A custom coach converter in rural Missouri produces ultra-luxurious homes on wheels replete with top-of-the-line amenities — including some surprises.
By Guy and Pamela Selbert, F195400
In a spacious factory surrounded by cornfields that stretch for miles over the rolling hills of northeastern Missouri, Don and Carol Jenkins, owners of Superbus 1 LTD, C8623, have been making some of the finest motorhomes — “ultimate bus conversions,” Mr. Jenkins calls them — that money can buy. Even a casual glance at the motor coaches that were parked on the lot the day we visited confirms that this company spares no expense in its attempt to provide buyers with “the best of the best.”
On our tour of the company’s 10,000-square-foot production facility, which lies a few miles west of Louisiana, Missouri, two coaches in the lot were shined, polished, and ready to be bought. Another coach, little more than a shell, was in the early stages of production, a process that begins at Superbus 1 with a Prevost chassis — either an H3-45 or Le Mirage XLII — and can take several months to finish. The end result is a handsomely accoutered coach that can cost up to $1 million. After introductions were completed, we were ushered into the Tiffany II model, the “Diamond in Motion.”
The company’s spare-no-expense philosophy was immediately apparent as we climbed the polished granite stairs that lead into the coach. Inside, several luxurious features caught our eye, including four tawny leather chairs; a couch and a footstool; glossy quilted maple cabinetry; and an intricately inlaid dinette table with four suede chairs.
This particular coach also included countertops made of polished tan granite. A built-in wine rack, complete with a set of blue goblets, hid a lockable storage compartment for valuables. The heated marble floor in the galley was inlaid with brass spacers.
The leather dashboard was another of the coach’s many fine features. Also up front, to make for easier communication between the driver and copilot, cockpit seats are located side-by-side, with just an armrest between them.
But what really sets this Superbus 1 coach apart — and what makes all of the Superbus 1 coaches extremely unusual — is its roomy basement. This basement is not intended for storage, mind you, but for use as a family room, replete with an incredible entertainment system.
The room can be reached from outside the coach via the bay doors when the vehicle is parked, or by a narrow staircase behind the driver’s seat inside. The staircase can be concealed by a nautical-type roll-up door that, when open, disappears inside the desk that serves as the coach’s computer station.
The family room basement in the coach we toured measured 12 feet by 8 feet and included a 42-inch plasma TV and a jukebox that featured a 200-disc DVD/CD player, a VCR, and an AM-FM radio. The entire unit was mounted on a module that could be swung out into the open bay door and serve as an outdoor theater. Travelers can outfit the basement with air mattresses or beanbag chairs for TV viewing comfort. For additional safety, the bay doors are equipped with childproof latches on the inside.
Despite its generous length and width dimensions, the basement provided just 42 inches of space from floor to ceiling. Mirrors overhead gave the impression of greater height, and may entice you to stand up, but unless you’re shorter than 3 feet 6 inches, resist the temptation. The Jenkins note that this is the standard underfloor height in Prevost coach shells.
The nerve center for the coach’s Elan electronic system was a multiple electronic processor, a hand-held device that operated not only the TV, jukebox, DVD/CD player, VCR, and AM-FM radio, but also the global positioning system (GPS). Information from any of these systems could be read on the 7-inch screen in front of the copilot’s seat, or on any of the coach’s television sets: the 42-inch screen in the basement, the 36-inch screen behind the driver’s seat, and the 21-inch screen in the bedroom.
Superbus 1 coaches can be built with slideouts if desired. The third coach we saw on this visit, which became the Jenkins’ personal unit, included two slideouts — one in the living room and one in the bedroom. The Jenkins’ coach also featured a staircase to a patio on the roof.
Without a doubt, Superbus 1 builds some of the most luxurious coaches on the market. But for several years the bus conversion company seemed to be more of a diversion for the Jenkins. All that changed in July 2002 when the Jenkins purchased the assets of Custom Coach South, located in Clermont, Florida, from Farber Industries, which had earlier acquired Custom Coach Corporation’s assets. Along with the acquisition came Mike Allen, former general manager of Custom Coach South, who took over the position of president with Superbus 1.
“[The purchase] brings about not only more production capacity, but most important, the expertise of employees Superbus 1 was able to retain from the Custom Coach group,” Mr. Jenkins said. Besides Mr. Allen, Superbus 1 also welcomed Ron Craig, who has many years of bus conversion experience, as the company’s new production manager.
Other major benefits for Superbus 1, according to Mr. Jenkins, include the availability of a service department in Florida and the ability to begin manufacturing commercial units.
Before the Custom Coach South purchase through Farber Industries, the couple concentrated most of its energy on its other business, Black Thunder Powerboats. This company, founded by Mr. Jenkins 16 years ago, constructs 43-foot, 46-foot, and 49-foot powerboats. It has locations in the nearby Missouri cities of Hannibal and Bowling Green, and often provides workers to help with motor coach construction.
Mr. Jenkins and his son, Bob, are partners (Bob is president) in the company, which produces one of the high-performance boats every two weeks. The boats, which you might expect to see in a James Bond movie, can travel at speeds of more than 100 miles per hour on the open seas, and can sell for between $300,000 and $500,000. As he has been from the company’s beginning, Mr. Jenkins remains in charge of boat design.
This would account for the nautical touches that appear in the luxury custom coaches Superbus 1 builds — the roll-up door to the basement, the wrap-around shower, the captains chairs, and a floor plan that creates the illusion of enormous space. Mr. Jenkins said that paying attention to economy of space, durability, and weight conservation are details shared when designing both boats and motorhomes.
