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Bruce Fay
June 3, 2024
126 views

Iron Horse – Wild West Elegance

I had the opportunity to meet Jimmy and Sadie Clay at the Arcadia Bus Rally 2014 in Arcadia, Florida between Christmas (2013) and New Year’s. [See the February 2014 issue for an extensive article on this rally.] There were almost 100 converted buses there, but one that stood out for me was their Iron Horse, a 1984 Model 10 Eagle with a 12 inch roof raise.

With its deep red upper body paint and anodized aluminum lower panels the profile was quite striking. The name “Iron Horse” was on the side done in gold and black western type. The bus was open to visitors for much of the rally, and one peek inside the entrance door told me that this conversion was going to be very unique. They were gracious in allowing me to photograph their bus and interview them at length about how it came to be the Iron Horse.

Getting the Converted Bus Bug

I am always curious how people come to own and convert a bus. Jimmy and Sadie were in Myrtle Beach, North Carolina and saw a converted bus. They looked at it out of curiosity, but it wasn’t very nice, and they did not give it any more thought at the time. Around the same time Sadie’s brother and sister-in-law, Ronnie & Diann Mewbourn, were looking for a motorhome. They found one that Diann really liked, and then Ronnie came home with a Model 01 Eagle bus. Jimmy and Sadie helped Ronnie and Diann convert it and then the four of them took it to Alaska. Sadie told me that it was a very nice conversion and that the trip to Alaska convinced them that they also wanted to do a bus conversion.

The Iron Horse was not the Clay’s first bus conversion, but it is the first one they have finished. In 1999, they bought a GMC PD4106 with a bad engine. They did a little work on that bus, but the project was delayed by the bad engine.

In 2000, they bought a 1994 Triple E Class A motorhome to use while converting the 4106. Jimmy ultimately decided not to finish the 4106 because of the engine and bought a 1964 MCI MC-5A to convert.

By 2003, he had converted it up to the point where they were going to start on “the pretty stuff” when a Model 10 Eagle seated coach became available in north Alabama. They had looked at that same Eagle before buying the MCI, but it was out of their price range at the time. The Eagle’s engine was blown, but the bus was in good shape, so they bought it. They sold the partially converted MC-5 quickly via the Internet.

Jimmy bought a used DD 6V92 engine from a truck salvage company and by January 2004 had it installed and running. They test drove it 15 miles to a local truck stop for breakfast. It ran well, so they decided to keep it and started gutting the interior in preparation for raising the roof 12 inches and converting the interior.

Creating Headroom

Jimmy told me that raising the roof was one of the easiest parts of the project, consistent with what I have heard and read about converting Eagles. Jimmy borrowed two transmission jacks from the Ford dealership, one for the front and one for the rear. He built four guides for each side and secured them. He then used a Sawzall to cut all of the vertical members including the steel around the windows and above the windshield. Sadie measured the spaces and cut 12-inch long pieces of square steel tubing using a chop saw. Jimmy welded them in place. They had a large, enclosed garage for their tools and work tables, but all of the conversion work was done under a 16-foot wide by 40-foot long “car port”; under a roof but open on the sides.

The interior ceiling is six inches below the roof providing six inches of additional headroom over the stock bus and creating lots of room for concealed electrical wiring and air-conditioning ducts. All of the house electrical wiring runs through a chase in the center of the ceiling and then branches out and runs across to the walls and down to where it is needed. The chase is covered with panels that are easily removed for maintenance, but is not obvious in the finished interior.

Building the Interior

Jimmy and Sadie wanted to get it right the first time, so they designed the interior on paper, measured carefully, and mocked up the interior using cardboard and quarter inch plywood before committing to more permanent and expensive construction. However, following the advice of other converters (or perhaps their own instincts) they did not wait until they were done to use the bus.

Their first camping trip in the bus was planned as a 3-day weekend with a few loose interior furnishings. Even with lawn furniture, and rain for five of the eight days, they shared what they were doing with interested onlookers, and it was a very satisfying outing. They returned home more excited than ever about finishing the conversion.

