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Inspection & Repair Guide for Bus Conversions

Authored by Gary LaBombard
Owner of the “Rustless Money Pit”

Everyone I know that has bought their “Dream Bus”, either already converted or not, has had a special story to tell about the purchase and transporting it home. Some of their problems started right after signing the sales receipt and some started much later. I enjoy hearing about what they had envisioned their “Dream Bus” to be like and what the bus they finally purchased turned out to be. Sometimes their dream came true, and sometimes it became their worst nightmare. I also enjoy hearing about how they chose the name they call their bus.

I too have a story to tell about how I found our 1973 Model 05 Eagle just sitting on a hill next to a highway that we were traveling on. The bus did not appear to have a for sale sign on it that we could see from the road. I knew the Eagle style bus with that classic look from many years of seeing them on the road as Trailways buses and also seeing many of my favorite Country Singers arriving in a nice shiny Eagle for a performance. To me, the Eagle bus just has a look of class that demands respect, similar to the 1950’s style of automobiles. You know how, when you see one of these classic automobiles on the road, your head will follow it until it is out of your sight because of its distinctive and memorable styling. Well, this is how I am when I see an Eagle Bus.

In 2001 I knew that I was going to be retiring from the General Electric Company, Gas Turbine Division at Greenville , South Carolina . I also knew that I wanted my wife, (Linda) and me to travel after I retired. Something inside of me said that a converted bus would be the most comfortable way to do it. At this time I was just getting a little savvy on the Internet, but was not completely aware of special interest groups such as Bus Nut BBS, BNO BBS, MAK BBS, or any of the other informative Internet resources. “Bus Nuts” are what we are called because it seems that we are nearly married to our rigs. I missed a lot of information that could have made my choice a much better one. At that time I did not know what I do now concerning bus purchasing and repairing and was not aware this information was even available. This really is no excuse for the situation I got myself into at that time.

Back to the story. I immediately slowed down while passing by this White Eagle bus on the hill, like it was waiting for me. I turned around in the next drive way and drove up to the Eagle owner’s home and asked him if that beautiful white Eagle in front was for sale. The owner was living in a newer RV (I should have questioned why he wasn’t living in the bus). After chatting awhile, he allowed us to go look at the bus. I was really chomping at the bit the whole time we were talking and I just could not wait to see my first real Eagle bus up close. The Eagle bug has bit me hard!

We noticed the inside was all completely remodeled in a simple but functional way. It had all the amities necessary to travel, was decorated with bright colors inside, had a washer / dryer, a nice refrigerator / freezer, a nice size bath with shower, a master bed room, a convertible couch for guests if needed, a moveable dining room table, two chairs, a big clothes closet that could be converted to kids bunk room, a functional galley and two roof air conditioners. There were other small do dads but nothing major like stereo systems or TV’s. I figured you can’t have everything. The pilot’s area has the original driver’s seat and dash.

We ventured outside for the exterior inspection. I looked in the wheel wells and saw some rust, but my back ground as a machinist / fabricator / welder lead me to believe that I could easily fix any of the minor problems that I saw. I also looked in all the bays and at the undercarriage as best as I could without getting on my back (I didn’t want to get dirty). I found many rusted areas and I was starting to question to my self and the seller. The seller told me that all buses, and Eagles in particular, have some degree of rust in them and what I was seeing was quite “normal” and nothing to worry about. But I knew I could fix anything! Just a little welding here and there and she would be ready to go.

I didn’t ponder long, my heart skipping a beat. A real live Eagle that just might be ours! Purchasing with my heart, Hot Dam!! After all, I feel in love with my wife on our first blind date 22 years earlier. I really got the Eagle Bus fever after the seller assured me that the bus was ready for a trip to California (about 3300 miles away). I just had to have her! There was no need for a professional inspection. Remember, I knew that I could fix anything! And man, when the seller started her up, she purred like a kitten (well, actually like a ferocious Lion). I just had to have her!! The seller told me that the Eagle was for sale because she was just sitting there not being used, which seemed like a sin to him when someone could really be enjoying her on the road. I then asked him to crank her up so we could go and give her a test on the real road with me driving. I have to admit that I was nervous - Awful nervous. I drove it about 40 miles in all. I had some concerns about the overcorrecting of the wheel at times and also that at about 60 miles per hour I felt a shimmy in the front. The seller said that he imagined it was just the highway and that I was too inexperienced to be able to have such sensitive feelings when driving, so what did I know. As we drove back to his house I just knew I had to have this Eagle. Well we discussed a price that I thought was great at that time for a bus that was ready to head to California and all. OK, we got a deal!!