The Jenkins live on the 1,700-acre farm in a ranch-style home near the production facility. Always good with his hands, Mr. Jenkins worked in high school as a core maker at a local foundry during the Korean War. During that time he decided he would prefer heading his own company instead of working for someone else.
In 1965, he bought the land where his home and the Superbus 1 facility now stand. For many years Mr. Jenkins farmed the land, but now he rents much of it to a local farmer who grows corn and soybeans. Fields of the 10-foot-high stalks create a pastoral backdrop for the two buildings the motorhome operation occupies. (They stand a small parking lot apart, but Mr. Jenkins said he plans to enclose the area for more production space.)
Cornstalks also outline the bumpy dirt trails Mr. Jenkins has cut across his land to the 25-acre lake he created near a mid-19th-century clapboard farmhouse he has renovated into a rustic lodge for his visiting customers. The upstairs bedrooms are furnished as they might have been 150 years ago and provide overnight accommodations for Superbus 1 owners who bring their coaches to Missouri for service. Downstairs is a diner-style restaurant with a half-dozen booths, a jukebox that plays 1950s tunes, a well-appointed kitchen, and walls liberally decorated with laminated photos of historic automobiles and authentic sheet music from the first half of the 20th century.
Mr. Jenkins seems particularly proud of this aspect of his operation. He shows off the willow-frilled lake where customers can fish for catfish, crappie, and record-size bass, or have a picnic under the trees; the lodge with the enclosed veranda that includes picture windows to overlook the lake; and the area around the lake where he’s considered building a small campground.
Though Mr. Jenkins is at an age when most would be looking forward to retirement, he said he has no plans for that. “I don’t have any time to play, but I don’t mind — I’ve always loved to work.”
As he continued to show us through his new coach, which was still under construction at the time, he told us that the chassis had been sent to Jim Young Custom Slideouts in Minonk, Illinois, to have the slideout units added. Once the bus was back at the production facility, workers had built the stairway to the roof patio, and had begun work on one of the coach’s other luxury features: a downstairs “garage.”
The garage, formed from two of the basement chambers, is big enough to hold a motorcycle, or possibly — no kidding — a car. Mr. Jenkins is in the midst of drawing up plans to customize a small car to fit into the bay on a movable floor that can be extended into a ramp to roll the car in and out. The driver will simply raise the hinged windshield and the car will be ready for the road.
One of the two finished coaches we toured, the Tiffany I model, included such a “garage,” although it was outfitted only with motorcycles — no car — and goes by the unlikely name of “Diamond in the Rough” (as opposed to the Tiffany II model, which Mr. Jenkins considers “more feminine”).
In the future, owners of Superbus 1 motor coaches may not have to worry about towing a car; they can stash one downstairs. However, Mr. Jenkins said he will not customize cars for his buyers; they must buy or create their own.
Unlike “inside out” production motorhomes that are built from a flat chassis in which the interior is assembled first and then the outer walls are added during the final stage of construction, Superbus 1 coach conversions are built of components that are brought into the finished shell through open windows.
There are advantages to each construction method. Bus chassis, which are heavy, relatively simple, and easy to service, are designed to hold up under hard driving for 500,000 miles or more. Like an airliner, they are built so that the body and frame are one, a “monocoque” construction. To help the bus bodies last many years, Prevosts are made of stainless steel and rust-proofed steel.
Another advantage of bus conversions is that they provide abundant storage room. The 45-foot Le Mirage XLII, for example, has more than 400 cubic feet of storage capacity and more than 37 feet of usable flat interior floor space without a wheel well in sight.
What Superbus 1 does with these coaches is truly marvelous. In one of the models we toured, elegant leather “traveling seats” were clustered in the front so that four adults could sit near the driver when the coach was moving. To make sure there is ample electrical power to run all of the appliances and systems featured in the coach, eight solar panels were installed along with eight 8D glass-mat batteries; a 25-kilowatt auto-start diesel generator; two 4,000-watt inverters; and two 100-amp battery chargers.
All appliances in Superbus 1 coaches are electric — no LP here. The air conditioners also include heat pumps, and if that doesn’t provide enough warmth on cold evenings, an Aqua-Hot water system provides the aforementioned radiant heating in the floors. On cold days a separate Aqua-Hot system serves to warm up the engine.
Superbus 1 custom conversions are propelled by 500-horsepower Detroit Diesel 12.7-liter Series 60 engines mated with Allison HD4060 six-speed automatic World transmissions (standard on Prevost chassis). The unit can be slowed through the use of a Jacob’s engine brake, and/or all-wheel, booster-assisted antilock disc brakes.
A tilt and telescopic steering wheel, optional variable assistance power steering, fully independent suspension, and front and rear sway bars take the hassle out of controlling this big coach and keeping the 22.5-inch Michelin radial tires on the road.
Our brief inspection of the units at the Superbus 1 factory revealed an admirable attention to detail and precise fit and finish. The beautiful cabinetry was made on-site. The galleys were compact, but fully functional and well wrought. Drapes, window treatments, and the accent décor were made of the best materials, and the high-quality furniture was elegant in appearance.
All in all, anyone in the market for a bus conversion who doesn’t consider the nautically inspired Superbus 1 just might be missing the boat on a terrific luxury motor coach. To contact Superbus 1 for more information about its motor coaches, call (407) 656-4244 or (888) 656-4244; or, visit www.superbus1.com.