I asked them “why a train car?” They said it was what they had wanted to do from the beginning. They “liked the Old Wild West and thought it would be something elegant for two old people to travel in.” (Their words, not mine.) They had been collecting train hardware for a while and picked up RV parts at surplus and salvage outlets in Elkhart, Indiana and McKinney’s RV in Red Bay, Alabama (a major seller of Tiffin surplus parts).

They built and finished the interior from the rear to front to avoid damaging work that was already done. To date they have not had to tear out and redo anything. I asked what their greatest challenge was in creating the interior, and Jimmy was quick to say that it was cutting wood to fit the curved spaces created by raising the roof. He admitted that it took them some extra wood to get the fit they wanted, but seeing the interior, it was worth the extra effort. The attention to detail in this coach is amazing.

The interior layout is actually fairly standard, but you are unaware of that when visiting. The bedroom is in the rear and features a mural on the rear wall. The mural gives the appearance that you are standing on the rear platform of the last car of a train that is traveling through the old west. Carpeting is a deep red color and is offset with gold colored accents in keeping with the Victorian sense of décor that was prevalent in the late 19th century.

Jimmy and Sadie in the parlor (view looking rearward)
Jimmy and Sadie in the parlor
(view looking rearward)
The parlor (view looking forward)
The parlor
(view looking forward)
The parlor ceiling
The parlor ceiling
The galley
The galley

The bathroom comes next and then the galley mid coach. This area features a white grained marble floor. The cabinets, shelving, hardware, and fixtures look “old” and are period appropriate as much as possible. No hand pumps for the water, however; the plumbing is modern, albeit mostly out of sight.

The “living room” is designed like the parlor of a private train car. It is not completely open to the driving compartment, which is a bit more difficult to make look like the cab of a locomotive. The parlor has a “tin” ceiling, three comfortable chairs, and a table. There is shelving in one corner, and a “faux” bookcase with leather bound books in another. But one of Sadie’s favorite interior features is the antique “fainting sofa.”

It has an authentic appearance but includes concealed storage space underneath. Jimmy and Sadie have even gone so far as to create authentic looking certificates and posters in which the names and initials have something to do with their family. While the interior just looks neat to the casual visitor every detail is intentional and has meaning to them; even their clothing reflects the “style” of the period.

Bedroom rear wall mural (The three panels are cabinet doors with storage behind.)
Bedroom rear wall mural
Bathroom Vanity
Bathroom Vanity
Bathroom Storage
Bathroom Storage

One of the interesting things they did was to use old suitcases, boxes, and trunks that had a period appearance to “decorate” the interior. But no bus conversion has the room for such decorations, so all of these containers are used for storage. They even have a real safe that looks like it might have actually come from a 19th century train car. It’s firmly bolted to the chassis just behind the driver’s seat and serves as a file and storage cabinet. The interior of the Iron Horse is not just for show; it is a fully functional and efficient living space. Although the coach is designed to sleep two, it will accommodate six adults for dinner.

The Systems

The Iron Horse has a 120V AC electric hot water heater and two roof mounted 15,000 BTU air conditioner/heat pumps. A small electric fireplace also provides heat and ambiance in the front Pullman Parlor. But it is not an “all electric” conversion. It uses propane for space heating (RV furnace) and cooking (two burner cooktop). The furnace is controlled by a Duo Therm controller.

To support its electrical needs when not plugged in it has a 10 KW Onan Quiet Diesel generator. It has two 12V DC Group 31 gel cell house batteries with a converter/charger but does not have an inverter or solar panels. While there are a few RV downlights in the ceiling, much of the lighting is provided by brass lamps and wall fixtures that match the theme of the interior.

One of the neater features of the conversion is the leveling system. It’s a 4-point manual system designed and built by Jimmy using off the shelf parts from Tractor Supply Company and other sources. It’s controlled by four levers to the left of the driver’s seat that look like they could have been removed from an old locomotive.

The Iron Horseasan Attraction

Although Jimmy and Sadie lived in a very rural corner of Alabama, their bus project was very visible from the highway that ran in front of their home. As the project progressed more and more people stopped to see what they were doing. As Sadie told me, “folks didn’t see that kind of thing much in those parts.”

They even had a gospel singing group stop once. When she realized they were going to continue having visitors she started a guest book. She’s on her second one now and keeps it by the front door. I signed it, along with everyone else who toured the Iron Horse at the Arcadia Rally. She said she still sends an occasional post card to some of the folks who have signed it over the years.

