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Luis and Rosa Chavez
December 30, 2023
453 views

BB2 – a 1988 MCI 102-A3 – a Bus Converter’s Work Is Never Done

Rosita was my teenage sweetheart when I graduated from high school in 1966, Vietnam was in full swing, and I had subsequently joined the Navy. We soon married after my discharge in 1969, and promptly hired on with what was then Pacific Bell telephone company.

Soon after our first child was born, we purchased a van for camping. We often thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we had more room, like in an old bread truck? Even better, how about a bus!”

Our dream was born, but at the time we were cash poor, with working full-time and raising a family we put the dream on the back burner. Also, we didn’t have the wherewithal or time to take on a project of such magnitude.

Instead, we did the next best thing and bought a truck camper, then called a Minnie Winnie. Finally in 1996 after deciding we still didn’t have the time to convert a bus, we purchased a 35-foot Class A motorhome.

In 2001, Ma Bell made me an offer we couldn’t refuse, so I retired and landed a part-time job with SBC (Southwestern Bell Corporation) and we started a small stained-glass business. Finally, we had time to convert a bus, and what better way to learn about buses than to drive them and be around people that know and understand these huge and wonderful vehicles.

I applied for a Class A license and was hired on part-time with a local bus tour company (Sundance Stage Lines). We were supposed to be retired, but with three part-time jobs, this retirement thing was not all it’s cracked up to be.

We like to go to the desert and ride motorcycles and dune buggies and love to kick back at the beach as well. Also, when we visit relatives or friends, we like to take our home with us. By providing our own accommodations, we don’t infringe on their space.

We’ve owned campers and motorhomes practically all our lives, so consequently, we know our needs and what we want. Back in July of 2004, we sold our 35-footer and bought ‘BB2’ (Big Bus 2), a 1988 MCI 102-A3, with a Detroit Diesel 6V92 Detroit Diesel turbo engine and an automatic transmission. Note: ‘BB l’ (Big Blue I) is our full-dress Harley that we purchased as a retirement present to us, from us.

The first item of business was to take the bus down to our friends at Sundance Stage Lines. They are not in the business of evaluating and fixing buses, but they made an exception in our case, and they have the personnel that can do it all. Their expertise with buses, especially MCIs was invaluable. After changing all the fluids, adjusting the brakes, and thoroughly checking out all the systems, they deemed our bus worthy of converting.

Rosita and I knew we were about to embark on a large project and figured that the most challenging part would be the planning and coordination of all the tasks that had to be accomplished. If we could do this project and still live under the same roof afterward, we knew we would make it. At this point, just because you’ve made it through 35 years of marriage doesn’t mean anything.

BB2 as she was when we first brought her home.

One big challenge would be to plan the sequence of events in such a way as to not have to redo completed projects. Making sure the toilet is sitting over the black water tank, making provisions for electrical wiring, and ensuring that you can run drain lines from where your shower is situated, were the most important parts in the planning of our conversion.

Sometimes we would have three to four tasks running concurrently. I would be cutting wood, and running wires, while Rosita was painting, sewing curtains, and changing her mind in the process.

Going to the local hardware store five to six times in the same day was not uncommon, but Rosita was my inspiration and quality control throughout the process. “What, it’s only 10 PM. Surely you can put in another hour easily. I changed my mind, I want it this way”, Rosita, the taskmaster would bark. Often, I would drive over to Sundance Stage Lines just to get a breather. LOL!

Eight to ten-hour days, six days a week were not uncommon. Oh, and by the way, for those 40-hour work weeks, forget about it! We started working on ‘BB2‘ in August of 2004 and eleven months later, except for removing the decal stripping, we hadn’t even touched the exterior of the bus.

While all this was happening, we made certain that we could use our bus for our well-deserved trips. Thus, ‘BB2‘, while a work in progress, has traveled to the desert several times to go camping, and visited our friend’s homes for many overnight stays.

A jig to support ceiling installation, there is a method to the madness.
Now that she is gutted, the fun begins.

We began working on the inside of our bus by entirely gutting it, scrubbing it clean, adding a new ¾-inch plywood deck on top of the existing floor, and then laying down the wood-looking vinyl. The next step included masking taping our floor plan layout onto the vinyl flooring, and then applying re-enforced fiberglass to the ceiling, by starting in the rear of the coach and proceeding forward.

Since the ‘BB2’ had a wheelchair lift, we took advantage of the large door opening to get all the large stuff out of the bus. After completing the interior necessities, we installed a regular, leather house sofa along with two lazy boys, which may be a bit large for a motorhome. The comforts far exceed the space lost. Also, we took the time and expense to install a full-size one-piece shower stall, purchased at the local hardware store.

AC/DC control panel wiring.
Trying and make the wiring neat. 

