Why the change?
1) Electrical Thirst
My main complaint about the previous setup has to do with the bus’ reliance on electricity. I lived in what’s known as an all electric coach. That means that it relied on 110V AC power for most features (just like an average house). There are a few exceptions, like the diesel-fired water heater, but I rarely needed to use that because there was also an electric water heater on board.
I could survive for about 1.5 days living on the bus before its batteries started to have an intense craving for electricity. That was fine when I was driving hundreds of miles a day because the batteries could charge off the engine’s alternator, but when I was parked, it meant that I needed to either plug into an AC outlet, or run my diesel generator. The generator had to run for about eight hours to charge the batteries fully! I also needed to be plugged in or running the generator in order to run the air conditioning.
The problem with running the generator for eight hours every 1.5 days was three fold:
1) It would automatically kick on whenever the batteries were getting low. Sometimes, that’s when I was trying to sleep or when I was parked in a location where noise was not a good thing or where the exhaust would not be appreciated (This is mainly an issue when I parked the bus somewhere for weeks at a time while I flew outside the country and it really limited parking locations.).
2) It cost $$ to run the generator for that long, so in many cases, I might as well have paid for a parking spot in an RV park instead. It also works best when plugged into a 50amp 220V AC outlet (the kind of outlet your home clothes dryer might be plugged into) and many more remote places don’t have that kind of setup.
3) I have to change the oil in the generator after every 100 hours it runs and the fuel filter every 200 hours. The process is really easy, but it can be a pain in the butt when you don’t feel like doing it. There’s also the issue of having to dispose of the used oil and keeping a supply of fresh oil and filters on board.
I have dozens of stories about the old bus’ thirst for electricity. Here are just two, but I could go on for days with more of them:
1) I parked in the loading dock at my friend Kevin‘s photography studio. My generator auto-started when my batteries got low and its exhaust was pointed directly at my friend’s loading dock door… it was inches from the door. At the time, I was off doing errands in my Jeep far away from the studio. I quickly received a phone call complaining of diesel fumes filling the photo studio. I was lucky enough to have not locked the storage bay doors under the bus, so I could tell my friend how to turn off the generator. He would have had to wait an hour or two for me to return to the bus if I had locked that door.
2) I parked the bus in the private RV park that is behind the dealer where I purchased the bus in Florida. After making sure that the bus was plugged into their AC “shore power”, I set the air conditioners to make sure the interior would not bake in the hot Florida sun while I flew out of the country for a few weeks. A day or so after I left, the lawn crew stopped by to mow the grass and bumped my electrical cord. It didn’t fall completely out of the outlet, but it was pulled enough so that the bus was no longer receiving any electricity. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might want to have my generator auto-start feature turned on while the bus is plugged into an electrical source. Well, I’m sure it only took 3-4 days for my jam-packed residential-sized freezer to defrost. The once-frozen water in the ice maker at the top of the freezer then trickled through all the defrosted meats, vegetables and sauces that were once frozen and soaked all of those juices into the carpet of my kitchen/living room. Then, all of that got cooked for a few weeks in the Florida sun in a sealed up bus just waiting for my return. I was lucky that a professional carpet cleaning and a full week’s worth of airing out with huge fans was enough to get rid of the smell. Needless to say, the only time I turn off that generator auto-start feature is when I’m changing the oil in the generator.
The above stories were learning experiences and I had since gotten used to living with the electrical limitations of my bus. Having said that, I was always thinking about my bus’ need for electrical power and it is the biggest limiting factor in how I live my mobile lifestyle.
My previous motorcoach was 40′ long, 102″ inches wide and just under 12.5′ tall. That’s a huge rig (although they make them five feet longer!). I don’t mind driving something that big… in fact, I very much enjoyed it. The problem came when I wanted to find a parking space for the rig. There are many campgrounds that can’t handle a rig of that size (especially in state parks). The previous bus’ length could also be a handicap when attempting to pull into a RV sewage dump site that involved tight turns. The ground clearance wasn’t all that high either, which caused some problems when entering and exiting many parking lots that had rather sudden changes in elevation (scrape). It was also not unusual to encounter low trees in areas where I might have wanted to park. I even encountered parts of Route 66 where the width of the bus caused it to be touching both the road’s center line and edge line at the same time! I handled this issue just fine and it wouldn’t prompt me to want a different rig all by itself… it’s mainly when combined with the other reasons that it comes into the mix.
3) Always Tempted
My rig was over ten years old, which is no problem in itself, being a bus that was designed for commercial passenger service. A bus is designed to be driven for over one million miles before it’s considered “old” (mine had only 180K miles on it, which isn’t much for a commercial chassis). The problem is that there are always newer, fancier buses to be tempted by. That means I could always upgrade to one that has even more space in it, has a 42″ drop down TV in the living room and all sorts of other temptations (but would cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars more than my current rig). A brand new coach costs between $1.4 and $2.5 million, which is way too rich for my blood, but there are also a lot of really nice buses within my price range.
