Five years ago this week, we handed over a big wad of cash to a guy in a parking lot and became vintage bus conversion owners.
And, wow.. what an amazing life we’ve enjoyed with our mighty gal, Zephyr. And what a long way we’ve come!
Not only do we recognize our five years with Zephyr this week, she also turns 55 this year. Finally, someone in our household eligible to stay in 55+ RV Parks (smile).
On this anniversary, we wanted to re-cap and share some of our thoughts and stats about living and traveling in a vintage bus conversion. We did a quick little video sharing some of the highlights, and the text below goes into a ton more details.
The Back Story of How We Came to Be Bus Owners
After 4 years of traveling in smaller travel trailers and having just spent a winter living in the US Virgin Islands, we knew that we were not ready give up life on the road. We were however ready for more mobile space.
Just not too much space.
We fantasized about finding a motorhome in the 25′ – 32′ range, and we really had no interest in either slides or class-C style rigs. We just wanted a solidly built comfortable home optimized for two working-on-the-road geeks.
Unfortunately, new or used, none of the commercially manufactured rigs we had ever seen really appealed to us at all. Usable “work” space was unheard of, and typical construction standards in our target price range seemed more suited to three-weekends-a-year usage, not full time living.
The desire for a more solidly built home inevitably led us to bus conversions, and our desire to stay as small as feasible is actually what first led us to vintage buses. We had to go way back to the 60’s when 35′ buses were common and at first even 35′ felt too big. Modern buses are more typically 40′ or 45′ — way too large for us!
Along the way – we fell in love with the styling and uniqueness of vintage buses, and we began to love the idea of keeping an old classic alive and on the road.
We figured if we could find a livable vintage bus conversion, we could then invest our money into modifying it – building our own ideal high tech home on wheels, our way.
Five years ago on June 22, 2011 – after a lot of (literal!) blood, sweat, and tears learning to prime a 2-stroke diesel engine to even take a short test drive – we handed over $8,000 in cash in parking lot in exchange for the title to a 1961 GM 4106 and a bill of sale scribbled on scrap paper.
We looked at each other, not sure if we should celebrate or freak out… we now owned a bus older than we are!
It was a mystery bus without much known mechanical history, and we were relative bus novices too with so much to come up to speed on. Were we brave or crazy? I still don’t know.
In the 115+ degree desert heat of Yuma, AZ we drove our new acquisition on its rotted tires to the nearest RV Park to start the adventure of figuring just what we had gotten ourselves into.
The bus that would eventually come to be known as ‘Zephyr’ immediately needed a lot of work to be road worthy – new tires & wheels, all fluids changed out, and all rubber replaced.
We considered it all part of the acquisition cost of our bus, and not knowing much about diesel engines or the history of this one, we also immediately banked around $20k for the likelihood of major future engine work.
After having spent just $8,000 to buy her, and figured on about another $30,000 into getting her mechanically up to date – we still felt like we were getting a good deal.
What is a Bus Conversion? These are buses that were first meant to be passenger buses. Built to carry and protect dozens of passengers, and be maintained by a revenue generating business (such as Greyhound, Trailways or regional tour companies). Once a bus ends their typical service life, they might be purchased to be converted to a motorhome. With a solidly built chassis and workhorse engine, they typically have a lot of life left in them.
Zephyr’s Short Story: Began life in September 1961 as a regional charter tour bus in Arizona for Citizen Auto Stage Co out of Nogales, AZ — and is serial # PD4106-446.
While our bus was never a ”hound” — this model of bus was designed in cooperation between GM (not yet GMC) & Greyhound to be the heart of their fleet in the 1960s. It was designed to seat 41 passengers and carry all their luggage. With its aluminum construction and beefier engine, the 4106 was considered the sportscar of buses’ for its day.
Our bus was converted and titled to be Class-A motorhome in 1989, and had less than 20,000 motorhome miles on it when we found it in Yuma, AZ in June 2011. She had essentially sat still for over 15 years after her original converter had passed away in the early 90s.
She’s 35″² long, 96″³ wide and weighs in partially loaded at about 24,000 lbs. She has a 2-stroke 8v71 Detroit Diesel engine, with Allison v730 automatic transmission upgrade post-conversion.
Costs of Zephyr
We get asked all of the time how much it costs to acquire, maintain, and remodel a vintage bus conversion.
