Blue Bird for gravel travel, sleeps 8

Long time reader/researcher; it's time to post up what it's all come to, about 2/3 done. Lot's to post over the next few days.

It's purpose is to replace our camper van, it was too small years ago, just had #5 three weeks ago. We used a camper van till we had 3 and 1 on the way. In all likelyhood we'll have a sixth, so it'll sleep 8 total (currently ages 8, 6, 4, 2, and .057).

We do long highway trips, short drives in the country on dirt roads, turn down logging roads a bit, lots of gravel backroads too. We need to be independent of the grid but not for more than a few days. We camp wherever we feel like or end up, from remote side roads, campsites and driveways to wallydocking.

All seasons (canadian winters too) but no genuine need for 4x4 and choose to turn back rather than get stuck. I have a set of tire socks and plans to add a rack of Tryggs (studded chains). Plus if we get stuck once I'm gonna put a no-spin in it.

I wanted diesel and an Allison, quick sketches gave us a need for ~28' inside (with minimum length outside), wanted maneuverability and ground clearance, needed durability and parts availability.

So we bought a bus!!!


So why a bus?

Well I run a heavy truck shop. I work on medium to heavy trucks every day. I also work on the odd 1/2 ton to say F550 ish truck AND motor homes AND coaches. 1 ton to 550 trucks are too small, too light and barely tall enough to roll under. Busses and motor homes are heavy enough, but even lower, and have unique problems as far as finding parts outside a city.

So medium duty bus/truck it is... tall enough to work under, very durable, high spare parts availability and interchangeability, and easy to find in a used market.

Why THIS bus?

A flat nose bus has the best ratio of interior space to outside length. We have enough room inside and take up about the same room as 2 parked vehicles. The wheelbase is a tad longer than a crew cab long box, the wheel cut is very sharp and it was made for urban routes. The only drawbacks are not having a hood to flip for service and lower front clearance. The front bumper is still higher than the front axle beam and poses no real life drawbacks. And the hood on a conventional bus adds 5-6' of length and increases turning radius. And flat nose busses are cooler...

The bus we bought was set up with a chair lift and had 4 seats in it. Drivetrain is 12v Cummins, Allison AT545, new 10x22.5 rubber. I had a quick look under, saw minimal body rust, 4 new shocks, minor (I thought) oil leak, very little (I thought) blow by, quiet top end, recent Allison ReTrans reman, new tires, grease on all the zerks, no steering leaks/play, and good brakes. Drive had good results so we bought it.

Cold start the next day had some blue smoke...

It cleared up right away, drove it 4 hours home, strippped it for cleaning and paint. Scuffed and did body repairs, masked and sprayed the bottom, then masked and sprayed the top. Re assembled and replaced most of the windows with tinted glass, non opening.

Paint is ppg PSX700, a polysiloxane with a 15 year track record in coastal areas. Should handle Saskatchewan summers and road salt. And we had a bunch left over from another project. We also run a sandblasting, commercial painting and spray foam business. More about insulation choice later.

IMG_0233.jpg IMG_0235.jpg
IMG_0041.JPG IMG_0052.jpg


Last edited:
Not many words to describe about 40-50 man hours of body and paint work. We did a basic layout for last summer, a toilet, a few beds and bunks at the back, makeshift kitchen in the middle, benches facing each other at the front and took off on a summer vacation to the southeast BC Rockies!

We learned that it was noisy on the highway but was mostly road noise and echoes in the empty interior. That was all fixable with sound barrier in the front and a permanent interior. Spray foam underneath and an added noise barrier on the engine doghouse will make it just fine.

The 5.9/AT545 combo is ok on mountain passes. A lockup MT643 will be better someday and is a reasonably easy swap but is pretty low on the priority list. The axle ratio is 4.33 which puts the motor at 2350rpm for 100 km/h, ideal for a 5.9 in a bus, returns about the same fuel consumption as our old camper van-10mpg or so. I may run a higher rpm governor spring later on for climbing in 3rd but it had enough power with the 180 hp rating. After trans, pyro and boost gauges are in I might bump it a bit, but don't think it actually needs any more power.

It kept smoking blue when it was cold but cleared as the motor warmed. I was hoping for an improvement with some exercise but no luck. The leak was up high on the back of the timing case, discovered there was no timing pin in it, leaving a 1/2" hole. Found a timing pin in the attic of a diesel shop in Pincher Creek, AB. Still dripping...

Spotted a crack in the timing case...

The first layout was ok but we found that we actually wanted the kitchen in the front, near the door. We were in and out to get stuff from the kitchen all the time and seating was in the way.

