A 1966 Crown Coach Conversion Story

It seems like 1975 was a long time ago. Al and Carole Puhlman started their love affair with motor homing even before that. In the 1960s, they shared with family members, of all things, a Corvair motorhome.

Good for about 50 MPH on the highway and providing very limited accommodations, the Puhlmans enjoyed traveling in it including a trip to Mazatlan, Mexico. But Al wasn’t satisfied with the odd little RV.

He wanted more space, more power, etc., etc., and I think we all understand that! In 1974, the Puhlmans tried again with a new Winnebago Chieftan.

Along with their boys, Chip and Scott, the Winnebago took them on dirt bike riding trips and family vacations throughout the west. But Al still wasn’t satisfied. This is where the story of the Puhlmans and their 1966 Crown HPO began.

Al had noticed a new but growing trend of converting commercial buses into motorhomes. These were the early days of conversions and the prospect of completing a conversion seemed far out of reach. Al wasn’t to be deterred. He just needed to find the right blank canvas.

One problem Al had as he started looking into purchasing an early bus was his height of 6’4”. The relatively low ceilings of early buses presented a problem. In a bus conversion, it is common practice to raise the floor to allow for plumbing and wiring to have a place to live, this compounded the headroom issue for Al. That’s about the time that a friend called and said he had found a very different bus that Al just had to see.

It was now 1975, and the Crown was sitting in a small group of other retired buses in a field in El Monte, California.

Rusty, flaking original paint and split ring wheels, it left a bit to be desired. Having never seen anything like it, Al said “It looks like a school bus driving out of a box”.

Built by the Crown Coach Corporation in Los Angeles, CA, the bus was designed with a large, boxy body behind the typical round Crown front end to be used as a mobile mail sorting station for the US Postal Service.

It was that tall body design that ultimately sealed the fate of this coach since its 7’0” ceiling height meant Al could raise the floor and still have adequate, comfortable headroom and a flat floor inside.

On blocks and ready for the first paint job in 1975.
The first graphics laid over Dupont Imron white urethane paint.

A deal was struck and Al limped the un-loved bus back home 30 or so miles away. Parked on the street in front of their home, it was a sight to behold. Carole told Al he had better come up with a plan to improve its looks or the neighbors were going to start complaining.

Al was an accomplished, hobbyist car painter, so he set off to beautify the exterior with its first paint job.

Freshly painted with polished original wheels, the old Crown was looking sharp.
Al carefully cleaned and painted the entire under-carriage of the bus in silver urethane paint.

Ultimately, the bus would be painted three more times but the first one screamed 1970’s cool! In addition to the paint job, Al cleaned up engine leaks, cleaned and painted the suspension, had the wheels polished, and basically made the bus roadworthy.

The interior still needed everything with the original mail sorting tables and bunk beds still in place. The family had a ball using the bus for family outings but it was far from livable for long-distance traveling.

In 1978, Al and Carole got serious about a full conversion on the bus when they met Bill Kingston of Kingston Coach Conversions in Santa Ana, California. Bill had made a name for himself as a premier converter in the 1970s.

The Crown arrived at his shop in late 1978 and a major transformation began. All systems were built from scratch using top-of-the-line materials and components. The rear of the bus was made into a bunkhouse for the Puhlmans’ boys complete with bunk beds, color TV, and their dinette that made into a bed if friends were along.

The front of the coach was converted from custom sofas into a king-size bed for mom and dad. Custom curved cabinetry was installed throughout the bus and the conversion was completed in late 1979.

The next paint job was also completed in Dupont Imron urethane paint. The Crown also earned its new name “Crown Royale”.

The bus was also repainted to go with its new interior, Western Star truck headlights were custom formed into the front bodywork and the bus was named “Crown Royale”. That name would endure the next 40 years.

Unfortunately, busy schedules didn’t allow the Puhlmans to use their new bus as much as planned and it went relatively unused for the next 10 years or so. Always kept garaged, the condition of the Crown remained flawless. In 1989, the Puhlmans made the tough decision to sell the bus for lack of use.

