (for the television, the ice maker, the computer, and the satellite receiver) to avoid using the generator, if possible.
Aft of the swivel chair, I installed the outside door. I bought the complete door assembly from a Jayco dealer. There are overhead cabinets on both sides of the living room.
I built the dinette just aft of the outside door; it seats four people closely and drops into a 42-inch-by-75-inch bed. Ellie made the cushions with 5-inch-thick high-density foam, which makes for a very comfortable bed, and then covered them with the same vinyl material as the other seats. On the back of the rear-facing seat, next to the door, I mounted a magazine rack, and created a storage compartment beneath the seat. Under the forward-facing seat, just in front of the bar, is a 34,000-Btu furnace.
The bar’s countertop measures 21 inches by 61 inches, and just beneath the countertop are three drawers for napkins, books, ice tongs, etc. Beneath the drawers, I installed a U-Line ice maker, a pull-out shelf for 12 glasses, a pull-out shelf that holds up to eight assorted bottles, a wine rack that holds six bottles, and a large trash compartment.
Next is the pantry, which measures 20 inches by 21 inches by 70 inches and has adjustable shelves. The inside of the door also contains shelves for spices, etc.
Opposite the bar and pantry, we constructed the galley. The counter is 7 feet long (including the stove); it has four large drawers, one shallow drawer under the sink, and plenty of cabinet space underneath. The water heater is located under the stove. Aft of the stove is an 8-cubic-foot Norcold refrigerator with a cabinet above. A microwave oven is installed above the sink.
The main closet is behind the pantry on the curb side, and measures 27 inches by 48 inches by 43 inches. There are two cabinets across the top and two large drawers below. (This closet is the same size as the rear wheel well.)
The bedroom has two three-drawer nightstands, one on each side of the bed, and cabinets over the bed. The bed is 60 inches by 80 inches. Beneath it are a storage compartment, a 100-gallon fresh water tank, and the reverse-osmosis system. Above the bed is the control for the satellite dish.
Along the street side of the coach is a 20-inch-by-36-inch vanity with two drawers and a pull-out clothes hamper. Just forward of the vanity is a 13-inch-by-65-inch closet that also accommodates a 13-inch AC-DC television.
Let us not forget the bathroom. It is fairly typical and is located between the bedroom and the refrigerator. It is equipped with a SeaLand toilet, a porcelain sink, and a nice one-piece fiberglass shower and tub.
When I purchased the bus in 1989, it had a 390-cid Ford V-8 gasoline engine with a six-speed Allison transmission. It was a good, strong engine, but I didn’t feel it was strong enough for the completed motorhome. Besides that, it got only 5 mpg. Therefore, in 1993 I bought a 1987 Ford F-700 semi-tractor from the Army depot in Hawthorn, Nevada. It had a Caterpillar 1160 diesel engine and a four-speed Allison transmission. (This engine was the forerunner to the 3208.) After the purchase, I asked the Army for a copy of the maintenance records and was sent a computer printout that was 7 feet long. I can tell you, it had been well taken care of.
That winter I removed the Caterpillar engine and Allison transmission assembly from the truck and steam-cleaned and painted it. I then raised the front end of the motorhome about 6 inches and removed the grille, sheet metal, and radiator. I reversed this procedure to install the diesel engine and tranny.
During the engine/transmission installation, I had the engine’s air cleaner off with some shop rags stuffed in the intake manifold so nothing would fall in. I thought I had taken all the rags out, until I was trying to start the engine. I heard a thunk, so I turned off the engine and stepped outside. The shop floor was covered with what looked like red feathers. Fortunately, the rag went through the valves without breaking anything except my composure. Naturally, Mike McConnell had to tell everybody at the coffee shop. For quite a while, about all I heard were questions about how many miles I get to the rag.
The next step was the test drive. The engine ran great, but my top speed was only 47 mph. A shop down the road was parting out two 1984 cab-over International tractors, so I bought a rear differential and a pair of air horns for $50. (This was a real deal!) The differential’s gear ratio was 4.44:1, which worked out perfectly for the Caterpillar engine; now at 2,400 rpm, the Blue Bird does 65 mph.
The next item that needed fixing was the steering. The original steering was a Ross mechanical system — no power assist. In 2000 we replaced it with a hydraulic-assisted power steering system that I obtained from a wrecked 1989 Freightliner chassis. I bought a new steering column with tilt and telescope from Infinity Coach, in Sumner, Washington. Luck was on our side, for it matched right up to the Freightliner gear.
To finish off the front of the bus, I added a fiberglass grille, a headlight assembly, and a bumper. The chrome part of the grille was made from two aftermarket Chevrolet pickup grilles that were cut to fit. The headlights are the same as Peterbilt uses on its trucks. The turn signals are composed of two Chevrolet assemblies that were cut in half and epoxied together.
Overall, it has been a fun project and a lot of hard work, but it was worth it. Were it not for the help of Bob Palmer and Mike McConnell, I am sure Ellie and I would not have a first-class conversion today. In the past 10 years, we have visited most of the lower half of the United States and Mexico as far south as Guadalajara. In 1996 we retired and today we travel about six months each year.
1965 Blue Bird bus conversion
Length: 35 feet
Width: 8 feet
Height: 11 feet
Weight: 23,000 pounds (dry)
Engine: 1160 Caterpillar; 225 horsepower
Fuel economy: 10 mpg
Transmission: Four-speed Allison
Brakes: Air with drums
Wheels: 22.5-inch aluminum
Generator: 6.5-kw Onan
Batteries: Series 27 (4)
Solar panels: 88 watts with regulator (2)
Inverter: 600-watt with 30-amp automatic battery charger
80 gallons diesel
38 gallons gas (for generator)
38 gallons propane
100 gallons fresh water
60 gallons gray water
40 gallons black water
6 gallons hot water
Furnace: 34,000 Btus
Refrigerator: 8-cubic-foot Norcold
Stove: 4-burner with oven