After acquiring my 1968 model 05 Eagle and starting the serious process of deciding to what degree I wanted to do a bus conversion was a big step for me. Little did I realize that this was one of the small decisions – just an exciting beginning.
DOING IT MY WAY. Oh yes this is one I’m doing ‘my way’. Over the past 20-odd years, I have dreamed of how I was to convert the bus of my dreams. Suddenly I found myself in the position of starting. I now own an Eagle, so what do I do to start the conversion?
RESEARCH. A lengthy process of research began. I read everything I could get my hands on. I began talking to nuts, wannabees, former owners of Eagles, professional converters, and even bus line owners. Since I was planning on removing the windows and updating the look to a model 15, I came to the conclusion that it would be a foolish mistake not to raise the roof. I employed the Ben Franklin method of decision making. On one side of the scale I put the +’s and on the other side I put the –‘s. The side weighting the most wins.
- More headroom
- Better looks
- More space
- Additional options including:
- Limited headroom
- Less space to work with Fewer options
- Less initial work
- Could save time Conversion sooner
Based on this method, my decision was made. I was going to raise the roof. Now I needed to know how. This question brought me back to talking to people who had done it to find the best method possible. You see I tend to be lazy and don’t want to reinvent the wheel. Unfortunately, everyone had his own way of doing it. All were similar and all achieved the goal of raising the roof. Some methods seemed more structurally sound than others. My goal was to raise the roof, and when completed, it would be at least as sound structurally as before any cutting took place—hopefully stronger. This we succeeded in doing.
At this point with the decision made to raise the roof, it was time to order and purchase the new fiberglass caps so they would be ready when I needed them. Now the work begins.
Gut The Monster:
This is the wonderful process of cleaning ‘everything’ out of the coach. My definition of everything is to remove anything that is between you and the framework and outside skin. I loosened the floor but did not remove it at this point. It is much safer to walk on the old floor instead of the floor framework.
Should you be able to find someone who will gut it for you then I strongly suggest you pay him or her. It will turn out to be an experience where if one is not careful he will lose his religion. I suggest that you save the aluminum sheets that make up the interior roof. These will prove to be of value later in the conversion. Any other scrap aluminum can be sold to a recycler.
A Good Primer:
At this point I chose to use a wire brush on a 4-½” side grinder and cleaned the framework and remove the old insulation that did not come off easily. I then proceeded to paint the framework with a good quality red primer.
This was the next question to face. In some parts of the country one does not need to be concerned about the height of a vehicle. However, in the East it does become a major concern particularly on roads other than interstates. The top of a coach can get cleaned off real well, real fast. On more than one occasion I have heard of TV antennas, AC’s, luggage covers and other items meeting up with low underpasses. If you plan on traveling out west or on the super slab in the east, then don’t go over 13 feet, 6 inches high from the ground to the highest point on the roof. I decided that I would raise the roof 6-¼ inches. Now that the height was determined, I was ready to start.
I then leveled the bus and blocked it up; it would not be moved again until it was re-skinned. Then I removed all of the windows. I did not figure on selling the windows. I knew I would need some of the glass for the one-piece door I was planning to make later. Remove the drip rail from the roof edge and over the door and drivers window. Set these aside – they will be needed later. With all the windows out, I removed the old front and rear caps.
Repair and Replace:
This is an excellent time to check the condition of your framework and replace the rusted pieces as needed. I was fortunate I had only three pieces to replace. Since the tubing is 1-½” square and can be purchased from your local metal supplier or welding shop. I removed and replaced only what was necessary.
If you are fortunate enough to have a building in which to convert you bus; you won’t need the follow-ing info. I had no facility so I went to Harbor Freight and ordered an all-weather tarp.
I suggest 26 feet by 55 feet. This size will totally cover your 40-foot bus. Tie all sides down for protection. With a tarp this size, you can work on a side or end even in the rain because it can make a shelter to work under.
Next you will need some type of scaffolding. You have choices:
I elected to build my own for several reasons. I didn’t know how long I would need it. I didn’t want to spend the money to buy it. I didn’t want to borrow it from friends who had it for their work. If I built my own, I would save money and when I was finished, I could dispose of it easily.
I decided I needed an adjustable scaffold for the front and rear (for removing and installing caps) and one to run the length of the bus. That way I could work one whole side without moving the scaffolding.
I went to a building supply house and purchased 12 pieces of 2” x 12” x 14’; 20 pieces of 1” x 4” x 16’; and 28 pieces of 2” x 4” x 24”. I started looking for homebuilders and companies that were discarding pallets. Yes, I made my adjustable scaffolding from used pallets. Most pallets are made of oak or other hardwoods.
With all of the windows out, I removed the old caps starting with the front one.
