Converting a Bus into an RV

I've driven around the southwest a number of times, and across country three times (see Photos), and had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, the scenery can be amazing, and there are lots of odd little places to discover. On the other hand, the long days of driving, and rushing from one place to another are a pain in the neck. I'm also not a fan of motels, and the expense of the whole thing really limits the time I can spend anywhere.

I thought of getting an RV years ago, but my wheelchair complicates things. I can't get around inside (or even get in and out of) a standard RV. I checked a number of sites online and couldn't find anyone doing what I wanted to do. There were definitely RV's equipped for wheelchairs (Winnebago sells one for $100K.) There were plenty of couples where one was disabled and the other not. But, I couldn't find a person in a wheelchair living in an RV and handling everything on their own. Several people told me they were skeptical that it was even possible.

I didn't want to pay all the money up front to get an accessible RV and then discover I didn't really like it. So my first effort was to convert my Ford van into a really small RV. That's covered in a long piece here. The bottom line is that I ran out of space. By the time I had put in a desk, sink, cooktop, bed and shower, it was literally impossible for me to turn around. And that didn't even count a toilet, which I would really have liked to have!

I thought of getting a box truck and converting that into an RV, but couldn't find one that met my requirements. In particular, the cab of a truck is normally not open to the back. If there is an opening, it's a tiny door and not level with the back of the truck. It didn't look like I could make that accessible. There are also no windows in the back, so those would have to be added.

I thought of getting a cargo trailer for a few thousand dollars and putting furniture into it to make a cheap RV. However, I'd probably still have needed a wheelchair lift (there's really not much room for a ramp in most parking spaces) which costs at least a couple thousand dollars. I figured the interior would run to at least another couple of thousand, for maybe $10,000 total. This is still cheaper than a real RV, but expensive. I was also doubtful about my ability to hitch and unhitch a trailer, or tow one with my van (it's the V6 Ford and not exactly powerful.) And I'm frankly not the world's best driver.

Finally, I decided that bus conversion was the way to go. I would be able to purchase a bus with a wheelchair lift, and with the cab completely open to the interior. It would already have windows in the back. The problem was to get something that wasn't either expensive or ancient! I looked for used buses online. There are a number of used bus lots that sell in quantity, and there are frequent listings on eBay. Some of them were tempting, but not in my area. Since these are vehicles with typically 150K miles on them, I really didn't want to buy sight unseen.

These buses are mostly sold used by transit agencies. After looking online for a couple of months, I got the idea to call around to the local transit agencies and see if they had anything they would sell me directly. One did have a 1999 E-450 bus with wheelchair lift that they were no longer using. After some consideration, they offered to sell it to me for $2000. The catch was that the engine was completely wrecked (it had blown a cylinder for the third time, and needed major work.) The rest of it looked OK though. Here's a picture, after the transit company graphics had been removed. They also took out the seats.

The inside seemed very spacious compared to my van, and everything seemed to more or less work. I bought it in September of 2006.

Cheap Buses are Expensive!

The first thing was to replace the engine. I had this done by the local Ford dealer, and so paid top dollar. I had been told by many people to shop around, but since I personally can't tell what's going on under the hood (I can't even get up high enough to see inside!) I had visions of being ripped off by some independent and not having any recourse. A dealer seemed easier to deal with.

Next thing was to make it all wheelchair accessible. Yes, it had a lift, but I needed to be able to drive it. For that, I needed a higher seat, and hand controls. I also had a backup camera installed. I don't know how anyone backs these things up with just the side mirrors. The rear view mirror is worthless, since you are so high up you can't see cars behind you, and the rear view is obscured by the rear doors of the bus.

The real problem with accessibility didn't turn out to be driving it, but closing the lift doors from the inside. They are designed to be closed manually from the outside. There are no handles or latches on the inside, and you couldn't reach them if there were, since the lift itself blocks the inside of the door. After some false starts, I had a simple latch built. I have to pull the doors closed with a hook, then operate the latch by sticking a rod through the grid of the lift platform. It's slow and awkward, but it works. The only other option would have been trying to put motors on the outside doors. Since these are not a standard option, it didn't look promising.

At this point I could finally drive the bus around, and discovered a few things. First, it's incredibly noisy. I've since been told this is perfectly normal, since the empty bus just echoes all the road noise. I hoped that it would get better when furniture and curtains were put in, but it didn't. It's still a very noisy vehicle to drive!

Second, I discovered something was wrong with the transmission. It was very sloppy to shift, and stalled whenever you let off the gas. Taking it back to the dealer, they recommended the transmission be rebuilt or replaced. Another major expense! Sigh...

Third I discovered the insurance was going to be a problem. The insurance companies assign risk to categories of vehicle. They had a category for school bus conversions (which the companies mostly wouldn't touch!), and a category for class C RV's. But nothing for small bus conversions. The companies I called politely said no, they could not cover me. One company said they might be able to cover it after it had been converted to an RV and reregistered that way with the DMV. If the conversion was up to their standards. I ended up getting a liability only policy from GMAC.

I then had an accessible, drivable bus and it was time to start the conversion. I had thought something as basic as what I wanted could be knocked out in a couple of months. Little did I know that I'd still be messing with the thing a year later!


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