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Converted Buses Win a Flock of Happy Followers

March 05, 1997|JOHN CANALIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — They take Greyhound-style buses, yank out the seats, gut the cabins, restyle the interiors and end up with homes on wheels that make a trip to Lake Havasu feel as if the Ramada had signed on for the ride.

Do not confuse these buses with motor homes or recreational vehicles. Although some features are similar, conversion buffs dismiss conventional RVs as wannabes. They say buses have more cargo room, greater longevity and stability--and custom interiors.

"There's those of us who want to do it our way," said bus owner Bob Byram, 63, of Signal Hill. "When you buy a bus and convert it, you can do it your way."

Byram and hundreds of other self-proclaimed bus nuts will be rolling into the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa this weekend for Bus Conversions magazine's fourth annual convention--its first in California.

The magazine estimates that at least 25,000 converted buses are on the road, from modest versions costing as little as $15,000 to $1-million buses with all the bells and whistles, including satellite TV. Enthusiasts say the middle ground is about $100,000.

Given that an oil change can cost $100 and that gas mileage is less than 12 miles to the gallon, the hobby is expensive. But dedicated bus owners say the vehicles are the ultimate RVs--so much so that some of them decide to make the road their lives.

Jane Knesel, 51, lived in Downey until she and companion Barry Brenchley, 53, of Yorba Linda moved into their bus in 1995.

Ever since childhood camping trips, Knesel wanted to travel full time. And Brenchley knew buses. He drove for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Los Angeles for 23 years until he retired in 1994.

"It wasn't the driving of the bus that really bothered me when I was working," he said. "It was opening the door and dealing with people. Now I don't have to open the door."

The couple spent about $119,000 to buy and remodel a Greyhound and launched a cross-country journey from Long Beach in 1995 to explore the Natchez Trace--the historic pioneer trail through the back country of Mississippi and Tennessee.

The only requirement to drive a converted bus is a Class C license--the same permit needed to drive a car in California. Even so, few people just jump into bus life. Interest often starts with sport utility vehicles, campers and RVs.

"Most of the bus people started with a motor home, but they wanted to upgrade and get something more roadworthy," said Paul Golie, 69, a semiretired public relations executive from Temecula.

Long Beach-based Bus Conversions magazine, with national circulation of 14,000, and two sister publications keep enthusiasts connected with articles on everything from how to pursue hobbies on the road to interior design tips and repairing electrical shorts.

Bus conversions date to the late 1920s, when some transit coaches were made into motor homes. Conversions were uncommon until the 1950s, however, and did not really make a dent on the motor home market until the late 1970s, said Michael A. Kadletz, 44, publisher of the conversion magazines.

If this weekend's convention in Costa Mesa is like last year's in Biloxi, Miss., enthusiasts will spend their time trading tips, telling road stories that they refer to as "bus lies" and relaxing in on-board hot tubs. Square dancing and potlucks with home cooking are also likely.

Why do they do it? Enthusiasts say big coaches offer an escape from the confines of a conventional lifestyle.

"I went from an upscale neighborhood to a 40-foot motor home in a parking lot without hookups," Knesel said. "My mother still hasn't recovered."

But the skepticism of friends and family has not dissuaded Knesel from her mobile life, as long as she can come up with $200 for the next tank of gas.

"It's not very good mileage," she conceded. "But it's great mileage for a home."

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