With scaffolding in place in the front, rear and along one side, I drilled the rivets (both rows over the top) using a 3/16” drill. Note: I was advised to buy a lot of inexpensive 3/16” bits because I would go through them. Tried that, and then I decided to buy the titanium nitrate coated drills. They last six times longer than the cheap bit and can be easily reshaped—cheaper by far.
Along the front of the cap just above the windshield, door and driver’s side window, I found I needed to grind a little off the surface in order to find the riv-ets. With all the rivets drilled, I used a 1/8 punch to clean the holes. Then I got on top with a crowbar and pried up the old cap (front cap is over the first layer of aluminum on the roof). It rolled right off onto the waiting scaffolding and then I lowered it to the ground.
Removing Front Frame:
With the front cap gone, I took my Sawzall and cut the framework out. My Eagle is a 05 so it had step framework which to be removed in order to take advantage of the new headroom that is being made available with the model 15 caps.
My first cut was at the top of the windshield frame. I then worked my way around. Then it was time to cut the tubing that was fastened to the top. I chose to cut this last because of the weight. The Sawzall will bind less if these cuts were made last. With these cuts, the framework was free. Caution: Get some help to lower this to the ground. It’s awkward and heavier than the fiberglass cap. Should you try to manhandle it and push it off, you stand a chance of it getting caught and kicking back in the bus, damaging the finish, bursting a windshield or worse.
Remove the clearance lights and drill the rivets across top of coach (two rows) and around all edges. It may be necessary to apply heat to the joint on the roof if someone has used glue in the old joint. Go inside coach and drive a screwdriver between frame and rear cap to be sure it is not stuck to the frame. Note: The rear cap goes UNDER the aluminum top and rests on the iron framework. You may have to drill out additional rivets in order to loosen the approximate six inches that the cap fits under the roof.
I placed a 3/8” x 1 ½ inch eye bolt in the holes created on the rear cap where the corner clearance lights had been. Use large fender washers on the inside to provide more bearing surface. I then attached a chain between the eyebolts (on the outside of the bus) and to that a come-a-long that, in my case, I attached to a tree.
I put pressure on the cap by means of a come-a-long. Using a screwdriver, I opened the gap between the frame and the cap spraying the created gap full of WD-40. With a large rubber hammer I placed several healthy blows on the cap in the area of the clearance lights continuing to increase the pressure until the cap came free. Bear in mind that you can cut the old cap off and then simply clean the areas where it was attached in preparation for the new one. Being a pack rat, I decided some part of the old cap might be useful later in the conversion.
Creating the Spacers:
Using the drawings in Figure 1 and Figure 2, I cut the 1-½” tubing to the desired length of 6-¼” and drilled the two ½” holes on opposite sides and opposite ends. I also cut the guides from 1-1/4” square tubing to a length of 18 inches long.
A = 1-1/2” sq. tubing B = Length roof is to be raised C = ½ Drill, drill completely through forming two ½” holes* D = 1-¼” sq. tubing E = Length of B (height roof is to be raised) plus 12” * When you have part A centered on part E, fill hole C with weld making A & E one part.
Junk Yard visit:
At this point I visited the local auto junkyard and purchased a total of four automobile bumper jacks. Be sure that the jacks are the older types – I’m not really sold on most of the newer style jacks. These can be purchased for about five bucks each. The next step was to mark the existing window supports for the location of the cuts and the location of the ½” holes that go through both sides of the tubing. These holes will be filled with weld, making the guides a part of the overall frame when completed. If the drilling of these holes becomes too much of a pain, then a cutting torch works mighty well. This is what I resorted to make my job a lot easier besides, the hole will be filled with weld.
I decided to cut them at the midpoint of the existing opening. Using a tri-square and soap stone I marked all four sides of the supports as a guide for cutting.
In the front of the bus, using the horizontal frame mem-ber over the door and drivers window, I placed one of the 2” x 12” x 14’ and used this as the place for the two bumper jacks that are used to raise the front of the roof. Using the horizontal frame member in the rear, where the angled window was, place another of the 2” x 12” x 14’ that will be used to support the jacks for raising the rear.
It’s cutting time:
Using a Sawzall I cut the uprights on the lines that were laid out in the previous step. About a third of the back from the front, cut an upright on each side. As a safety precaution, clamp or tack weld a piece of angle iron or tubing to the bottom half of the upright. Be sure and make these pieces long enough to hold the roof in place should it be a windy day. Do the same about a third of the way back from the rear. Then place the bumper jacks at the four corners and put tension on the roof. This tension may need to be adjusted as the uprights are cut. The primary reason for the tension is to prevent the blade binding. Then I proceeded to cut the remaining uprights.
With all the uprights cut, I moved from jack to jack, jacking the roof up 3 to 4 notches at a time until the roof was about 13 to 14” above its original position. This is ample room to drop the assembled inserts into place. I then proceeded to insert all the inserts into place and started lowering the roof back into place.