Having said all that, my previous bus was the best I could have done with having the knowledge I had at the time I made the purchase and it served me well. After having lived in a 340-square-foot space for over three years, I’ve learned that I might be able to have a lot more freedom and convenience if I was just willing to give up some of that square footage… and after inspecting the contents of every cabinet and living space, I’ve found that it should be quite easy to get along with less space.
Why a Vintage Motorcoach?
So, why in the world would I even think of “downgrading” to a much smaller rig that is over forty years old? Here’s why:
1) Electrical Freedom
Most modern rigs are designed to be driven from one RV park to the next and are more concerned with how many slide out rooms they can incorporate into the living space than how long a person can last without plugging into an electrical source. I want a rig that is designed from scratch to not rely on any external 110V AC power! It would be too expensive and impractical to retrofit my current bus to work with less electrical power, so I started to look at alternatives.
Here’s my thoughts on my ideal electrical system:
No Propane: Most RVs that are not “all electric” end up using propane to power the refrigerator, water heater, cooktop and many other systems. The problem with propane is that it’s a very flammable substance that is heaver than air, which means any leak and it will tend to collect in the living space and could be ignited by any spark that it comes in contact with. It is also just another fuel I’d have to keep track of and replenish. I want to use diesel instead of propane because it is already required for the engine (gas engines just don’t have the torque and tend to get very hot when asked to push a heavy rig up a mountain) and therefore I can have a single, easy to find source of energy. Propane appliances also cause condensation to form on the windows of an RV due to their open flame. A diesel-fired appliances doesn’t use an exposed flame, in fact, a diesel cooktop resembles the glass-topped ceramic cooktops you see in many kitchens. A diesel-fired heater has many advantages, such as being able to pre-heat the RV’s engine in cold weather and being able to steal heat from the engine’s cooling system after a long drive. I’d also have an electric water heater and electric heaters in my next rig for use when I’m plugged into the shore power at an RV park.
Solar As Primary Electrical: My current rig depends on one of three things to get electrical power: 1) an external AC power source (also known as shore power), 2) my diesel generator, which is a huge four cylinder unit that could easily power your car, 3) the alternator that is run off the RVs engine. The ever bigger problem is that the batteries won’t reach a full charge until they’ve been getting power from one of those sources for a full eight hours and that has to happen every 1.5 days.
I plan to setup my new rig with lots of solar panels on the roof (510 watts minimum and possibly double that) and a huge bank of batteries (550-1000 amp hours worth). This is very similar to how a company called EarthRoamer sets up their vehicles. The EarthRoamer gets enough energy from solar to run it’s refrigerator and lighting indefinitely. My system would be even more robust since I’d have more electrical needs, but it would be loosely-based on how an EarthRoamer is setup. I considered living on an EarthRoamer, but decided that I wanted more space and didn’t feel like driving what for all practical purposes is a huge pickup truck.
My current bus has a residential side-by-side fridge/freezer with ice maker, which is not the most efficient unit on the road. In my new rig, I’d end up with a smaller unit that can be run off either 110V AC (for when I’m plugged in at an RV park) or 12V DC direct from my battery bank. Those batteries would be charged using the engine’s alternator when I’m driving or from solar when the sun in out. With that setup, I could park my rig indefinitely anywhere that is not in the shade and fly off without many worries.
High Efficiency Gear: I plan to use 100% LED lighting because LEDs last a long time before any “bulbs” need to be replaced and it only sips power (my current rigs lighting uses 7x+ the power for its lighting). With a refrigerator that can run directly off 12V DC and lighting that does the same, I can end up with an inverter (the thing that converts 12V DC battery power to standard household 110V AC power) that is much smaller than my current setup and therefore would be much less power hungry. I even have a power brink for my laptop that can run directly off 12V DC. With that setup, I should be able to leave the inverter turned off most of the time to save power and avoid the slight buzzing sound they usually produce.
Generator As Backup: I will most likely install a small generator in my new rig for those times when I park in the shade and I might not be getting enough juice from solar or when I need to use a lot of air conditioning. This would be much smaller than my current generator so it would take a lot less fuel to operate. I’d hope to only use it when I need to run air conditioning for more than a few hours a day. With the above setup, I should be able to last indefinitely without running the generator or plugging into AC power… except when I need run the air conditioning all day long. The new rig would also have much better ventilation which would help to lessen the number of days I’d need to rely on air conditioning.
I’m very picky when it comes to quality. I lived in a custom-built home before I started living on a bus and I’m used to many luxuries that I’d rather not have to do without. I like the idea of living around real wood, commercial-quality metal, porcelain (not plastic), stone and leather. Those are materials that I primarily find in a bus conversion and rarely find in a normal RV (with a few rare exceptions). These are also the materials that they used back in the 1940’s and would look at home in a wrapper that was designed at that time.
I also want a vehicle that is stable on the road (with no fear of shaking or swerving from semi trucks passing at high speed, etc). I want it to be powerful enough to climb a mountain pass without having to get in the slow lane. That’s exactly what a commercial bus is designed for. They’re also designed to be run for more miles than most people can imagine (and it’s why there are many 1940’s buses that are still on the road living a second life as a motorhome).
