Updated: Aug 20
" We are keen to buy an American Schoolbus and convert in the Netherlands. Are you ok with that?"
How did my mum & dad take to the news that we had purchased an American school bus? To find out what their views were, I asked my dad to write a blog post. (He wrote it in Dutch, so here is my best Dutch-English translation)
By Ad Kraaijeveld
We first heard about the American School bus dream during our weekly phone call in the beginning of September 2017. Our daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren who live in Singapore were apparently about to buy one. How would you feel about us converting one into a campervan? What do you guys think? Well....., we had to give that some thought....
After the call, my wife and I looked at each other and said: “Is that a smart thing to do? Buying a bus on the other side of the world without even seeing it? Can you trust the seller? What about the transport & import arrangements? Where would it be parked? What about the engine? How are they going to convert it? How much time would that take? And above all how much is that 'little' project going to cost? Wouldn't it be much easier to rent a campervan for a few weeks? Wouldn't a modern camper be much more comfortable and cheaper - and even more importantly - it would save them a few 'headaches'?
Well, we were convinced it would stick to a bit of dreaming and this surreal plan of converting a school bus would pass. However, a few weeks later we received (in our eyes) slightly troubling phone call. Enthusiastically we were told the school bus purchase had gone ahead. They were convinced it was an excellent buy after exchanging a few emails with the owner, viewing a few photos and some videos.
A few days later we received a video and a few details about the bus:
International 3800 TE44, (TE stands for 44 seats)
length 7 meters,
7000 CC / 8 Cylinder diesel engine,
Place: Sisseton, South Dakota, USA.
The colour 'Blue' puzzled us - isn't an American School bus yellow? Later we learnt that a school bus which is not in service can't be yellow and therefore many of them are given a quick makeover.
The plan was that the bus would be loaded on a trailer and be driven to Galveston, the harbour of Houston, a journey of almost 20 hours (1,282 Miles / 2063 km). It would then be shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to the harbour of 'Zeebrugge', Belgium. It would then be picked up by a truck and put on a trailer and dropped off at its new home, the village we live in.
In December 2017, the family arrived in the Netherlands for a short winter holiday expecting the bus to arrive any day...., it had arrived in 'Zeebrugge' but the customs formalities took longer than expected. Frank made endless phone calls to the import company, and finally, 2 days before returning to Singapore the bus was released from customs.
You can imagine our Christmas and New Year's holidays were full of lively conversations and discussions on how we were going to resolve a number of 'challenges'. One thing they were sure of, the bus was going to be called 'LYFE', using the initials of their first names.
Challenge 1: Where would the bus be parked?
Luckily, challenge 1 was solved quickly. An unexpected chat with a friendly neighbour resulted in an offer to park the bus at his house for 6 months in exchange for a reasonable fee. This would provide an opportunity to conveniently work on the conversion as well. What a relief! Challenge 1 was solved!
Finally, on Monday 8 January 2018, the phone rang and the importer confirmed the bus was on the way to Putte! Excitement all around. It was immediately decided to wait for the truck along the road it would pass. And yes, halfway on the main road from Stabroek, there it was! A gigantic yellow trailer with a blue American Schoolbus on the back. Of course, it was followed 'home' and the historic moment was filmed. The trailer stopped at a parking area not far from home. The driver got out and said how difficult it was to get the bus out of the harbour in Zeebrugge. Customs weren't very cooperative! He continued to tell us that the bus did not start. Anyway, the bus was carefully and very slowly winched off the trailer. It didn't start but the bus had arrived on Dutch soil!
The ignition was turned on and indeed, it stayed very quiet, flat battery...., what next? The truck driver offered some help; he knew a 'truck' road assistance company based in Roosendaal. We phoned them and within an hour the road assistance arrived. After messing around with starter cables and many starting attempts, finally .... a 'Eureka moment' and a rumbling sound from the bonnet! My grandsons jumped up in the air, with high-fives and hugs all around.
With confidence my son-in-law, Frank sat down in the driver's seat and drove the bus, (about 500m) to the parking spot we had negotiated with our friendly neighbour. It was a perfect fit. The first 'bus ride' was made!
Everyone inspected the bus in detail. A little frown here and there. Yes, it was quite obvious the bus was 22 years old. My grandsons immediately got busy removing the first 2 rows of seats. (the other rows had been removed already) Not an easy task but I was amazed at how they took their roles of bus converters seriously and disassembled them.
During the inspection, a window handle broke off. Frank later (surprisingly quickly) managed to order a brand-new one online. We also noticed the front tires were worn out. Part of the door and stairs were eroded. Anyway, once again - it wasn't a new bus!
The next day the bus didn't start again, but after some expert advice from a local car parts shop we managed to get it started. On the 10th of January, the holiday was over for the 'LYFE' family. The bus was covered in a large tarpaulin, which in hindsight proved quite practical. The next few months we experienced heavy winter weather with snow and hailstorms.
Frank had planned to demolish the wooden floor that was on top of the steel floor and had purchased a huge crowbar. I wasn't convinced this wasn't necessary and told Frank not to demolish it. Luckily we didn't as we could see from under the bus the steel floor was in great shape and the wooden floor ended up being an excellent foundation to build the construction of the frame on.
Challenge 2 - The conversion
Coincidentally we have a carpenter living a few houses down. I asked him if he would be interested in a project to help build a framework inside the bus according to a "plan". He very happily took on the project! Challenge 2 was solved!
