Graduates on the Run Part 1: Building the Ultimate Toy Hauler

Categories: Jeep® Life 

By Nick Oxender

Remember that time in college you bought a school bus to haul your Jeep® vehicles 4,000 miles across the USA for free? Or was that just me?

Invention

Necessity is the mother of invention. Before we dive into the unholy depths of this ultimate school bus project, I must outline the necessity of such a masterpiece. In college, my friend group was comprised of Jeep® vehicle enthusiasts. We all met thanks to owning vehicles ranging from the 1940s Willys Jeep® SUVs to new Wranglers. Our unorthodox versions of the college party were either spent in a garage wrenching or at the local off-road parks. Fast forward to my buddy Grant and my senior year. Graduation was around the corner and the prospect of a full-time job was exciting. The unexciting part, however, was the upcoming inability to take vacation time at a moment’s notice. We needed a final hurrah.

school bus with jeep vehicle behind it

The Trip

It was decided we would embark on a 4,000-mile round trip to visit Colorado, Utah and, lastly, Las Vegas. Grant would off-road his Jeep® Wrangler, and I selected to bring my recently restored Willys Jeep® 4×4. By the way, it was March and we intended leaving in early July. Driving my vintage Willys was out of the question, and towing it behind Grant’s Wrangler alongside spare tools, camping gear, with trailer weight, etc., would put us over the factory tow limit. Thus, we needed a heavier duty tow setup. The simple answer is a 1-ton truck and gooseneck trailer. Unfortunately, neither Grant nor I had access to such a vehicle. Of course, we could simply rent one. That’s easy. After a quick internet search, we found a truck and trailer rental would cost approximately $5,000. Diesel fuel would be another $1,500. These expenditures were beyond our financial abilities. We needed something that was, well, free.

man with willys jeep

A Toy Hauler

When you’re facing the reality of a nonexistent budget and an unforgiving desire to take the ultimate vacation, the mind works in ridiculous ways. I remember the exact moment lying in bed, staring at the ceiling at 3 a.m. My childhood dreams came back to me. What is a cheap, industrial, completely safe and large vehicle capable of towing our setups – with a resale value? The one and only… school bus.

jeep wrangler

Enter the School Bus

Now hear me out. My mind began racing about the thoughts of a glorious, enclosed toy hauler. See, my Willys Jeep® 4×4 is small enough that it could theoretically drive inside the bus. Even with its custom roll cage. Imagine cutting the rear end off the bus, and turning it into a swinging door. If we purchase the right one, I could probably fit two vehicles inside and tow the Wrangler on a small trailer. We could even bring a spare vehicle. Wait, no. We could use the extra space to make money!

Making money with a bus while on vacation? Let me backtrack for a moment. I live in the unforgiving rustbelt that is northern Indiana, where Mother Nature reclaims her metals through road salt. Out west, the roads are dry – and so are vehicle quarter panels. If we play our cards right, Grant and I can purchase a rust-free vehicle and bring it back to Indiana. Vehicles in good condition are rarer, therefore, worth more here. This scheme could actually pay for our trip.

That’s it! We might as well pack our bags. The trip is dialed in and planned. Grant provides me the thrilling responsibility of tracking down our new project. I spend the next couple weeks researching everything I can about school buses. I learn those inside the community don’t use such a term, and from here on out we are “skoolie” enthusiasts. I know I’m in too deep when I spend an entire weekend binge-watching another college student transforming his skoolie into full living quarters. It’s amazing the various differences between each manufacturer, what to look out for, and what was most desirable for resale value.

school bus in a driveway

The Purchase

By this time, I am a full-blown skoolie lover and ready to look at potential purchases. Another buddy, Brian, is at my place when I find a couple of promising ads. We hop in my Jeep® Wrangler and embark on a journey an hour out of town to the countryside. One of the skoolies is sunk axles-deep into a muddy field, sitting on a river bank, with a tree fallen over the hood. Yes, I do attempt to negotiate and purchase said stationary bus. I’m not proud of that.

After being disappointed with private sales, I discover a skoolie dealership that resells trade-ins. This is the ticket. Each listing had complete pictures of the vehicles, full specifications and prices. It’s even close to home. As one does on their way home from college, I stop by and looked at a couple potential buses. The first one was older and smoked like a banshee. The second one though… oh, the second one.