Decided that when we got back the layout would be kitchen at the front, dinette off to the passenger side in the middle, a door to the bunk/bed room. Then 2 sets of bunks forming a hallway and a raised queen bed for us with a small bathroom beside at the back and a couple beds below our bed (the little kid cave).

IMG_0051.JPG IMG_0049.jpg
Last edited:
Kitchen in the front is still temporary as of yet. It will get a counter top and cook stove, frige/freezer, and water system. We have found that trying things is the best design process, we don't expect to be done till this winter. Lights in and out are all led now.
Last edited:
Back to last year.

I decided it had been motored though enough bad roads, snow, city traffic, highway hours and back roads for a shakedown run.

Last winter it went into the shop to have the head off and take a look, plus deal with the cracked case. I had rebuilt the turbo and injectors that fall and suspected bad valve guides or other head issue as the blue haze was still with us. When the rad came off I found the timing case cover had a 2" hole where the oil fill would be on a truck! Debris and dirt could fall right into the engine.

So the head came off, the pan came off and it all got checked out. The machine shop put new valves, seats and guides in but nothing was too bad. The cylinders were glazed but measured nearly new, slight wear to the honing marks on port and starboard but not fore and aft, 0.001 out of round and a carbon ridge you could barely feel so it got de-glazed, new pistons/rings and bottom bearings, new oil pump, water pump, thermostats, etc and buttoned up.

Ran like a champ, no smoke, very quiet top end. Till the second break in run. Went to start it and heard a noise like a starter grinding but not from the starter location. This is what I found.

IMG_0046.jpg IMG_0043.jpg
Turns out Cummins re designed the injection pump drive gear to have a thicker centre section. Best guess is that it was cracked, torquing it to spec when the gear train went back together may have stressed it more and turned it into a grenade. At least it was at home when this all happened...

That thicker, re designed gear is in there now.
So that kinda leaves us at it's current state. We did a few little trips this year, we'll do more this fall now that the little one is settled and schools in session. We homeschool so when schools in, parks are empty and we go camping!!

The partly done permanent layout is much better and will be finished over the winter. I added bench seats with belts at the drivers station and by the door so it seats four at the front, the dinette seats four (travelling, has 4 belts, seats 8 for meals) and has seat belts in all the bottom bunks. Lots of divide and separate options :)

IMG_0048.jpg IMG_0050.jpg

HVAC is next, I have pondered all the popular options and my best solution is APU

It's a used, low hour auxiliary power unit from Canadian Extreme Climate Solutions. It's used on semis for hvac without running the main engine, it's a tiny Diesel engine mounted under the bus on the frame rails that drives a 6kw genset, an ac compressor and can supply heat via the coolant. It'll get ducted into the bus and is all made to be very durable. Puts out 20k btu cooling, 26k btu heat, 12v dc and 110v ac with controls in the bus. I also may put in a Planar bunk heater if we need it, we'll see. HVAC is still in the development stage you see ;-)
That's it for tonight, I will take pictures and edit these posts better later on. Progress will be slow until it goes into the shop this winter. The current project will be the apu and a few little things to try for a kitchen layout.

Actually here's the to do list, in no particular order and missing a bunch of stuff:

Trim work
Final kitchen layout
Add third battery
Install apu
Maybe install bunk heater or engine preheated or both??
Run overhead again, double check pump timing, maybe bump 1-2*
New door seals
Tint old bus windows
Make /hang curtains
Add doorknobs
Spray foam under bus and in wheel wells
Clean up all the old door alarm wiring and relays to simplify the fuse box
Add USB outlets in each bed
Add spotlights on mirrors for reversing
Add super cool drop visor
Blast and paint wheels
Install tire chain rack and fit up Tryggs
New mud flaps
Put big tow strap in bus
Get bus stuck to see how it does with chains ( bring tractor )
Pull out temporary kitchen and install permanent one
Maybe put on old mirrors for better convexes and heated mirrors
Dismantle and rebuild dash to integrate storage and better engine soundproofing
Maybe roo bumper for the front?
Spare tire rack under skirting
Underbody toolboxes at rear
Propane plumbing for exterior BBQ outlet
Install transmission temp, pyrometer, boost gauge

And whatever isn't on the list too
Last edited:
Quick update and APU pics, got installed awhile ago, have to wait on a main harness and run plumbing to run it.

Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
Also cleaned up unused heater hoses and mocked up where the auxiliary furnace will go. Planar diesel air heater, 26K btu.

Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk