Buying our Baby
On April 4, 2017, we drove our new bus back to Princeton, New Jersey from Philadelphia.
Our bus, a 40-foot 1998 Thomas Transit-Liner, had been purchased from Drexel University on govdeals.com nearly a month earlier. After tons of back-and forth, we were finally able to coordinate a pickup day. (If anyone is thinking of buying a bus from Drexel, our bureaucratic experience with them was quite bad. Buyer beware!)
We woke up early that Tuesday and drove out to Philadelphia in 2 cars, only to be met with a torrential downpour and fog that occluded our view only 50 meters in front of us. Not a good start to the day! Never having driven the bus, I was worried about spinning out on the highway. As we pulled in to Drexel's campus, beautiful sight greeted us: our bus idling contentedly in the parking lot! After running around on a wild goose chase to find out where the auction manager was, and soaking ourselves in the process, we decided to wait in the bus. A couple hours later, he showed up in a minivan.
We four piled into his minivan and drove through flooded streets to some sort of private licensing company - they basically charged $105.00 to take our information, send it to the government, and get us a temporary plate. I'm told that temp plates in PA go for something like $20. Fun tip: they did not require a CDL! I made sure to call the DMV ahead of time, and the woman I spoke to assured me that we did not need one to purchase the bus. While our auction manager assured us otherwise, and the "private DMV" scared me a bit, everything worked out well. Even though the auction manager was considerably worried none of us had a CDL or even experience driving such a large vehicle.
After some more bureaucratic difficulties, I finally signed the bill of sale, the vehicle title, and the liability release form with an uncontrollable grin on my face. The moment I signed the papers, I shit you not, the clouds parted and the skies turned the clearest blue I have ever seen. The bus gods were smiling down upon us.
We drove back to the parking lot, the auction manager handed us the key, and before leaving, he gave us a worried look and said "Wide turns, right?". With a nod of my head, he sighed and left. The bus was ours! We celebrated with some lunch from a food truck, then got to work.
We checked essential functions of the bus: tire pressure, oil, coolant, and transmission fluid levels, brake lights, turn signals, horn and steering. I also checked the cockpit and made sure to familiarize myself with the controls. We turned the key and the engine roared to life with no hesitation. One weird problem: the throttle made a hissing noise proportional to the amount the pedal was depressed. We thought "eh, probably fine." The parking lot, unfortunately, was too small to practice driving in, so I sorta braced myself and pulled straight out onto the road with ZERO experience having driven anything so large.
Let me tell you, it drove like a dream. The steering was tight, the throttle was super responsive, and the air brakes brought the bus to a quicker stop than most cars I have driven. But, damn, those turns need to be WIDE! Taking the first turn with maybe a little too much confidence, I swung the front hard, and scared a pedestrian standing on the corner as we approached - she staggered backward as she made eye contact with me, a clearly college-aged student driving such a massive vehicle.
The drive home was mostly uneventful, if not longer than necessary, because I only wanted to make left turns. Merging onto the highway was a bit of a chore, but luckily my two follow cars would carve out a space for me before merging and my friend navigated for me, which was extremely helpful to navigate the complicated on-ramps and exits to get out of the city. Everything was going well, through stop and go traffic, but we started to lose power on the highway - we would depress the throttle, and the bus would not accelerate. The engine wouldn't rev at all. I broke into a sweat and carefully pulled over, the two follow cars and I with hazards on. We could figure nothing out even after discussing and poking around for 15 minutes. I got back in the bus, tapped on the accelerator, and the engine revved again. We pulled back onto the highway, hoping for the best, and the bus did well for a bit, started losing power again, then did fine as soon as we pulled onto the freeway and out of the traffic jam. No problems, as we drove the bus up to highway speeds, it performed wonderfully! Rode like a dream cruising down the highway.
It turns out that the source of our problem was in the pneumatic throttle system. Instead of a cable or electronics, the throttle is actually an air valve that controls a cylinder in the rear of the bus connected to the fuel pump. The valve under the throttle pedal was leaky, and the whooshing noise we dismissed earlier was basically air draining straight out of our accessory tank. (NOT our air brake tank: confirmed with the air gauges.) If the engine needed a lot of gas, the air would leak out faster than the compressor could replenish it. This is why waiting around for a bit improved the problem. Luckily, not a big problem!