In preparation for the sale, changes were made to the interior to change the rear of the bus into a traditional bedroom unit with a queen size side mount bed, a mirrored wardrobe closet, and a lighted and mirrored vanity.

All work was completed by one of the original employees of Kingston Coach keeping the high level of quality and providing a seamless transition to the new design. This is where the story of the Crown turns to its next owner, Joe Pontremoli, at least for the next decade or so.

Joe owned a successful excavation company and had the time and resources to continue improving the now nearly 25-year-old bus. In a stroke of fate, the sale of the bus to Joe began a lasting friendship between him and Al that would become as close as family, as the years went by.

Al routinely traveled from his new home in Northern California to Joe’s place in Riverside, California to help Joe complete projects on the bus and generally stay in touch with the Crown.

Joe upgraded the earlier steering to a Ross power unit including a modern tilt and telescoping column. Joe also changed out the original 10-speed Road Ranger transmission to a modern 13-speed Eaton Fuller. 24.5” Alcoa wheels were also added making the old Crown a joy to drive.

The original Cummins NHH 220 engine had been rebuilt and turbocharged back in the early ’80s by the Puhlmans but with special tuning and cooling system upgrades, was now making well into the 300+ horsepower range allowing the Crown to easily keep up with traffic and stay cool on the hills thanks to a custom water spray bar system on the radiator that was operated from the driver’s seat.

The Crown was featured as “Miss December” in the December issue of Bus Conversions Magazine in 1992.

During Joe’s ownership of the Crown, he generously allowed Al and Carole to use the bus multiple times for vacations that they now had more time for. On a trip through Manhattan, New York while it still had the 13-speed, Eaton, Al knew that an automatic would probably be a great idea given the strain on his leg from the old heavy clutch in traffic.

That change would be one of the last major improvements to the bus while in Joe’s ownership. Joe and Al once again changed out the 13-speed transmission out for an Allison Automatic to make the old Crown a joy to drive.

Now it was time for the bus to move on from Joe as he also decided to sell it. And he found the perfect new owners. Al and Carole Puhlman bought the bus back in 1996 returning it to its home in the Puhlman family.

The Crown had undergone many changes in its life and Al and Carole decided it was time for some major interior updates. Al contacted the original converter, Bill Kingston, and even though he was no longer in business in Santa Ana, a deal was made for Bill to travel to the Puhlman home outside of Redding, California, and spend the next year plus living there and renovating the Crown once again.

This time major changes were on the list. Interior changes consisted of a new cockpit with a walnut burl dash and 25 gauges. The entry steps were fabricated by Kingston, a master at his craft, from Corian solid surface material.

The front salon was upgraded with matching Corian countertops, Villa leather sofas, and dinette, and an extensive home entertainment system including a 25” inch television that disappeared into a built-in cabinet on an electric lift complete with Bose Surround.

The cockpit, complete with walnut burl panels, 25 gauges, and a Leather captain’s chair.
The entry steps were fabricated from Corian solid surface material.
View from the galley forward during the second rebuild.
View from the front back to the galley.
The finished galley with Corian countertops, sink, and floors.
The bar and compactor cabinets.

The Kitchen was upgraded to a new Dometic side-by-side refrigerator with icemaker, glass cooktop, convection microwave oven, and even a bar with a counter-mounted electric liquor dispenser.

Many changes were needed to the custom cabinetry but the original laminate material was still available and used for continuity. Black Walnut trim was added throughout to bring a rich feel to the interior.

The restroom was updated with more Corian countertops and sink and a new porcelain toilet. Custom tiles were cut from the same Corian by Mr. Kingston for both the kitchen and bathroom floors and glued into place and grouted with epoxy grout for a beautiful and enduring flooring system.

Frame notched and reinforced for the new engine.
Custom-built heavy-duty engine mounts.
The big Cummins was put in

Even bigger changes came under the bus. Wanting more performance, Al located a Cummins BCII 400 and rebuilt it to give the Crown some real horsepower.