I arranged to get the money for our “Dream Bus” and we had a closing for the “As Is” sale. We went through a check off list testing everything; the water system, the refrigerator, furnace, air conditioning, hot water tank ignition, shower, toilet, air system charging up and cutting off, bus lights and that was about it. Everything at that time seemed functional to me. Again, what did I know? I climbed in the driver’s seat and put my seat belt on. My wife was to follow me home to see how the bus maneuvered from behind and especially how I was doing driving this 8 ft. wide vehicle. We had portable walkie-talkies to communicate with each other on the way home. I ground the gears on start up from 1st to second and every gear after that until I got her home. (I’ve got to work on that some day!!)

Well, we got home some time later and that was (and still is) the best part of my entire story about of buying our “Dream Retirement Bus”. Unfortunately, the story gets worse, but after 3 long years of hard work, the Eagle is nearly ready for her new owners, (us) to make her first maiden voyage, perhaps this month next year (I hope).

My first task was to really give the bus a good inspection by getting out my pressure washer and washing the underneath the bus because the undercarriage was all gooped up with dirt and debris at all of the framing joints and also in areas such as on top of the fuel tanks and every place that dirt could possibly build up. OH MY! Reality hit me fast and hard. I found that I had some very serious frame damage that even Stevie Wonder could see. I sat there for hours in disbelief as the bus was drying and I was hoping that what I saw was an illusion. This could not be happening to us! We had driven this bus 100 miles total counting the test run and the trip home, and it didn’t “feel” like it could have had this many problems.

Without a doubt, I removed about 20-30 gallons of dirt and debris off the framing. It was all over the driveway and me. What a mess. Well, I knew in my heart that I had serious problems now but I was still in denial. This could not be. When I got underneath the bus with my best flashlight (like I should of in the first place) for my first real reality inspection of the undercarriage, I looked in all the nooks and crannies where the tubing meets each other, I found broken welds, metal completely rotted away at the connecting points, and metal just completely missing. Fortunately, I had my work clothes on now for this inspection.

Now I had to tell my wife what I found. I know that I must have been in tears when I told her because I was so distraught and in such disbelief after being reassured by the seller that our “Dream Bus” was in such good condition. My wife did not have one discouraging word to say after I showed her our problem. She just hugged me and said she knew I could fix it, and that I could make it even better than the original and that we were in no hurry to drive an unsafe vehicle anyhow!! Simple as that!! She never wavered, got upset or discouraged!!! This is not a crock!! How in the heck was I going to let someone with that much confidence in me down?

After feeling sorry for myself and knowing that I had bought this vehicle “As Is”, I knew I had to get over it and try to figure out how I was going to correct the situation. Since my wife had been so supportive and positive, I had no choice but to make up my mind that I could make it better than the original. I had to decide what my plan of attack was going to be for the repairs. At this point I still had no idea, none what so ever, just how bad my Eagle really was and how much the rust cancer had infected it, even after pressure washing.

For my first real inspection, I took each area of the bus and wrote down everything that I could see wrong. From that first day I started taking pictures of absolutely everything I was seeing and doing from the front to the back of the bus. I have taken detailed pictures of all the problems and all of my repairs over a 3 year period up to the time that this CD was released.

After a couple of weeks of documenting the things that I found and how I was making the repairs, I got to thinking about how many other Eagles could be in this same condition (and I was really hoping mine was the worst scenario). After finding out the real condition of my bus, I got the opportunity to see a few other Eagles at various places, such as truck stops, and asked permission to look at their undercarriage. I explained that I was in the process of repairing my Eagle and wanted to get some ideas of what to do. Much to my amazement, I found many buses in almost the same condition as what mine was! Not all now, but many. All of the buses that I did a quick inspection on were on the road at the time transporting bands, family members, and church groups. Then I realized that my bus was not the only one with a very bad problem. I informed a few of the owners or drivers of what I saw and again got the same remarks as I did when I bought mine: “These older buses all rust and there is nothing you can do” and that “the buses are designed to last a life time”. Man, are they ever wrong!! When I got this reaction, I realized that they do not want to know about these problems until they become so big that they cannot ignore it any longer. Unfortunately, when this happens it may be the cause of an accident, and people may get hurt.

I know that my bus is now 32 years old and there is no way that this bus could have safely run down the highway without one day causing a serious accident, or kill someone, which is something that I just could not possibly live with.

In three years I have gathered a great deal of information from the Bus Nut web sites, both from newbie’s like me and from more experienced private bus converters and some professional bus conversion shops. I sent for some books on conversions, bought a subscription to my favorite magazine, (Bus Conversions Magazine (www.busconversions.com) which is delivered the same time my subscription of PlayBoy magazine arrives. I always read the Bus Conversions Magazine first!! That is the making of a real BusNut!! I will list various Bulletin boards you can visit for information that 5 to 8 years ago was not available. Now it is in every home with just a click of a mouse.