Now with all the inserts in place the roof was raised! Raised, in place and all aligned. Now we start welding. I started at the front after I placed a bar clamp on either side and lowered the top down and in place. This was to compensate for any drawing of the metal as it is being welded. I did the same in the rear. After all the uprights were welded (Figure 3) on all four sides and the holes filled with weld it was time to grind the inside and outside surfaces smooth. If you want to grind all welds smooth it’s your call. I did inside and outside only.
With the roof successfully raised and welded in place I decided it would be best for me to strengthen the window areas that would be covered. Figure 4 shows the inserts I chose to use, welded into place (1-½” square tubing). To some this might be overkill – to me I know it’s there to stay and stronger than the original.
Well, it’s rebuilding time and I started with the front cap. After cleaning all the area the old cap occupied it is now time for a dry run. Another set of hands was needed for this. We placed the cap in place and marked the edge on top of the bus to be certain that the old rivet holes could be used. With this checking out okay, we eased the cap back far enough to allow us to apply a liberal coating of cement.
I used ChemRex 943 sealer/adhesive manufactured by ChemRex Inc. It is a terrific sealant/adhesive. When applied according to instructions it’s there to stay. The only negative I have found with it, is when it gets on the skin, it’s there to stay for a good week. I have found nothing that will remove it short of it wearing off.
With the cap in place and sealer/adhesive oozing out, from the inside of the coach I drilled holes in the cap using the old holes as a guide. We started in the center using an air operated rivet gun and 3/16” x ¾” rivets; starting in the center and worked our way out to the edge of the roof.
We then moved to the front of the bus just above the windshield again starting in the center and working our way around. Do Not, I repeat, DO NOT rivet the area where the metal goes for covering the window area.
Installing the Rear Cap:
This can be lots of fun. Drill a 3/8” hole in the center of the spot where the outside rear marker lights are to go and install a 3/8’ x 2” eye bolts that were used in removing the old cap. By fastening a chain to the eye bolts then to a come-a-long that is attached to a vertical member of the frame 6-10’ ahead you can ratchet the cap into place. Should you want to apply several blows with a hammer use a rubber mallet and only in the area where you have the eyebolts attached. The rear cap is to slide under the existing roof. Note: A silicone lubricant can be very helpful here. Once, in place, lift the roof about 1/16” to 1/8” of an inch and apply adhesive/sealant liberally. Again, as before, drill 3/16” holes using the old holes as a guide and proceed to install the rivets.
At this point if you haven’t decided what skin to use, now it’s time. You have at least three choices depending on (1) personal preference, (2) availability, (3) ease of application, (4) cost.
a. 16 to18 gauge sheet metal
b. 16 to 18 gauge paintable galvanized sheet metal
All of the suggested siding products have pros and cons therefore the big decision is up to you. Anyone of the three will last as long as your shell or longer. I personally used the 16 gauge paintable galvanized sheet metal.
All the rivets are then capped with aluminum caps supplied by Automotive Fasteners, Inc. These are easily installed and give the appearance of having been shaved to look like round-headed rivets.
Conclusion: There are other ways and methods to do the same thing with good results. This simple method worked for me and I can’t take credit for this being an original method. I have read and talked to anyone who would let me. To me this is the result of a lot of ‘research’. In my judgement this is the simplest method to raise the roof on an Eagle. This method will work for MCI’s, also. Maybe some of these ideas can be useful for you too. Enjoy your conversion experience.
Gene Lewis received a B.S. Degree in Industrial Arts from East Carolina University in 1963. He spent seven years in the classroom as an Industrial Arts Teacher and then ventured into business for himself. During the past 40 plus years, he has continued his interest in different businesses as well as the industrial trades.
In 1965 he built a fold-up camper trailer complete with a bed slide-out. Then, in 1967, he built a 10’-6" slide in truck camper in which he and his wife made an eight week trip to Alaska in June of 1968. Some four years later he moved up to the Motor Homes class (stick and staples ?) with 24’ and 27’ Winnebagos. It was during this time he was introduced to converted buses and was bitten with the “BusNut Bug”. Over the years he has remained active in designing and repairing different types of RV’s and accessories.
With the demands of a growing business and family, the idea of converting a bus had to remain only a dream. In the late 1990’s, the dream became a reality. Out of the blue, a deal was struck for a 1968 Model 05 Silver Eagle. I was in great shape and came complete with all the records and paperwork from the day it was built in Belgium. Whoopi! The decision was made to convert the bus to a custom coach done by Gene, for Gene – converted his way.
Gene and his amazing wife Frances have enjoyed the world of camping/RVing since they began their endless adventure, called marriage, some 55 years
ago. The Lewises now include two married children and two grandsons, who they love spending time with. They presently make their home in Buies Creek, North Carolina.
Questions and comments can be addressed to the author via email