It’s a 37’ magnificent piece of yellow engineering. She is a 2008, meaning it has the first body redesign since the 19th century. Great gas mileage, modern drivetrain, extra headroom for driving my Willys inside and, of course, cruise control. I call Grant and explain how awesome this thing is. Soon enough, we have a skoolie delivered to my house. My dad is super proud I’m filling his yard space. I promise.

interior of schools bus

Time to Get Legal

Notice I say delivered. You see, there’s a catch to privately owning a skoolie. As it has a gross vehicle weight rating of over 26,000 lbs. the driver either needs a CDL (commercial driver’s license) or it must be titled as an RV. Please note: these laws vary from state to state. We choose the RV route as it will be cheaper and less time-consuming in the end. We begin removing accessories such as the stop sign and all 33 passenger seats. It’s as fun as you imagine. Can you believe those seats had unknown mixtures of bacteria, and Grant develops a rash? Well, yeah, I can see that. Bless the university doctor’s office for clearing up that situation.

school bus with custom door

They Said It Couldn’t Be Done

By this time, we are “fully ahead of schedule” with just four weeks to actually build this skoolie toy hauler. Our most important item on the to-do list is building the behemoth swinging door. Everyone on the skoolie forums says it can’t be done; just make a wooden door that folds down. Nope. I am absolutely determined to make a “sleeper” to maintain the aesthetics of a skoolie, and the functionality of a toy hauler. Not to mention maintaining resale value after the trip. Grant and I are fortunate enough that some of my fellow (very skilled) coworkers also believe in the almighty swinging door. They stay after hours and completely build the door for us. It hinges directly to the skoolie’s internal roll cage system, which is designed to hold twice the skoolie’s weight upside down.

custom school bus door

At this point, our build is on the home stretch with about two weeks to go. After finishing the door, my coworkers realize we can actually shorten the wheel well humps inside the skoolie. We’ll gain an extra few inches of Jeep® vehicle roll bar clearance. So custom wheel wells are made, then I take the skoolie to a local hitch shop for trailer towing equipment, and lastly to remove the 55 mph governor installed by the school district. The skoolie is certified ready to rock.

latch of school bus

Absolute Professionals

Fast forward to the night Grant and I intend to leave for Colorado. As one can imagine, we are no longer ahead of schedule but significantly behind due to last minute details on the bus, as well as preparing the Jeep® vehicles themselves. We still need to build our sleeping quarters. I previously made arrangements to pick up a non-running WWII Jeep® vehicle in Las Vegas. Two vehicles inside the skoolie will take up all of our interior space. Thus, we have to build bed frames to sleep on top of said vehicles. The WWII vehicle would park under both beds towards the front of the skoolie, while mine would only park partially under the rearmost bed. With the plan in action, I measure the height of my Willys hood, and we begin making bed frames well into 6 a.m.

sleeping quarters inside school bus

Local Celebrities

Fast forward to the trip. The ol’ skoolie is the star of the show; we become local celebrities everywhere we travel. Swinging open that door is like a peacock spreading its feathers. I’m confident there are many pictures across social media of us posing with our Jeep® vehicles in front of the skoolie. It is guaranteed an additional 10 minutes at each stop for Q&A sessions.

man with school bus

Pros and Cons

It actually drives like a luxurious automobile. Large mirrors provide complete visibility, and the driver seat has air suspension. We only have two complaints. One is a lack of air conditioning, especially in western heat. This is a bigger problem when we try to sleep. If we’re lucky, we can open the side windows and feel a breeze right across our faces as the bed frames are so tall. If there is no breeze, well, we won’t discuss that. Another major issue is a lack of engine horsepower. If there is any grade of incline, the skoolie can hardly accelerate. The GPS states the Colorado Mountains will be a three-hour drive. It actually takes us nine.

school bus parked on the side of a highway

The bus’s biggest downfall is actually the 6 a.m. bed frame design. After purchasing the WWII vehicle, we have to push it inside the skoolie. I promise it’s a fun task. Once it crests, the trailer ramps into the skoolie, we have a home free celebration until my 6 a.m. mistake rears its ugly face. Remember, I measured the height of my Willys’ hood and based the frames off that clearance? Well, it turns out the steering wheel sits taller than the hood. Who knew?

It’s funny looking back now, but that realization meant another hour of labor to load this vehicle. We had to remove all the wheels on the WWII vehicle, and push it under the bed frames using a jack and wheel dollies.

man sleeping on top of wooden platform inside a school bus

A Glorious Ending

All things considered, the trip is an outstanding success. The skoolie performs to the best of its abilities. With my shrewd negotiation techniques, I actually have the WWII vehicle sold within 12 hours of listing it. It goes to a great home with a very experienced restoration specialist. Best of all, the sale pays for all of the expenses accrued on the trip! Diesel, campsite fees, roadside repair, you name it. They are covered. I highly consider keeping the bus after the trip, but end up selling it within a day as well for exactly what we invested. That’s right – the entire trip was free. Think I can add this to my diploma?

willys jeep being lifted in to the back of a school bus

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