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Too cool for school

Refurbished 1957 GMC bus takes a trip down memory lane

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Although the original patina on the body was preserved, the bus is now mechanically sound and rolls on 20-inch Dick Cepek rims.

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No more row seating in this old school cruiser, the fresh interior now looks more like a '50s diner.


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For most of us, school days conjure up youthful memories of not only what happened in class and at recess, but also the journey to and from school. Just as many walked to school and have their tales to tell, there were those who had to be bused to class, and that was always an adventure. Facing rain, snow, heat, hail and breakdowns, the trips all became part of the learning experience.

During the baby boomer years of the 1950s and '60s, there were more than a dozen bus builders churning out custom coaches to haul the kids to school. Carpenter Body Company of Mitchell, Ind., was one of the big six manufacturers in the United States and supplied buses for use all over North America. Utilizing the running gear and chassis from various truck manufacturers, Carpenter would craft an above frame bus body on the factory-supplied platform. This form of transportation is still in use today by most North American cities to ferry children to and from school.

Today, used buses offer the creative builder several possibilities: conversion to a motor home, rolling concession stand, sightseeing cruiser or a simple party bus, just to name a few.

For Randy Klym of Lockport, the 1957 Carpenter GMC school bus was a major departure from the classic Camaros and mid-'50s Chevys he built in the past. "I went to look at a car in Vermillion Bay and, although the car was junk, I spotted this GMC school bus," says Klym. While the bus looked cool, it was something he wasn't ready to take on as a project, so it was filed to memory. On a 2010 trip to the Back To The Fifties show in Minneapolis, Klym saw several buses converted into street cruisers and that got him thinking about the old GMC bus in Ontario.

A quick trip led him back to the field where the bus had sat and it was still there, but the owner had moved away. It took some sleuthing and several hand-written notes attached to the door-frame of the house to secure the sale, but the bus was headed for home on the back of a drop-deck semi before the winter set in.

Powering the bus is a 235-cubic-inch straight six-cylinder engine, backed by a four-speed manual transmission and 4.56:1 ratio rear axle. The engine had been previously rebuilt and runs well. Optional equipment is mostly non-existent. Other than the additional safety lighting and electric windshield wipers, it's the same as it was when it rolled out of the factory.

The first winter was spent getting the bus to pass the required Manitoba safety inspection. A full rebuild of the brakes and front-end steering components was first on the list to ensure it would track safely down the road. The bus was lowered a full six inches and new 20-inch Dick Cepek DC-2, six-spoke rims shod with Mickey Thompson tires were installed, along with a full custom exhaust system. Next on the list was the replacement of the rusted floor with new metal, nine cracked windows and all leaking gaskets and seals for reliable cruising.

Then Klym turned his attention to the inside. The bus had once been used as a playhouse, complete with an existing sandbox, and as a greenhouse with a table for potted plants and a wood-burning stove. With all of that removed, he settled on a '50s theme that included a modified booth from the Half Moon Drive In, black-and-white tiled floor, gumball machine and a 1956 vintage Coca-Cola vending machine. Upholstered in red-and-white metal flake it's a trip back in time.

For the outside, Klym chose to live with the original patina of the school bus yellow, but had artist Richard Roy of La Broquerie airbrush the Loozer Cruizer and Old Skool lettering in true vintage fashion. Even the licence plate DROPOUT carries over into the theme.

After two years of work to get the bus to the condition it currently is in, Klym says, "I'm going to leave the outside as I found it." What is going to change over this winter is the rear axle. The gear ratio only allows the bus to go 83 km/h and it makes out-of-town cruising difficult, so more highway-friendly options will be looked into. The hunt will also continue for the original interior dome light lenses. Unique to the bus, they will have to come from a donor vehicle.

For Klym and his wife, Sandy, the bus has proven to be the most fun at cruise nights and shows. "There's always a crowd around it and people asking questions or sharing stories," says Klym.

While school is out and the bus won't be picking up kids anytime soon, it does show how the classic car hobby has reached back to acquire those distinctive vehicles and present them for all to see. Cutting class and having fun is what this bus is all about.