Piston Slap: A schooling on the ideal used bus

Navistar International

Hagerty’s own David Zenlea writes:

Hey Sajeev,

Let’s say I were in the market for a used school bus. I’m not. Or maybe I am?

Just go with me here: What might I be looking out for, aside from the obvious used-truck problems? Are there prized engine/trans combinations? Brands to avoid?

Sajeev answers:

David, let’s first narrow down your choices by focusing on what you really need in a school-bus project. Wheelbase and wheel-arch location affect interior volumes and possibly towing constraints. Weight can be an issue if you want to visit specific places. Examine the different school-bus configurations and decide what you can park on your property, and if it works for your vanlife needs. Oh, and what types of buses you can afford … but that kinda goes without saying.

school bus buy shop advice piston slap
National Bus

Do you want the archetypical Class C bus that many of us experienced as a child? Or a smaller Class B with a manual transmission for more, ahem, fun? What about a Class A van cutaway for maximum practicality? Or a Class D for maximum space?

Things are real easy if you go Class A, since Ford/Chevy powertrains are easy to service and parts are plentiful across North America. The others usually come with engines from Navistar/International, Cummins, or Caterpillar, with transmissions made by the likes of Allison. Seems like the International DT466 has the largest fanbase, and the company’s impressive dealer network means parts are never too far away. But I wouldn’t turn my nose up at a Cummins 5.9-liter ISB, especially if it had reasonable mileage and a service history.

From there we look at the chassis. Again, with parts and service in mind, I default to the Class A Ford Econoline chassis or a larger bus fitting atop the International S Series frame. But International isn’t the only game in town, and you might be forced to get a Blue Bird chassis in order to get one of its top-quality bodies. Not a big deal, as I’d likely take any chassis under these body brands:

  1. Blue Bird
  2. Thomas Built Buses
  3. IC Corporation
  4. Collins Bus
  5. Corbeil Bus
  6. Girardin Minibus
  7. Mid Bus (formerly Superior, if you got a thing for ’70s-era buses)
  8. US Bus/Trans Tech Corporation

No, I have zero experience with these. My recommendations are those of the Texas Department of Public Safety, because it did a fine job shuttling me to and from school. I’ll just go ahead and blindly trust its vetting process, and narrow down the choices for sale in terms of the “obvious used-truck problems” that David mentioned. Consider the mileage, maintenance records, condition of wear items (tires, hoses, brakes, etc.), and the structural condition of both the chassis and body.

Remember that school buses are more like houses, so inspection of an example offered by a private party is mandatory. Or buy from a dealership specializing in used school buses; odds are it has inspected and reconditioned the vehicle appropriately.

In a perfect world? I am getting a Class B bus atop an International S Series with a DT466 mill under the hood. The mural at the top—showcasing that exact engine—pretty much sums it up!

Have a question you’d like answered on Piston Slap? Send your queries to pistonslap@hagerty.com, give us as much detail as possible so we can help! Keep in mind this is a weekly column, so if you need an expedited answer, please tell me in your email.


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    What was popular in fleet use in your area is likely the easiest to source parts for, and local mechanical knowledge will have worked on them extensively. I work right beside the main school bus terminal for my area which has been servicing buses for decades. If I buy a bus they know they are a great resource.

    Buses based on other production trucks will likely be easier to find a fender for. International and Square body GM fronted buses dominated my area for decades. There’s been some really old buses for sale lately in my area –the 1960 GMC fronted one wouldn’t be too hard to get tin for, 50s Studebaker easier than you think but I would do my homework before buying a basket case 1930’s defunct make bus that needs body panels.

    Interesting topic, and one I admit I didn’t expect to see here! But I’d go back to Sajeev’s basic first point, and question what you plan on doing with it. If you are going to make an RV, think hard about that. Many places like KOA camps and RV parks will not allow an old converted bus. In fact, many don’t even allow rigs that are older than 15 years. I don’t know why they are so snooty about it, but they apparently are. Now, if you are looking at just transporting the entire Hagerty writing staff out to your spread for a BBQ and weekend getaway, that’s another matter altogether! 😍

    My intention with Piston Slap was to answer unexpected questions just like this!

    How many times do you want to read about problems with a carburetor or a brake caliper?

    I’ve been looking for a bus for a while now. I ran across an early 70s International Loadstar bus with the 345 gas engine and 4 speed, both of which I’ve had before in a 70s 2 ton dump truck. The bus ran and drove, but was rough, and he wouldn’t come off of $3000. The tires held air but I wouldn’t trust them more than just to drive to the tire shop. The tires were the old style, 9.00-20, which apparently aren’t easy to come by used. For 6 of them, with tubes and mounted, I was quoted at just under $3000. As cool as that old bus looked with the gullwing hood, availability of used tires in the more common sizes has me focused on a more modern bus. I’d also prefer the DT444 (7.3) since I already own a truck with that engine. School auctions around here routinely sell them, usually with the 6.0 or 7.3 internationals, 5.9 Cummins, or a 3126 CAT. The CAT is the only one I would avoid even if the bus was cheap.

    Never thought I’d say this or that I would find myself in any conversation where I thought a school bus was cool, but in hindsight, I remember being shuttled to high school (pre-car) in the late 70’s by the big old Gillig DT-16 double rear axles with a Cummins. They were introduced to schools in my area in about ’76 and were head and shoulders above whatever we were riding before and seemed pretty cool looking at the time. Sloooow granny gears until they were up to speed, but hauled when they did.


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