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The biggest hot-rod project in Idaho

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Sean Kennedy’s 1945 Chevrolet school bus hot rod — note the custom air cleaner. Photos courtesy The Vintage Tour Bus Company.

After several decades in the film and entertainment business, Sean Kennedy was ready for a career change.

But to what?

He had, for some time, entertained the idea of running his own business — a tour service offering geology tours of the Pacific Northwest. He had been fascinated by its volcanic and tectonic history, and by its widely varied and ever-changing landscape.

But modern tour buses are expensive.

Over the years, he had the germ of an idea that maybe refurbishing an old bus, perhaps a school bus, would work. But most old buses, having been in commercial service — sometimes for decades — were pretty much basket cases anyway. For some with diesel engines, restoration and maintenance would be out of reach entirely. They got pretty complicated, with parts and servicing — especially mechanics — hard to find.

What to do?

Enter Bill Ruby, of Twin Falls, Idaho. Bill had his own auto shop (DreamRideBuilders.com) where he did some considerable hot-rodding to much regional acclaim. He’d been in the car hobby since 1975, and opened his business in 2006. He listed a 1945 Chevrolet school bus for sale online, and when Sean saw the ad he contacted Bill.

1945 Chevrolet bus

Before. The bus had potential, but not much else.

Yes, the bus was available. Sean drove from Portland to have a look. It was somewhat rusty, but not too far gone. Simple, as most post-WW2 vehicles were. No complicated bodywork, and parts were available. Exactly the kind of thing Sean wanted.

But Sean had no — as in none at all — experience with vehicle mechanics. Bill said he would teach him, in return for Sean doing some of the work. It was an unusual offer, but Sean jumped at the opportunity. Having a bus that he knew inside and out would work just fine.

The original idea was to keep it all Chevrolet, so Sean found a used Chevrolet dually with a 454, bought it and started to drive to Twin Falls.

It blew up before it got out of town, leaving Sean with a real quandary. Overhauling the original Chevrolet I-6 just wasn’t feasible. It was never really built for reliable long-haul tour use, and it didn’t have enough power to maintain speed on freeways and modern roads. For a while, it looked like there was no good solution.

Then Sean found a 1992 Dodge dually with a 5.9-liter Cummins turbodiesel in pretty good shape. It certainly had sufficient power to get down the road, it was reasonably fuel efficient, parts are readily available, and it was pre-computer-era. If it could somehow be mated to the school-bus chassis, it could be the solution.

This is where things got interesting. For Sean, a project of this magnitude was unknown territory. For Bill, it was a huge challenge. He’d never done anything like this before, but he has the heart of an old-school hot-rodder. He accepted the challenge, knowing full well that it would take much time and work, and not being quite certain what the final outcome would be.

Bill remembers, “It was the biggest hot-rod project in Idaho at the time.” Correct in size certainly, since it’s hard to find bigger hot-rods than a school bus. And it was big in the amount of time required, too.

Sean couldn’t afford to front the entire cost to make it a hurry-up project, and Bill told him that he’d work on it whenever Sean showed up from Portland. In the process, he’d teach Sean how to use the equipment, how to cut and weld, and how to fabricate new body parts for the old ones. But Sean had to be there — Bill had to make a living with other projects meanwhile.

1945 Chevrolet bus

Inside, today — not a bad place to spend time.

So, that was the deal. It went on for five more summers like that. Sean would drive over on weekends, they’d do something to the bus, then Sean would return to his day job and wait until the next week.

Technically, there were some interesting surprises. It turns out that once the front frame and engine were removed from the pickup, the frame rails came within 3 inches of lining up. It was decided to use the pickup frame from the firewall forward. After narrowing the rails, they aligned with the originals on the bus, and with a 10-inch front-to-back overlap, the pickup frame was double welded into the bus rails. There was enough space for the diesel engine and turbocharger within the original bus engine bay, but a larger radiator was required to handle the heat output from the newer, more powerful engine.

The wheels and tires fit within the original fenders. The transmission mounts (the original was a manual and the new an automatic) were relocated.

The biggest challenge was to cut the original firewall and build a new one to accommodate the longer engine and transmission combination. Those had to be moved back eight inches, intruding into the interior. For servicing, the custom-built engine cover was attached with two latches, making it easily removable. The air conditioning was relocated to a place where the compressor cannot be seen from looking inside the hood. “Just no other way to do it,” says Bill. “The original never had air.” The stock turbocharger fit nicely inside the re-done engine compartment, so that was no problem.