The walls and all the furniture are birch wood that I sanded down lightly, and which Rosita then applied six to seven coats of a water-based poly­acrylic glaze. Patience is one of her many virtues. I’m hoping it will help her when she starts polishing the stainless steel, of course, I’m just kidding, but it can’t hurt. LOL!

We also installed an 8KW Kubota diesel generator in a quiet box recommended by our friends at Wrico International. We used 10-gage stranded wire throughout for the AC and 12-gage stranded for DC. All our lighting is 12 volts DC and is wired for 50A service, but we can run the bus on 30A. We have a 2500-watt inverter and have four, 6-volt Trojan batteries wired for 12 volts. All electrical wiring in the home runs from the power panel, which from there, we can monitor and control all the electrical functions, both AC and DC.

The scariest part is when you start cutting holes in the exterior of your bus, holes for the refrigerator, vents, furnace intake and exhaust, air conditioners, etc. “Did I measure that twice? I can only cut it once. Okay, let’s be safe and measure it one more time.” Two of the most challenging and demanding tasks are the electrical and the overall planning scheme.

If you’ve ever considered converting a bus to a motorhome, our advice would be to go ahead and do it. It is indeed a huge undertaking, but if you sectionalize the procedures, it will seem less overwhelming and easier. Of course, it won’t actually be any easier, but it will seem that way. Think things through, and plan, plan, plan. Do not be afraid to ask questions, there is no such thing as a stupid question, utilize BCM’s Forum to corroborate answers and then be willing to accept those answers.

Editor’s Note: You can access the BCM Forum HERE.

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, there are many who have gone there before and many who will go after. Help is out there. Starting with BCM and all the internet bulletin boards out there, you can avoid the pitfalls,  trials, and tribulations that you will face, and then someday it will be your turn to help others.

A Bus Converter’s Work Is Never Done. More Thoughts and Where Are We Now.

It’s been eighteen years since we bought our 1988 MCI 102-A3.   Big Bus (BB2) became a project that we will never finish.  A bus converter’s job is never done.     

Our dream of building a motorhome was born way before we could afford it.  A Chevy van was our first project.  I built a little cabinet with drawers, installed it in the rear, and would throw a mattress on the floor for sleeping.  It served its purpose until the first child came along.  Then we graduated to a 24-foot Mini-Winnie.  We had that for about 17 years.  We always envisioned building something like a bread truck.  Something like what UPS drives around doing their deliveries.  

Then we thought, why not a school bus?  So, when I retired, I studied and acquired a school bus driver’s license.  I asked the instructor to let me ride as a passenger so I could see what it was going to be like.  He refused to say that my tuberculosis test had not come back yet.  For some reason that didn’t sit well with me.  On the way home I spotted a Sundance Tour Bus.  

I followed it to the garage and promptly applied for a part-time job.  What better way to learn about buses than driving them and being around folk who worked and loved them?  We were hooked.  So, our attention was diverted to an over-the-road coach.  I loved the look of an Eagle, but MCI stole my heart. To each his own.  

We found the bus we liked and drove it to Sundance for their opinion.  They had six other MCIs just like the one I wanted to purchase.  They went through it and made me feel assured that it was a good buy.  She had eight brand new tires that were rated for a 45-footer and new brakes when we found her, so that was a positive factor in helping us with our decision.  In return for keeping all the seats, lights, speakers, and all the usable items inside the bus, they helped me gut her and then they went through the whole unit with a fine-tooth comb.  

Once it was gutted, we threw in a mattress and some camping stuff and immediately started using it as our camping vehicle.  We were retired so we dedicated ourselves full-time to converting her into what we wanted.  

We wanted a nice sofa and lazy boy recliners, so that’s what we installed.  Home Depot and I became very intimate, and they loved selling me stuff.  We installed a full-size one-unit shower stall as well as sinks and faucets used in houses as opposed to the light-duty, lower-quality stuff used in RVs.

Soon she was at a stage where she was featured as Miss July 2005 in BCM.  We didn’t know it at the time, but she would become a blessing and very useful when in 2007 there was a tragedy in our family.  We lost our home in the California wildfire in October of that year.  

There was a small article about our misfortune in the February 2008 edition of BCM.  We were able to save BB2 due to the San Diego Sheriff being able to give us just enough heads-up time to air her up, load some personal belongings, and move her out of harm’s way.  

For the next two months, we moved from the Silver Strand State Campground in Imperial Beach to my daughter’s front parking space in Chula Vista and then to our wonderful neighbor’s home which had, for the most part, survived the inferno.  

After we cleared all the debris and destruction, we moved BB2 back to our property.   We have two and a half acres so we could anchor her down and live in her for the next eighteen months.  We became owner-builders and were able to build our new home in the same spot where the old one had stood.  