After acquiring a vintage bus, I would update its chassis with a modern electronically controlled turbo diesel engine, modern six speed automatic transmission, modern brakes, power steering, etc. In essence, the systems on the bus would all be newer than what is found on my current rig. These are all commercial-quality systems that are make for a very stable and comfortable ride.
I’m very selective when it comes to style. I absolutely love the curved look of buses from the 1940’s. I plan to have a custom interior installed into the vintage bus that would look like it came straight out of the 1930’s or 1940’s. I plan to use a person who is used to restoring vintage trailers to create the interior. The image above is an example of his work. I would have one done that is more a combination of art deco, 1950’s streamline design with a slight ultra-modern twist. The closest I have seen in another RV is the T@B XL.
My current rig gets between 6-8 MPG. I’ve averaged 6.85 over the last few months. I just talked to Jay Leno’s mechanic, who owns a rig setup mechanically almost exactly like the one I’d create and he gets 13MPG! …and that’s when he’s pulling a big trailer that contains a race car. He said the bus’s top speed is 120 MPH! You can find more about his bus in the following four videos: #1-Intro, #2-Engine, #3-Test Drive, #4-Engine Wiring. I plan to install a more modern engine than what he used which should get even better results.
With a smaller sized rig, I don’t need as many air conditioning units to keep it cool and could more easily survive off a 30 amp 110V AC connection when visiting an RV park instead of the 50 amp 220V AC connection my current rig requires. I can also park in spots that have lower trees (since the rig would be no where near as tall) and need six feet less length of a parking spot… those smaller, lower powered spots are much easier to find and often cost less.
Large vehicles are in general not collectable. Unlike a 1957 Chevy which might go for between $18-60K. A vintage bus can be obtained for somewhere between free and $10K for one that needs to be re-powered and converted into an RV to $35K for one that is already an RV and is working fine. I’d want one that is much more up to date, upgraded and stylish than most of the units on the market today, but even with a custom conversion by real professionals, it will still cost less than my current rig. It has the potential of costing half as much of my current bus, but I doubt I’ll get away with that because I’ll want too many custom upgrades.
5) Customized to My Needs
Every inch of the vintage bus would be customized to my exact needs and desires. That means I’d have things like a hatch in the interior that would allow me easy access to the roof for shooting and many more unusual features to make it my own. Most modern motorhomes manufacturers are concentrating on more and more slide out rooms and fancier systems without really raising the quality of their product. I don’t want slide out rooms and can’t stand the style or quality of most motorhomes (that’s what caused me to buy a bus instead the first time around… there is zero compromise in quality of a bus).
The vintage bus is six feet shorter in length, six inches skinner in width and almost two feet shorter in height. It also has a lot more ground clearance. That will allow me to park in a much wider variety of places and will not have me worrying about low trees. Having only two axels will cut down on my tollbooth charges and with such a short wheelbase, I should be able to run circles around my current bus.
7) Zero Temptation
With a vintage bus setup in such a way that does not require much external electrical power, is small enough to easily get around and has an interior that is custom crafted to my exact needs and style, I’ll be at the top of the game with no upgrade path tempting me. You might think I’d be tempted by bigger rigs, but I’ve found that I don’t use all the space in my current bus and I can easily work it out so I have most of the modern systems that would tempt me into a rig that is newer than my current one.
8) It Should Get Attention
I’ve had some pretty good luck getting news coverage when traveling the country via my current bus. But just imagine how easy it should be to get TV appearances and other coverage when I’m traveling in a restored 1940’s bus! I also plan to pull a 1956 or 1957 four door station wagon behind the bus… it should be quite a duo. That’s the marketing/business reason for the change. Update: Since Karen joined me in 1/2010, I’ve decided to pull her Mini Cooper behind the bus instead of a classic car. That was her one requirement for living on the bus… she can to keep her Mini.
The Genesis of the Idea
If you’re wondering how I came up with the idea of a vintage bus/car combo, then here’s how it happened: 1) I saw the movie RV starring Robin Williams which featured the red/white 1947 Flxible Clipper that is shown at the top of this page. I absolutely loved that bus, but didn’t think of actually living on one because I figured that they would be as collectable as other classic cars and therefore cost millions. 2) One day I was watching the Speed channel on cable TV and they had a show about the Barrett Jackson auction where I saw a nicely restored Flxible bus similar to the one used in the movie go up on the auction block. It had been restored and looked amazing. That bus sold for less than half of what I paid for my current bus! That’s when the seed was planted in my head. That exact same bus went back up for auction this month and I ended up bidding on it. I didn’t bid high enough to win the auction though because I refused to overbid, knowing what kind of modifications the bus would need to make it fulfill my needs.
I eventually found by bus and purchased it in October of 2009. My goal WAS to start living on a vintage bus by June 17th (my birthday) 2010 but to say that was an optimistic expectation would be an understatement. The project has seen delays in every step of the process, and six years later, it’s STILL in it’s finishing stages.
I sold my Prevost bus in Florida and we have been spending our time in the Tampa/Clearwater area as the bus nears completion. We have also been spending a few months every year at sea, teaching on a cruise ship and exploring international destinations.
Visit the Vintage Bus Identification Guide if you’d like to know more about the differences between the various versions of the Flxible Clipper body style.