Extensive frame modifications were required including custom mounts and boxing and notching the frame to get the much larger engine up off the ground high in the chassis since it was laid on its side in the center of the bus in traditional Crown configuration.

An Allison HT754 transmission was sourced and rebuilt to handle the additional power of the new engine. Even bigger horsepower would be found in the Cummins when Al met Bruce Mallinson of Pittsburgh Power fame in Pennsylvania.

Eventually, Bruce helped Al achieve 600+ reliable, dyno-proven horsepower in the old bus. It was now truly a hotrod.

The third repaint in 1998.

This is the point when Al decided he wanted to slightly change the Crown’s original look. The old “school bus driving out of a box” was camouflaged a bit with the installation of an early Eagle bus front cap. The cap was simply installed over the original Crown bodywork so the original look is still there just under the surface.

The Crown was then treated to its third paint job, once again completed by Al at home with help from his sons. Just weeks after completion, Al, Carole, Bill Kingston, and family members took the bus to a bus conversion show in Las Vegas and won awards for Best Engineered Repower and Best Engine Bay.

It was 1998 and The Crown Royale II was ready for the road. Al and Carole toured the U.S. for the next 10 years in the bus logging nearly 140K miles in the process.

The Puhlmans and their old Crown made friends everywhere they went. Al’s son Scott was also able to use the bus to vacation with his wife Deanna and young daughter Samantha.

It was truly a pleasure to use and live in and created quite a group of fans at the campgrounds. Many higher-end bus owners, Prevost’s, Newell’s, etc., just wanted to know “what is it”?

The old bus seemed to have an allure that drew attention wherever it went. Al was always working on the bus and it became even more of a passion and life’s work as the years went by.

The most recent exterior
restoration started at bare metal.

Now approaching their 70s with a bus that was just starting to show its age again, Al decided it may be time for another facelift. Al was always a custom car and hotrod guy and he decided it was time for the bus to look the way it ran and drove.

Al commissioned a local truck painting company to help with the cosmetic restoration. The bus was chemically stripped to bare metal and any panel showing any sign of damage or corrosion was fabricated and properly riveted into place.

The final paint job to suit the bus’ “hotrod” personality.
The front salon is comfortable and elegant.
Corvette taillights and license plate holder and custom lettering.

A year-long process had the bus in fresh black basecoat with better than new aluminum and steel bodywork. Al and his son Scott also fabricated a panel to utilize Corvette Z06 tail lights and license plate panel, a nod to Al’s love of Corvettes.

Then Al and Scott finished the custom paint with old school House of Kolor candy flames and multiple layers of clear coat, again, all done at home. The bus was then color sanded, buffed, pinstriped, and lettered, and the Crown Royale III was unveiled.

The Puhlmans continued their love of motor homing and the Crown took up a prominent position among the family’s car collection, enjoying a life of special trips and shows.

Al passed away suddenly in 2017 and his son Scott continues to keep the now 55-year-old bus in top condition. Recently, the engine was removed and reinstalled to complete major maintenance on all engine bay hoses, belts, etc.

All ten airbags were showing their age and Firestone was commissioned to build new ones. Brakes, airlines, wheel bearings, tires, batteries, and other wear items were inspected and replaced as needed.

All in all, the old bus is new once again and ready to take on whatever its next adventure holds. The license plates read “IMACRWN” which helps a bit when people still ask “What is it”?

This bus is for sale! Click HERE to see the listing.

By Al and Carole Puhlman’s son Scott Puhlman

Scott and his wife Deanna, like his parents, have been together since high school. They have been running the Puhlman family manufacturing business in Anderson, California for 25 years and have been joined in the business by their daughter, Samantha, and her fiancé, Jack.

When not busy with their business, Scott and Deanna are avid classic and custom car builders and pride themselves on doing nearly all of the work themselves in their home shop. They enjoy traveling the country in their coach and are always on the hunt for their next project.

If you have any questions, you can contact Scott Puhlman via email:
Scott@outdoorcreations.com

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