BB2 securely parked in her Bus Barn.

BB2 securely parked in her Bus Barn.

It was during those eighteen months we took to construct our home and finally completed it in April of 2009, that we really became intimate and familiar with our bus.  We installed new tires all around and even built what we call our Bus Barn to protect her from the elements.    

Since then, BB2 has been very good to us.  In 2012 we had the opportunity to repower our bus.  We replaced a perfectly good running 6V92 2-stroke engine with a 4-stroke Detroit Series 50 and a newly rebuilt 4-speed automatic 740 Allison transmission.  

There were several reasons we took this opportunity.  2-stroke engines are good, but 4-strokes are better.  Again, to each his own.  With the 4-stroke engine, we eliminated the need to wash our toad every time we arrived at a new destination due to constant engine oil leaks.  Most importantly, we for the most part eliminated overheating issues.  

The horsepower and fuel economy we get from our 4-stroke is the same if not better than the old 2-stroke.  She has taken us all over the western United States as well as to Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and most of California.  I don’t want to jinx myself but aside from losing an air line in Tucson and losing prime several times, she has never let us down.

There will always be room for improvement.  That is the reason a bus converter’s job is never done.  If we ever build another BB, we know what we would like to keep the same and what to do differently.  I always say that a Bus Converter must have five traits to succeed.  You must have rudimentary knowledge in the art of machining, carpentry, electrical, plumbing, and most importantly, be completely out of your mind. LOL!

If you have those five traits, you are qualified to be a bus converter.  You must have the courage to ask questions and then listen.  And it surely can't hurt if you have some money you can play with.  You don't need to be super wealthy, but it surely won't hurt.  

Side view of Big Bus 2.

There is a very simple difference between buses and motorhomes or Sticks-and-Staples as we like to call them.  Look at the way they are constructed.  Motorhomes are made to make A profit.  Buses are made to make profit. In other words, they make a profit for whoever buys them, not so much for those who make them. Subtle difference but very important.  Our bus was born as a Greyhound and then became a commuter bus in the Antelope Valley in California, running students between colleges and whatever venue they needed to go to.  

The odometer says 600,000 miles.  Professional bus people have told us it is probably 1,600,000 miles since she was a Greyhound and then a commuter.  Show me a motorhome that has that many miles and is still as solid as she was in her youth.  Yes, it has probably had several engines, but the body and frame are the same.  She is as sturdy and strong as when she was built.

Our advice is if you have the desire to build your own – just do it.  Just be aware that if it was easy, everyone would do it.  Maybe 10% of people would even venture to buy a motorhome.  10% of those might consider building their own.  10% of those would start the project.  And finally, maybe 10% of those will semi-finish the job.  But 100% of those folk will enjoy the work and never really finish their project of love.  If we ever have a chance to do it again - MAYBE. 

Bus Specifications

  • Manufacturer: MCI
  • Model: 102-A3
  • Year: November 1988
  • Converted by:  Luis & Rosa Chavez
  • Years converted: 2004-present.
  • Weight: 38,000 lbs.
  • Fuel tank: 156 Gallons
  • Transmission: Allison 740
  • Engine: Detroit Series 50
  • Length: 40 Feet
  • Width: 102 Inches
  • Batteries: Four each 6V Trojans
  • Electrical: 50A
  • Charging: IOTA DLS 75
  • Generator: 8KW Wrico Kubota Diesel
  • Inverter: 2500 Watt
  • Air-conditioning: MCI factory
  • Water heater: 6-gallon Atwood propane
  • Fresh Water: 110-gallons
  • Black Water: 40-gallons
  • Grey water: 95-gallons
  • Tank Material: Molded Plastic
  • Plumbing: PVC
  • Propane: Two 30 lb. bottles
  • Stove: 3-burner Magic Chef Propane
  • Microwave: Yes
  • Sink: Full-size Stainless Steel
  • A/C: Two Dometic Roof
  • Heating: Suburban Propane Furnace
  • Walls: Birch 3/4" Plywood
  • Ceiling: Re-enforced Fiberglass
  • Countertops: Granite
  • Floor: Wood Grain Vinyl
  • Window Coverings: Curtains
  • Bed: Queen
  • TVs: Two Flat Panel
  • Security system: Chihuahua
Article written by Luis and Rosa Chavez

Born and raised in El Paso Texas Luis joined the Navy out of High School during Vietnam Era. Luis retired from Pacific Bell with 30 years of service behind him.

Rosa retired from the San Diego School District. They have been married for 54 years and now live in Deerhorn Valley, California a suburb of San Diego.

Luis and Rosa have always had motorhomes and they love to travel in their motorhome.

You can email Luis and Rosa: LRchavez@reagan.com

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