We’ve been happy to share along the way, although our approach may not necessarily match anyone else’s. Here’s some factors however that could influence your costs:
We don’t have our own bus garage (we’re full timers, after all – our garage is a bay in the bus) and hire out most our maintenance. A mechanically inclined person with access to tools and work space could dramatically reduce the costs.
- We’re preventative maintenance crazy. We’d much rather spend the time & money upfront to keep things in tip top shape, and reduce the odds of a breakdown later. For instance, instead of just doing an in-frame cylinder replacement when we overheated, we decided to do a complete out of frame overhaul and rebuild the entire engine compartment. As a result, we found several ‘next problems’ that were waiting for us – and now we know everything about our engine compartment.
- Our remodeling efforts have a high-tech approach, and designed for our maximum flexibility and comfort. Our bus was pretty livable from day one, and we consider most of our projects to be optional and part of our personal quest.
Here’s all of the costs we’ve incurred on bringing Zephyr up to date, ongoing maintenance, and our remodeling projects to make her our own:
(For those reading in RSS or e-mail delivery, you may need to click through to the full post to see the embedded spread sheet.)
All and all, we’re pleased as punch with what we’ve spent, especially compared to other alternatives to end up with a nomadic substrate of equal quality and styling.
Yes – we know that we could have done it a LOT cheaper, and we could have also spent way more as well.
But we did it our way (queue Frank Sinatra!) – striking our own balance of do-it-yourself and professional work, with costs spread out over the years.
For More Thoughts:
Is It Worthwhile to Renovate an Old RV?
Why Not Just Buy New?
Some other numbers you might be curious about:
Pre Engine Rebuild (First two full years: 2011-2013)
- 15,069 miles traveled
- $8776 spent on fuel
- 2322 gallons of diesel
- Average fuel economy: 6.65 mpg
Post Engine Rebuild (Three years: 2013-2016)
- 22,081 miles traveled
- $9810 spent on fuel
- 3158 gallons of diesel
- Average fuel economy: 6.96 mpg
Total & Averages (Fives years: 2011-2016)
- 37,150 miles traveled / Annual average: 7430 / Monthly average: 619
- $18,586 spent on fuel / Annual average: $3717 / Monthly average: $310
Prior to the bus, we traveled with a truck/Jeep and trailer combination, and did get much better fuel economy (often 12-18 mpg).
But we also used to travel 10-13k miles a year in those setups. With the change to the bus, we intended to slow down the pace to 8-9k miles per year – and we’ve exceeded that with averaging out under 7500. We put about the same mileage per year on our MINI Cooper, which gets 33+ mpg. Zephyr plus the Mini has proven to be a great setup for us.
We’ve Come a Long Way
We’ve not only traveled 37k miles together, we’ve made some significant progress on keeping our old girl on the road.
The exterior progress:
The interior progress:
Remodeling & Project Logs:
(July 2011) Interior Remodeling: Round 1
(October 2011) Interior Remodeling: Round 2 – Dual Desk
(August 2011) Our Lithium Iron Battery (LFP) Research, Cost Analysis and Installation
(January 2012) 7 Months in a Bus (Review of bus life, plus maintenance & remodeling costs so far)
(February 2012) Our Propane Free “Goal”
(March 2012) Kitchen & Bathroom Remodel
(March 2012) Project Dominoes — Simple Refrigerator Replacement sparks 33 other projects
(Updated continuously) Our Mobile Internet Gadgetry Setup
(June/July 2013) Our 8v71 Engine Rebuild
(May 2014) Shopping & Installing RV Seats in Elkhart, IN
(May 2014) Major electrical re-wiring project
(June 2014) Three Years in a Vintage Bus (update on our maintenance & project costs, and thoughts on living in a bus conversion.)
(Oct 2014) 800 Watt RV Bus Roof Solar Install
(September 2015) Summer 2015 Bus Renovations Tour & Project List (paint job, plumbing, hydronics, MCD shades, etc.)
Reflections on 5-Years
It’s been an amazing 5 years living and traveling in Zephyr. We’ve been able to balance working on bus projects in stages while incorporating in a life full of exploration, work projects and quality time with amazing people.
Some of the unexpected attributes:
- Each bus project represents a different story in place and time – a unique memory and personal touch from whoever serendipity brought into our lives to help us out with it. We look around at what we’ve created, and it’s really a bus that has been built by a network of friends made across the country.
