Over the last decade we’ve been as far west as Kauai and as far east as Santorini, visiting many places in between. Here at home in the US though, we’ve driven around the country in a couple different types of travel rig set-ups including: Tent camping with a daily driver, 2015 Toyota Tacoma with the tear drop camper we built, 2009 Toyota Tundra with the Teardrop Trailer, sleeping in the back of a Dodge Caliber, a 2008 Toyota Sequoia that we built out the inside as a camper that unfortunately perished by rust, a 2016 Toyota Tundra that we outfitted the bed into a camper. Out of all of those we really saw the Sequoia to be the closest rig that suited our needs without going medium – heavy duty however we would have liked to have a little more space than an average daily driver could give us. We had said that if we were to get another vehicle for our adventures and a second household vehicle we’d get something that is a bit bigger. I guess this is a bit bigger! I was randomly on craigslist searching through the vehicles as I tend to do when I’m bored and I found this 2003 Chevy Express 3500 Bus with 58,000 miles. I figured there was something wrong with it as the price (especially in the current used vehicle economy) was very decent. I immediately text the link to Katie and awaited her response because we had always liked the size of the mini school bus. We didn’t say much about it the first day but the second day we both still had it on our minds dreaming about what we could turn it into and the adventures we could have in it. We decided that day to head out right after work and take a look. I printed off the history and maintenance records, comparables for price negotiations and contacted the school bus manufacturing company that built it and asked for all information including wiring schematics and other manuals if they had them still. They got back to me with a couple helpful schematics and history about the vehicle but I still had to do a lot of research on my own to find everything that I wanted. I used to maintain and repair the Chevy 6.0L gas engine quite a bit at a previous job so I had a good idea of what to look for on the engine and chassis as far as wear and tear. When we got there the owner tossed us the keys and told us to go drive it around and see what we thought. We loved this because it’s really annoying when sales people try to come with on test drives. We drove it for a while and I continued to check the engine, fluids, body and everything that I could possibly check. We were still dumbfounded by the low price and good condition but we just went with our gut and purchased it! We are now proud owners of a 2003 Chevy Express 3500 4 window bus.
We had to stop to fuel it up as there was almost zero gas in the tank. We are kind of used to bigger fuel tanks but this one is the biggest we’ve had and also gas prices right now suck (thanks Putin) BUT it will be worth the price to make more amazing memories and experiences together in this little gas hog. We got it home without issue and christened it with a couple cold ones while we sat in the tiny seats dreaming and planning what the next steps are. It’s kind of overwhelming to think about everything that needs to be done and things we want to do before our self-imposed deadline of June 1st. We started making a list of things that should be done first and started playing with the doors, windows, emergency exits and weird wiring dead ends and fixes with it being a decommissioned bus with the school having to remove all of the “school bus” stuff on it examples: Stop signs, swivel arm in front, intercom system, etc.
We started by removing the rear seats. We started with the bottom of each seat by twisting two easy swivel locks underneath and they popped right out. Then you have the backrest and the metal frame which are bolted through the floor with (insert different bolt sizes here) and to the side wall support bracket that runs the entire length of the bus by 3 (insert different bolt sizes here). We did this process by 1. Removing all seat bottoms. 2. Removing all side wall support bracket bolts. 3. Cutting the floor bolts and removing the seat to gain access to the next seat in front of the current seat. 4. Punch out the remaining half bolts to the driveway. 5. Fill the holes with some sort of heavy duty waterproof sealer. The side wall bolts were easy to remove. The floor bolts I didn’t even try to loosen as they were a bit rusty and I’ve have been down that road many times in the past so I just cut the heads off of all the floor bolts and took a lightweight sledge and a punch and knocked them out onto the driveway. After this I had some leftover heavy duty waterproof interior/exterior caulking from a different project that I used to fill the bolt holes.
The next step was to remove the floor heater. In order to do this I took the protective shields off to take a peak inside to see how it works ( It’s just a mini radiator with an in hose and an out hose that goes back to the engine. The radiator has a little 12v fan that is on a switch) I then ground off the mounting screws which were rusted to the plate. Then I assessed the hose situation. It was pretty easy to remove the heater and re-route the hoses to fix the circulation of coolant back to the engine using a couple 90 degree fittings. I then used a couple mounting straps to secure the lines to the chassis and made sure the radiator and reservoir were topped off and away we went to the next project!
After taking the floor heater out and plugging those holes I went to a u-pull style junk yard and spent an afternoon looking through a bunch of different vehicles trying to find the perfect passenger seat. I had my eyes on something with a built in seat belt, decent condition, large and comfy! I found a passenger seat out of a mid 2000’s Chevy Tahoe in really good condition. The only problem I had was they didn’t have any wheel barrows left so I had to toss it over my shoulder and muscle it out of the yard. Of course the full size trucks and SUV’s were the furthest from the entrance. After I paid 27 bucks for the seat I crammed it into our small SUV I brought it home to show Katie what I found! She was pretty impressed! We decided that a swivel mount would be a good way to go to be able to use the chair for both transit as well as hanging out at the table.
While we are planning how to mount the chair onto the swivel adapter and then the swivel adapter to the bus we have been just talking and cleaning and doing some maintenance on it! Katie and I were also curious about the rear ceiling A/C unit and so we took the case shroud off of it to see what we were dealing with!
After a week of bad weather we didn’t do anything on the bus but we went and shopped for some cool pillow case cover fabric and to look at other items to make it more comfy. We also planned a couple of the next steps. We ordered the adapter swivel which took a couple custom brackets on the bottom of the chair but it turned out really sweet and safe. We used grade 8 bolts and I made the brackets out of 1/4″ flat stock. I got the adapter swivel mounted and now we just need to figure out where we are going to mount it. It would have been nice to do it behind drivers seat but the gas tank and other items underneath make it really awkward. We then made the decision that it will have to go on the passenger side of the bus.
While we put where to mount the chair on the back burner for now seeing as we need to install the new flooring first before we bolt it down. We rolled out the flooring we got from Menards on the driveway and let it sit in the sun for a little bit to flatten and then measured the interior widths of the bus one last time and where the wheel wells are as well as the little gas filler section that indents in too. We cut it and brought it in and it fit really well! We left the very front area with the drivers seat and the barrier cut out attached and did that as it lay in the bus. That also worked out so well too! We also took out the A/C unit and have to remove the wires and hoses still but we’re making progress!
After we got the flooring in we felt like we could keep working on stuff so we went and got the futon and decided to put it together to see what we need to modify on it to 1. Make it safe for transit and 2. Make it work with the high wheel wells. It went together very easily but we still have a lot of tweaking and securing to do. We understand the full timer van life type people wanting to make a full time bed with storage underneath so you don’t have to set up your bed every night but we don’t really see the point for a weekender rig. A futon will do just fine for us! We will also have a fold up table – which one of us will sit on either a seat/ottoman, or the futon an it will be perfect!