New brakes and suspension components went with the front frame, greatly improving driveability and safety. The power brake booster interfered with the motion of the brake pedal, so that had to be relocated within the new firewall configuration.

1945 Chevrolet bus

Pre-restoration, the bus’ interior left much to be desired.

That left one last thing — the air cleaner.

There was just no way the stock air cleaner was ever going to fit inside the engine bay. A 1945 school bus wasn’t built with so much room that something the size of a shop vacuum would fit alongside all the other modern components. But an air cleaner was necessary — the vehicle simply couldn’t be operated properly without one.

Once again, what to do?

An outside mount would certainly be necessary, but it also had to look right. Something close to a proper appearance, else the whole idea of the project would be compromised. They looked at the various outside air cleaners on current commercial diesel trucks, but all were far too large and wouldn’t look right anyway. They just wouldn’t do at all.

The thinking went outside the (air) box at that point. What was needed was something of a reasonable size, round, with a removable top that would accommodate a current air filter.  Something like a….stainless-steel stockpot.

A trip to a local restaurant supply company — Bill recalls they got some funny looks while there — provided a proper stock pot, and a frying pan that would fit over the top. Both had handles, but on the stock pot, the holes on one side were used to fit to a mounting bracket to the bus body, and on the other for a custom-made identification plate. The handle was removed from the frying pan, and a hole drilled in the bottom for the long threaded rod to attach to the otherwise stock duct leading from the original air cleaner to the engine. (The frying pan handle holes are turned to the inside and aren’t noticeable.) Sufficient space was left between the frying pan lid and the stock-pot body to provide enough air to the engine. It had a clean look, is smaller than the commercial diesel truck external air cleaners, fits the space nicely, and had the right “look” for a period-correct, if not entirely original, factory installation.

Problem solved.

The original windshield wipers were vacuum-operated and unacceptable. The Dodge wiper assembly wouldn’t fit. The replacements came out of a Jeep.

1945 Chevrolet

Sean’s office, today.

The Dodge also provided an entire new rear end to the bus. Bill recalls it bolted “almost perfectly” to where the original had been, and was off by only about a quarter of an inch. Holes were drilled and tapped and it fit well. The new rear is wider than the original to handle the new dual tires, so Bill and Sean hand-formed  a set of “fenders” to widen the rear, using an original Studebaker design, because Bill is a Studebaker fan. Those kept a period look even though they are not the same as the original slab-sided body.

No one in Twin Falls had a paint booth large enough to handle painting a school bus, so the entire bus was sprayed outside in the stillness of mornings, one section at a time. Sean picked the green body color. The roof is white to keep interior temperatures down.

Sean designed the interior. Originally it had carpet, but that wasn’t going to be suitable for hard tour use, so the floor was redone in bamboo. The seats were reupholstered and the interior brought up to current design standards. It was completed in 2014, after five summers and thousands of hours of work. The result?

“This is maybe one of the best-driving vehicles I’ve ever owned,” says Bill. It cruises easily at highway speeds (and once got up as fast as 88 mph on a freeway test), handles well, gets around 17 mpg, is quiet enough for tour use and is, in every reasonable way, a completely modern vehicle built on a now 70-year-old school-bus design.

Sean wasn’t quite ready to have it in Portland for the first year after it was finished, so Bill took it to shows around the Pacific Northwest. It always has received much attention, has garnered well over a dozen trophies in various categories. It took a Best Interior award at a show in Boise, over several other vehicles with ten-thousand-dollar leather interiors.

1945 Chevrolet bus

Pre-restoration. Well, that’s… spartan.

Sean’s business, The Vintage Tour Bus Company, is up and running. The biggest hot-rod project in Idaho may now be the biggest hot rod in Oregon, and regularly shuttles guests on winery tours, sightseeing packages, and special-event rentals tailored to his customers’ needs. There are seasonal specials, too, with Valentine’s Day tours, wildflower trips, and even Christmas-lights excursions. All but abandoned just a few years back, Sean’s bus doesn’t spend too much time parked these days.

For more information, or to book a tour of your own, visit VintageTourBus.com.