Which School Bus is Best?

If there was an easy answer, it would be mine.

Front engine, Rear engine, Dog Nose or Flat Nose? Now consider all the models available: IC, Carpenter, AmTran, Thomas Built, International, Gillig??? Ceiling height, bus length, tire size, wheel size, oh and that all important engine and transmission. It can get overwhelming quickly.

How can you manage all these options easily?

First determine the size of bus you want. We wanted a length that would maximize our choices of places to stay. If your bus to is too long, then some parks will not be able to accommodate your length, or there may only be a few places available. During peak season if there there are only 6 places available, then chances are we are not going to the lucky ones to show up just as the 40′ rig pulling a Jeep Rubicon is leaving. But on the other end of the scale, we did not want something that couldn’t supply our desires for our creature comforts.

After reading the blogs and calling parks, we determined that 28 feet was the golden length. We could maximize our ability to stay in most parks and still have all the comforts of home we desired.

Now that we have our length etched in sand, this metric filtered out some of our bus options. Rear engine buses are either not produced, or very difficult to find, with a length of 28 feet. Front engine buses were our only choice. Well, sort of, we wanted to have a classic school bus. We were not looking for a Transit bus or some class C RV looking school bus. Remember, we have to narrow down the field so we can actually decide on a bus. Our goal is travel, not search for buses.

Now that we know we are looking for a Front engine bus, do we we want a Flat Nose or a Dog Nose?

We spent a few weeks searching both of these options. Our web searches revealed that Flat noses were hot and loud. Not convinced of the web results, we found both bus types and took a ride. Here’s what we found out. School Bus diesels are louder than our Honda Civic, but quieter than our Valiant 40 Sailboat.

Since we are moving from a sailboat to a school bus, our tolerances are on the opposite side of someone coming from a Chevy Volt driving suburb dweller on Avery Ranch Boulevard. We travelled with a 1983 Westerbeke diesel in our living room on our acoustic resonating fiberglass sailboat. So, moving to an insulated bus with the 22 years of diesel engine improvements in our home was a pleasant surprise.

At some point in this decision logic and wants collide. We wanted the more space, which we were getting moving from our sailboat to a 28 foot bus. But logic says, if you want more space in 28 feet, get a flat nose. Flat nose buses will give you an extra 5 feet of so compared to a dog nose. But Dog Nose buses look cool and allow easy access to an engine we have no idea how to maintain. That’s what we want! Stilettos that look cool, but you can’t walk in them.

This is narrowing down the search. Twenty-eight feet and a dog nose. How hard can that be? Well, the decision doesn’t end there. That just gives you the look and size of the bus. There are more considerations. But the important part is we are narrowing the field of Tinder of Buses.

With the length and body style etched in drying sand we were ready to focus on the engine and transmission. Now this next decision is for the average buyer that is not a bus mechanic. We did not want to be changing engines and transmissions to build the exact bus we wanted. We wanted to go to Walmart and buy the bus off the shelf. So, this also applied a filter to our search results.

We wanted to be able to climb the mountains of Colorado without being passed by the semi hauling logs. At the same time we wanted to be able to travel the freeways with dignity. So that meant we needed a transmission other than an Allison AT545. In a nut shell, this meant most buses born after 2003 were our prospects. Of course there are buses before this year that satisfy the criteria, it’s just finding them is getting more and more difficult. And yes, there is that swapping out the differential or transmission…we are not going to do that.

Boom. Now we are narrowing this down. Twenty-eight feet, roughly 8 windows, Allison 2000 series transmission. Now what about the engine?

This decision is an educated guess as much as it is lucky. As my mechanic dad would say, “I worked on all of the engines.” His take is, there is no perfect engine, they all break. He is probably correct, but there are some engines that perform better than others. The blogs will give you hours of reading entertainment on this subject. The simple answer is, a well cared for engine will probably run longer than a poorly cared for engine. Well, that doesn’t help much, because we have no idea of the history of these engines. One can try the argument that school boards service their buses monthly. This very well could be a true statement, but the school boards are not dumb. They are selling these buses because their life expectancy at the school is done. So, we as Skoolies come along and try our luck at the tail end of their life cycle.

We took the advise of Google that DT466 was the most reliable engine for the buses. This does not meant that DT466 we have will not fail. It just increases our odds of 2-3 years of reliable travel. There are other reliable engines out there. We have heard Cumins is good too. We bet on the DT466.

Now where are we. 28′, Dog Nose, Allison 2000 series (or better), DT 466 engine. Well that narrows our search. Off we went. As it turns out, there are not very many of these configurations in Florida. But, we found one! Of course, it’s in Miami. Everything is in Miami. We are still waiting to actually pay for it and drive it home. Miami!

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