- How admired Zephyr has been – whether driving down the road and gaining smiles & waves from passerby’s, or ogling in campgrounds or parking lots. We don’t seem to be able to make a stop without someone pointing at us, or approaching us. We intentionally choose a unique looking substrate, continue to choose it and usually enjoy it (but sometimes it would be nice to blend in).
How accepted Zephyr is. So many folks warned us that driving an RV over 10 years old would get us kicked out of RV Parks. So far, it hasn’t happened once. The few RV Parks we’ve needed to stay at with the dreaded ‘over 10 year rule’ we call or e-mail ahead and send a link to our Zephyr page.
At this point, only the chassis, wood work and original exterior components are over 10 years old. We have documentation to show we’ve replaced just about everything else. We pass muster as being a restored classic, not a feared ‘old’ RV. That said, generally speaking, we favor places without such rules anyway and don’t like having to ask permission to stay anywhere.
- How accessible parts have been. Owning a vintage bus can present challenges in finding parts when you need repairs or upgrades. Thus far, nearly every part we’ve needed replaced has been a fairly standard part obtainable with only a bit of searching or modification. We can even generally find what we need in truck supply shops – thank you GM for using standard stuff! Yes, things will get scarcer as time goes on, but it has been easier than we feared. And the online community of fellow bus nuts is awesome when it comes to helping track things down!
And some fun (at least to us) maintenance numbers to share:
- # of Nights ‘In the Shop’ for mechanical maintenance: 85
- # of Nights we had to seek hotels for mechanical issues: 3
- # of Breakdowns: 5 (plus several minor ‘learning curve’ incidents)
- # of Road Side Assistance Calls: 3 (1 tow, 2 services)
- # of Nights stuck on the side of the road due to breakdowns: 3
- # of Nights ‘In the Shop’ for renovations in 2015: 118 (planned ~60, 28 nights in borrowed RVs onsite)
All and all, far less nights in the shop than we expected for five years worth of travel in a vintage bus!
Would we Do it Again?
We’re incredibly comfortable in this home on wheels we’ve built. While we will likely integrate in other forms of travels, we fully intend to keep Zephyr as our North American mobile land homebase.
We have finally adapted to living ‘large’ in the extra space Zephyr gave us (especially now having a functional living room), and we definitely don’t crave more space.
We really are truly blessed to have found Zephyr on that hot summer day in Yuma – with such a well thought out the floor plan.
After now having attended several RV rallies and toured the coaches of many fellow RVers – we’ve yet to see a coach that even rivals what we have. Without getting into $250k+ (new price) coaches, we’ve not found anything that feels as close to the quality of our conversion or the amazing floor plan that works so well for us.
We feel we have gotten one heck of a home on wheels that enjoys regularly changing awesome views. And we love that we’ve been such an active part of making her own our own.
So heck yes.. we’d do it again! We have no regrets on the path we went down.
Should You Get a Vintage Bus?
We get asked this question all the time too, and have had folks write us letting us know they too purchased a bus after being inspired by us.
Even with as happy as we are with our choice, and as well as it has worked out for us – we are hesitant to recommend this path to others without a lot of careful consideration first.
For a counterpoint, we encourage you to also read the journey of the Big Kahuna, a GM 4106 purchased by Shell on Wheels that they had to give up on after a year traveling with more time spent in the shop than exploring.
Just as friends and the bus community advised us upfront, even though a bus may be inexpensive to purchase – this is best not to be considered a ‘cheap’ RV option.
Owning a bus is an odyssey all its own, and a labor of love. There’s a reason they call us bus owners BUS NUTS.
You get a bus because you love buses and you’re up for the challenge. And you have to be prepared for doing your time in shops.
Here are some things to keep in mind about a vintage bus:
They were built for commercial service and meant to be maintained by a revenue generating business. Yes, you may be able to buy them fairly cheap – but there will be extensive costs & effort required to keep one on the road.
We’ve been averaging nearly $3000/year in general maintenance and keeping our old girl safely on the road (again, we’re nuts about preventative maintenance.) This doesn’t include our major engine overhaul when we overheated or factoring in replacing tires every 6-7 years (we’ll be due in the next year or two). This seems to be a bit more than what our friends with regular diesel pusher motorhomes pay.