Jimmy and Sadie Now

Although Jimmy and Sadie had owned two buses and a motorhome before buying the Eagle, the Eagle was the first conversion project they actually finished. When they started the Eagle conversion Jimmy was an auto mechanic at a local Ford dealership in northeast Alabama and Sadie was a R.N. In 2005, they bought 16 acres of land in west central Tennessee just seven miles from their home in Alabama.

They built a small log cabin style home, a large bus barn/shop, and put in three 50A full hookup sites. The cabin also features an Old Wild West décor. They named the cabin the “Eagle’s Nest Stage Coach Inn” and much of what is not bolted down is interchangeable between the cabin and the bus.

When Jimmy retired in 2005 after 30 years, the Clays started traveling approximately six months of the year even though the bus conversion was not finished. They have primarily traveled to Florida, Texas, Arizona, and California during October through May. They like to do volunteer work when on the road, especially camp hosting, program activities, and maintenance in Florida and Texas state parks. Their favorite parks are Big Lagoon SP in Perdido Key (Pensacola, FL area) and Wekiwa Springs SP in Apopka (north of Orlando, FL).

They have returned to both parks every year for the last eight years where they stay for up to two months in exchange for their campsite and 10 hours of work per week (each). They have learned the surrounding communities well and enjoy helping first time campers with information about the local area and its attractions. (Their daughter is the director of the Perdido Key Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center.)

They have also developed a circle of volunteer friends who are doing the same thing at the same or nearby parks. They are friendly, helpful, welcoming people, and I have no doubt they are very good at this work. Their favorite way to say goodbye is “Happy trails to you until we meet again.”

You can reach Jimmy and Sadie by e-mail at SadieClay@aol.com and JClay4106@aol.com.

Specifications
Specifications
Chassis:
Manufacturer:Eagle Bus Company
Model:10
Year:1984
Vehicle Weight:34,500 pounds
Overall Length:40’
Overall Width:96”
Overall Height:13’
Outside Color:Anodized Aluminum bays/lower siding and “Lohle Red” aircraft paint above.
Conversion:
Type:RV
Converted By:Self converted - Jimmy & Sadie Clay
Interior Theme:1890’s “Wild Wild West” Pullman train car
Special Features:
Hydraulic leveling jacks, designed by Jimmy.
A genuine antique safe - used for storage.
Powertrain:
Engine:Detroit Diesel 6V92T
Transmission:Allison HT-740 Automatic
Power Steering:Yes
Suspension:Torsalastic
Brakes:Air
Wheels:Aluminum
Body Modifications:
Raised Roof:12”
Updated Front Cap:Yes
Updated Rear Cap:Yes
Slide Outs:None
Windows:Steel Framed RV Slider
Electrical:
Power:12VDC, 120VAC
House Batteries:2-Group 31, +12V Gel Cell batteries in parallel
Converter/Charger:Yes
Inverter:None
Generator:Onan 10KW Quiet Diesel with exhaust routed up through roof
Shore power:50A
Kitchen:
Stove:2-burner propane cooktop
Oven:Microwave/Convection
Sink:Double Basin
HVAC:
Heat:Propane RV furnace
Heat/Cool:(2) Roof A/C & Heat Pump
Vents:(2) Kitchen & Bath
Plumbing:
Pipe Material:CPVC
Tank Material:Plastic fresh, stainless waste tanks
Water Heater:10 Gal. Electric
Tank Capacities:
Fuel:146 Gallons
Propane:(2) 20 Gallon portable tanks
Fresh Water:65 Gallons
Waste Water (Black):40 Gallons
Waste Water (Grey):40 Gallons
Article written by Bruce Fay

Dr. Bruce Fay is a retired educational assessment and evaluation consultant and a former electrical engineer, photographer, and teacher. Linda is a retired CPA & corporate controller. They live in SE. Michigan, and started traveling North America in their 1990 Prevost H3-40 coach conversion in June 2013.

Their website and blog are at
http://www.omnibus-mi.us.

They can be reached at us@omnibus-mi.us.

Click HERE to read other articles by this Author
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