In the spring of 2018, when the weather got better, the framework construction started. A 'Playbook' was designed with exact frame measurements. There was a clear plan on what would go where. In the Netherlands, there are strict regulations in regard to the interior of a camper. These are clearly outlined on the website. (e.g table/kitchen/beds/water/storage etc)
We decided on the materials that needed to be purchased for the wooden frame and the countless screws & nuts. The work could start!
However, when the carpenter started there was one problem. He couldn't; use his leveller anywhere around the bus.Hmmmmmm..... why was that? Was it the built? I soon found a solution, and suggested build along the window frames. That was easy - and in no time we had a solid framework! Later we realised the bus parking spot wasn't very levelled!
The carpenter built the frame in his free time and the wooden frame was incredibly professionaly put together. The frame does not contain any steel hooks but solid screws and wooden connections. In order to make sure nothing would rattle while driving, rubber fittings were added to all connecting points of the frame. Until now the frame is solid as a rock!
During Easter 2018 our daughter and grandsons arrived. Yannick and Luc who were attending a Distance education school in Australia had to attend classes till late; they weren't on holiday just yet. But a week later they were helping out painting the bus in & outside.
In the summer of 2018, it was all hands-on deck to complete the conversion. Everyone was busy from early morning till late at night. The bus was painted a turquoise type of blue and the framework, including the plywood was painted white. The kitchen and toilet door were only lightly varnished. The countertop in the kitchen was found at a hardware store in Belgium.
However, the starting problems remained due to the old batteries. New ones were ordered at the local car part shop in the village.
After the summer the bus had to be moved. The parking space had only been for 6 months but still, quite a lot of work had to be done - especially the painting of all the panelling. Luckily my brother was very generous and he allowed us to have the bus parked on the drive of his house for a few months.
A neighbour with a truck driving licence parked the bus at my brother's house. However, after that, we would need to find another spot. Luckily, the owners of the local car part shop had a caravan parking at their house and they agreed the bus could be parked there for 6 months. It worked out again!
The front tires were worn out and had to be replaced. We ordered 2 new tires and a tire mechanic put the front of the bus on blocks to take the wheels off. All went well with the right front tire, but the left front tire gave considerable problems. What the mechanic didn't know, but should have known, is that the nuts from the left wheel had to be loosened clockwise. I was informed by a more experienced mechanic later that he damaged the wheel bots. The tire shop, after some discussions, promised they would not charge for the further follow up. They ended up driving back and forth about 3 times to get the 2 front tires fixed!
How are we going to get the bus inspected?
We now had to look for a garage that could get the bus technically/mechanically in order and get it ready for the strict inspection that would follow. At the beginning of February, I had a chat at a garage only a 10-minute drive from home.The second tire mechanic had recommended the garage, as he had worked there for 15 years.
They were experienced in preparing an American School bus for an inspection as they had done so for a family from Antwerp. The owner of the garage double-checked the year of the bus and had some good news. He said '1997'. Well, then you're really lucky! Because after 1997 there are much stricter rules on the import of American school buses, making the import process much more complicated!
On Saturday, 24 February the bus was collected. They were also licenced to inspect trucks. They however appreciated the fact that it wasn't urgent. They needed time to order original parts if that was required. And this was necessary! Both headlights required city light units and 6 reflectors were ordered in the US. They also ordered new wheel bolts. New back tires were also required and the exact same ones were bought second-hand. The exhaust pipe had to be completely replaced and the muffler as well, these were replaced by using used parts that the Garage creatively managed to find.
RDW Keuring - the inspection!
At the end of April I received a phone call that we had a date for the inspection. On 6 May at 13:00 hours.
When May 6th arrived, the Garage owner, 'Jan' drove the bus and I drove behind it in my car. We had to go to the inspection centre of the 'RDW' in Roosendaal. Only imported vehicles are inspected there.
The bus was driven above the inspection pit. First, an inspector went in with his checklist to check the interior. He took quite a long time, didn't say anything and we couldn't read his stoic face when he came out of the bus. Were there any issues? I guess not - it must be ok because everything really needs to be 100% in order. And if not, you can go home again and you've lost your EUR 300- ...
Then it was time for the mechanical inspection. First the lights, all of them obviously have to be in perfect working order, if any part fails, the entire inspection will fail. After that the tires were inspected, then the brakes, suspension, muffler, exhaust gas test, and steering gear. All the instructions were carefully followed, and the inspector took down all the results. It was nerve-wracking. Everything stayed quiet and I really couldn't tell where all of this was going. Of course, I was curious, but I kept my distance and tried to remain calm. Every once in a while, I'd take a photo. After about 45 minutes the inspector had apparently completed all the tests and he walked out.
Jan and I were left in suspense. What did this mean? After a short while the inspector returned with a device in his hand. Jan winked and whispered that this meant good news!
The hood had to be opened again, the device was installed against a steel beam of the chassis, and a moment later it started to rattle very loudly the VEHICLE IDENTIFICATION NUMBER 1HVBBABM9VH468756 was a fact! LYFE the bus had passed the inspection! That rattling was the nicest sound I have heard after the start of the engine on January 8, 2018.
The bus was driven outside of the inspection centre and the inspector typed all the data of the bus and the test result for the application of the license plate registration at the RDW.
The bus was officially registered on May 20, 2019 just in time for its first road trip in the summer of 2019! The bus is now registered as a camper van.