- Learn to be a Diesel Mechanic! Skilled mechanics for older engines like our Detroit Diesel 8V71 2-stroke are aging out of the profession. These engines were still installed and used up until the mid-1980s, but are now becoming rare. If you take on a vintage engine, make sure you are soaking up resources, connections and skillsets as you go – you will need them!Make a point to get to know & participate in the bus conversion community, they can be your greatest asset for information when you need it.
No guarantees. No warranties. You’ll hear this phrase over and over in regards to a 2-stroke diesel engine – ‘It’ll run and run and run, as long as you keep up with your preventative maintenance.’
Yeah well, true.. Until they don’t.
There’s no guarantees that come with these things, and no extended warranty company is going to cover a coach this old. This is not a path for folks who like a safety net. You’re on your own for all repairs, and there’s a lot that can go wrong.
We highly recommend keeping an at-the-ready repair fund to handle major break downs ($10-20k is a nice target at a minimum), and budget a couple grand a year in maintenance & minor repairs. Being prepared is the best extended warranty out there for a vintage coach. We have heard too many sad stories of a major break down pre-maturely ending someone’s otherwise awesome adventure.
At the very least, make sure you have a road side assistance program – we use Coach-Net, and gladly pay their highest annual package. We saved easily over $2k on our tow, plus the peace of mind of having a resource to tap into.
- Each Bus is Unique. This hit home very early on in our bus search – and felt like Bus Dating. These gems each have a history to them, their own story. When they were converted out of passenger service, they each took their own path to becoming RVs. Some were done professionally, some by home converters (with varying levels of skills).Some were done on the cheap, and some with endless budgets. Some have been lovingly well maintained, and some have sat on lots of decades rotting away.You can’t really sum up should I get a ‘MCI’ or a ‘GM’. You really have to research, look and find your own unique gem. Just because you see one model of bus and didn’t like it, don’t rule out other conversions built on the same foundation.
- Know when to say when. At each major repair or renovation project, you become more emotionally and financially sunk into your bus. We made a conscious choice when we bought our bus without much known history that we weren’t investing major funds or doing major projects that weren’t transplantable until we had some time on the road with her.That’s why we wanted something livable from day one. If the bus turned out to be a money pit early on, we could at least scrap it and move on. We didn’t even name her Zephyr until she was with us for six months.We were blessed to have had two solid years together before the engine overheated, and at that point – we had no doubt investing in fixing her back up was the right choice. We did major renovations after four years on the road, knowing for darn sure we loved bus life and exactly the changes we wanted.
- This is not an investment. We all know buying an RV isn’t an investment, they’re depreciating assets. But no matter how much cash you throw at a vintage bus conversion, the return on ‘investment’ can be even lower. A vintage bus, with rare exceptions, will still be a vintage bus at the end of the day. And it can take years to find a buyer for one if you ever do want to sell. Yes. Years. And don’t ever expect to even more than a small fraction of what you put in back.
Any house that is undergoing constant earthquake conditions is going to have problems that need to be corrected regularly – that’s just the nature of the beast with any RV. And each manufacturer and model will have its own challenges in getting service and parts.
With all the of the problems we’ve had with our bus – we can point to dozens of other major RV setbacks our friends have undergone too. Some actually even more extreme, more expensive and longer to take care of. A rebuild on a more modern diesel engine? It can also set you back $10-15k, but will probably present you with more accessible resources.
And heck, a regular sticks-n-bricks house can need major repairs and remodeling.
Thank you Zephyr, you’ve been an amazing partner on the road – cheers to many many more years together!
The Story of our Bus:
Further bus resources:
Bus Conversion Magazine: Considering a bus conversion yourself? There’s no better resource than this magazine & community. Subscribe immediately, order some back issues — you’ll learn a bunch. Their forums are full of fellow bus nuts’ (you’ll soon understand.. owning a bus conversion takes a nut) who have far more expertise than we do. Ask your questions there, you’ll be tapping into a wealth of information (it’s where we go!)
US Coach & Equipment: 888-262-2434 / 856-794-3104 — If you own a bus conversion, this number should be in your contact book. Luke stocks a lot of parts for these machines and if you’re passing through New Jersey, their shop in Vineland provides top notch service.
Choo Choo Express Garage — Located in Chattanooga, TN this is a great shop that provides great service on old coaches, at very reasonable prices.