We pulled into Princeton after a short 1-hour drive. Once around campus, I let my friends drive slowly down wide, low-traffic roads. We fiddled around with the wheelchair lift, which was huge fun. After a victory lap around campus, and showing off to all my friends, we parked the bus for the night and bid her goodnight. Demolition could not begin soon enough.
At the end of every blog post, we want to include some of the more technical details that are glossed over in the more readable post. Here are some of the difficulties we encountered when buying the bus, and our advice for anyone intending to do the same.
Most of our trouble during this period arose because of legal difficulties. This is because of the legal gray area the purchase and transportation of a bus lies in. In most cases, a CDL is required for any vehicle that is over a certain length, over a certain weight, uses air brakes, or is used for transporting above a certain number of passengers or for profit. How do we fit into these requirements? Well, you squarely need a CDL to drive a "bus". That being said, if you re-register the bus as a motor home, none of these requirements apply to you, and you are allowed to drive the exact same vehicle, just with a different name. More on this later. However, getting the plates from such a registration before you have obtained the vehicle is difficult.
As such, we were never able to find a place that could provide temporary insurance for just a day. We also could not find any places that would cover the bus before it was fully converted. As such, we decided to drive home with no temporary insurance. However, I am covered as a driver. This is an important distinction, and means that you don't get ticketed for being an "uninsured driver" should you be pulled over. Talk to your insurance agency/DMVs to suss out the precise terms.
We did drive home with temp plates, as mentioned in the article. We made sure to call ahead to the PA DMV and make sure that the bus could be purchased, and the the registration could be transferred, WITHOUT a CDL. Make sure to get this in writing. Once we got to the agency, they never asked for a CDL, but it was good to have the backup. We also made sure to post "In transit: not for hire" In a bunch of our windows, just to clarify that we are doing none of the above.
However, standard disclaimer: take our advice on this matter with a grain of salt. Call the DMV in all the states you'll be driving through ahead of time. Get things IN WRITING, and make sure you know the name of the person you talked to.
Other than that, make sure you have familiarized yourself with the controls of the bus. Learn, in advance, what all the gauges mean, what their "safe ranges" are, what all the buttons do, etc. Pull dipsticks and check fluid levels: transmission, coolant, oil and obviously fuel are especially important. I'd recommend bringing and SCA test kit for the coolant. If you're making a longer trip, I would check dates on filters or check maintenance history, and possibly bring an extra fuel filter.
Also, make sure you know how to properly operate air brakes. In terms of function, they are pretty similar to normal brakes, with the exception of the parking brake. However, you need to know how they are affected by the air pressure in your tanks, and how to do an air brake test before taking your bus on the road. This should be part of your pre-trip inspection, which is especially important for a bus you're just getting to know. In the pre-trip inspection, you'll be checking tire pressure, fluid levels, lights, engine function, etc. It's important that you know about the systems on your bus, and to make sure nothing will fail on the road. At the bottom of this post, I'll include links for some good examples of a pre-trip checklist.
As for actually driving the bus, take things slow. If possible, have multiple people with you for support: ideally one in the bus for navigation, and one or two cars accompanying in front and behind, communicating with the partner in the bus. They can tell you about your alignment in the road, traffic conditions, etc. They can also help you out with blind spots, and making sure you have room to move over in crowded conditions. Additionally, and this is the most important, if your bus breaks down and you need to get somewhere for whatever reason, you need cars to do so. Perhaps the cause of the breakdown is easily fixable. You can avoid a pricey tow if your friends can take a trip to the hardware store to buy what you need. That being said, bring tools with you! At a minimum, I'd suggest a set of spanners, sockets, a drill with drill and driver bits, emergency lighting/traffic cones, wire, wire strippers, electrical tape, multimeter, and various hand tools like a razor, pliers, etc. Luckily, we didn't need any of these, even with the difficulty with our throttle.
While driving, stay alert, go slow, maintain much more following distance than you would with a car, stick to the right lane, and take left turns if possible until you get a feel for the sharpest turning radius you can achieve. However, surprisingly, I did not find driving a bus as difficult as expected.
In short, it pays to be extremely cautious. You're driving a heavy vehicle, and safety of yourself and others is paramount. Get to know the systems, practice driving, and have people on hand for assistance. That way, worst comes to worst, there will be no problems that are not reversible. Good luck!