Bus ownership.... what's it really like?
Ok, your really keen to enter the world of bus preservation but you don't have a clue what it's all about. This is just a rough guide drawn up through over 18 years of bus ownership and 20 years in the industry. Firstly, buying your bus is the easy part, the main thing to remember is you will have to find somewhere to put it. That somewhere ideally should be undercover if your going to be doing bodywork and restoring the thing. It must be safe and secure where no local oiks can chuck stones at your windows, steal your fuel or worse. You then have to think about insurance. Even if you intend to keep the bus SORN off the road it's best to have fire and theft 'laid up' cover.
At some point you will have to delve into the innards of the thing, at the very least to check the fluid levels but always be ready for things to go wrong. Invest in a good socket and spanner set. 7681 is a mix of imperial and metric nuts and bolts where over the years fitters and engineers have swapped things around and made repairs. Depending on the condition of your bus when you buy it you may have to buy new batteries. A battery charger is a good idea too, long periods of inactivity will start to drain them. Some buses, 5137 included, are fitted with four 6 volt batteries. These can be expensive to replace and hard to charge up so it's best to replace them with two commercial 12 volt batteries. This means you'll be able to take them home and keep them charged too. Remember above all, when buying electrical equipment, most modern buses and coaches are 24 volt!
Another thing to remember is anti freeze and oil. With a bus or coach it's always best to get these from a motor factor rather than somewhere like Halfords as the motor factors sell them in 25 litre drums which works out much cheeper. Your bus will need regular exercise, our fleet does a few laps of the yard every so often when they're laid up (even 5807) which gives the engine and all moving parts a chance to work. This should really be done every 1 - 2 weeks at least. You will also have to service your bus too. Our fleet is given an oil and filter change every 2 years due to the low mileage they cover. 2 years really is the limit as modern oil tends to stop working beyond this time. The buses are all greased at this stage too but they are also greased at various points during the season. It also pays to get under the vehicle every so often to check for nuts, bolts or pipes that may have come adrift. Go under the bus with a small 'toffee' hammer and tap your way up and down the chassis, check air pipes, braking system, steering system and prop shaft. Also note any leaks from the engine or cooling system.
A bus MOT isn't like a car MOT. You can't just drop it off at Kwik Fit at 10 in the morning and pick it up after lunch. Most Class 5 and Class 6 MOT are tested at local VOSA test centres. Our closest one is at Canterbury which in involves a 30 mile round trip. Think of the cost of the fuel for such a journey - that will underline the need to check your vehicle first to avoid a re-test! The golden rule here is check check and check again! Also make sure the vehicle is tidy. If it turns up covered in oily marks with a grubby interior the tester will look harder to find faults. In my experience the MOT testers are really nice blokes and take an interest in your vehicle but remember you represent the bus preservation movement and go that little extra mile. By turning up in a tidy vehicle he will see that it's cared for and looked after.
But what sort of vehicle to go for? Well if it's your first time in bus preservation, you've read the notes above and have the finances to pay for it all, the world really is your oyster. It's best not to go for something really rare though to start off with, maybe cut your teeth on a standard vehicle to see if you enjoy it as much as you think. There are not many Atlanteans, Fleetlines, VR's and Nationals around nowdays outside of the preservation movement and the non -PSV world. Half cabs are even rarer and usually more expensive and collectable. 30 year old coaches used to rather cheep at a few hundred quid but with scrap metal prices rising that has all changed. Buying a vehicle straight out of service is a good bet as it will come with seats and fittings (see 7681, 5137 and T553) but your choice vehicle may have been used as a mobile exhibition unit, church or storeshed before hand which will mean it will be minus a lot of these internal fittings (see DMS550 and 5807) which will make it harder. For a beginer a runner would be a good option, maybe a runner with an MOT. This will save you a lot of hard work and not drop you in the deep end straight away with and engine rebuild or MOT to prepare for. As a general rule about bus types, over the years of working on and running various buses and coaches I have the following advice. AEC's are good reliable plodders as are Bristols, Fleetlines and Atlanteans. Nationals can be rust buckets if unattended outside for too long and suffer from silly electrical faults (as does anything from the British Leyland stable 1970's-80's). Anything badged with MCW be it bodywork or complete bus (Metrobus) check VERY carefully, they rot like pears. As do Duples, especially at the rear end. Most Duple coaches I've seen have had a sag from the rear axle back. Earlier Plaxton coaches can rot out too and the stress panels on coaches are rather pricey to repair. Most coaches would have had a higher, faster mileage life than buses, years of thumping up and down motorways in all weathers really can corrode the underside a treat. Park Royal bodies are solid, even when having stood outside for years (see DMS550) as are ECW bodies only needing the wood inserts the panels screw into replaced over time. Wright bodies seem to last quite well too but tend to get a little rattley over time. Alexander bodied vehicles are normally solid but the ones I've worked with all seem to suffer some kind of water ingress via the wheelarchs and window rubbers (as do ECWs). Dennis Darts maybe your thing but check the chassis from the rear axle towards the back, corrosion here is common and has killed off many a good Dart....
Finally a word on driving the thing. Get yourself a proper PCV Licence. Yes (at the moment) you can drive it under 'Grandfather Rights' if your test was taken before 1997 but Brussels will and are closing this loop hole down. It will make you an all round better driver too.
If you need any help or advice, always ask someone who owns a preserved bus, maybe one of the same type you're interested in. We're always keep to pass on tips and advice and 9 times out of 10 we've all been where you are - at the begining scratching our heads!