Growing up in the country, or outskirts of town, usually meant you rode on the bus to get to and from school.
Generally based on a cab and chassis purchased from vehicle manufacturers, the bus enclosure itself was the work of a specialty coachbuilder. Town sites and municipalities often owned their own bus and eventually they’d end up at a local auction.
Today, there are still some of these old workhorses around. Purchased decades ago, some were lucky enough to see conversions into campers and others… well, some just became a home for the chickens or were used as a storage shed.
Long gone and forgotten, commercial vehicles are seldom restored to their original condition, unless they carry a historical significance or other special provenance. Then, there are those that catch the eye of someone creative.
In 1997, Ron Schellenberg of St. Andrews was going through an old copy of Buy & Sell when he saw an ad for a 1957 GMC school bus camper. His wife, Sandra, remarked that the bus might make a cool custom, so they decided to make the trip south of Winnipeg, out to Roseisle, to have a closer look.
Schellenberg says, “The owner had taken the original bus and made it into a crude camper, with a couple of roof vents and a chimney from an old wood stove.”
After hauling it home and giving it a good look over, Schellenberg found the brakes were totally shot, the original straight-six-cylinder motor and manual transmission were near death and not what you would want for a custom rebuild. Until 2010, the bus then became a receptacle for storage of parts geared toward a rebuild.
After years of looking, Schellenberg found what he thought was a perfect donor vehicle at an MPI salvage auction.
“I bought a 1995 Chevy Suburban that had been written off because of a soft roll over,” Schellenberg says. After stripping the Suburban’s body from the frame, Schellenberg lowered the GMC bus body over it to establish a proper ride height and body mounting points.
The realistic ride height, required to get the bus down the road without the tires rubbing the wheelwells, lacked that in-the-weeds lowered look Schellenberg wanted, so he installed a full four-corner air-ride suspension system. To get the look for the bus right, Schellenberg used some sectioned rear fenders from a 1959 Chevy pickup and a set of custom rear wheels, mounting some huge eight-hole, 31-by-16.5-inch Hoosier radial tires.
Up front are some negative-offset rally wheels with radial tires, to keep the wheel track in proper perspective. The swap eliminated many problems of taking the old bus into the 21st century by giving it modern suspension, power steering and power front disc brakes, 350-cubic-inch V-8 engine, overdrive automatic transmission and a modern rear axle.
Other body modifications include a full opening aluminum sunroof that replaces the original cut up roof. It carries a special message for future students and riders advising them to “Stay In School and eat BANANA-NA-NA-NAS!!!”
Inside, the passenger compartment reveals a full nine-seat interior with black carpet and seats repurposed from several Pontiac Montana vans. The front bumper was reshaped and augmented to accentuate its bulk, with special running lights and. in back, custom flush taillamps were installed. Final body preparations and painting the bus in its early Corvette yellow bright finish was entrusted to Pete Kroeker at DMK Customs in nearby Lockport, Man.
Glass for the bus entailed painstakingly removing the original pieces and replacing three broken panels with new glass and having them tinted at Auto Stripe.
Mechanically, the Suburban gave up its throttle-body fuel-injection system for an Edelbrock aluminum intake manifold and four-barrel carburetor, along with the tried-and-true, General Motors H.E.I. ignition distributor.
Bringing the truck from the 1950s and marrying up with a new chassis required a full rewiring of the vehicle from front to back, with a full wiring harness and junction box. Enabling the old American Bosch windshield wipers and 100-year-old A-hoo-ga horn to work with the modern heating lighting, Dakota Digital dash gauge cluster and Alpine sound system, is the work of Len Andrews.
The total build required four winters to complete and the bus saw its first show in the spring of 2015. Part of the build that really shines through is Schellenberg’s desire to keep as many of the original bus features as possible.
The working driver’s side stop sign, electric fan, manual lever-style door opener, side-view mirrors have all been preserved in full operating condition.
Nicknamed the “Scholar Hauler” and blasting Magic Bus by the Who, Schellenberg’s GMC bus has become a frequent car show favourite.
You can see Schellenberg’s “Scholar Hauler” at this weekend’s 43rd Annual Piston Ring World of Wheels Car Show at the RBC Winnipeg Convention Centre.