Located on America’s east coast is an opportunity to own a piece of transit history with some real practical applications. This 2000 Nova Bus RTS-06 is one of the final versions of GMC’s iconic “Rapid Transit Series” bus. Once a key part of the backbone of America’s bus transit systems, this RTS now enjoys an easier life as someone’s personal motorhome. And the RV conversion on this bus is awesome and downright cozy! You have a chance to own this piece of history and continue the story of the RTS.
Some folks have been asking for updates on my own RTS journey. I bought my RTS for an RV conversion, then learned the strong and loyal RTS fanbase convinced me to preserve the unit, instead. Admittedly, my bus is currently parked due to a registration issue and because parts are falling off. Bus registration issues can no longer be solved through Vermont, so I’m trying other means.
Recent storms tore two basement hatches off of my bus, and that’s when I learned that GM used to hold hatches on with hinges made out of rubber. I discovered that rubber hinges on all of my bus hatches are rotted to the point where I’m not even sure how they’re still holding on. Don’t worry, I’ll get you an update on what it’s like owning a transit bus when you’re just a regular everyday person.
Until then, let’s gaze at the RTS for sale today. It’s not said who converted this bus, but they seemed to have performed a good job.
You can tell the motorhome started life as a transit bus, but the modifications are good enough that the interior seems pretty cozy. And at $25,000 you seem to be getting a lot of bus and camper for your money.
Building A Better Bus
Between 1977 and 2012, transit systems all around America scooped up tens of thousands of RTS buses. Just a few decades ago, if you took public transportation in a large city, chances are you’ve seen or ridden in one of these magical machines. Texas A&M University, where I got my RTS, didn’t even start seriously offloading its fleet until 2020.
The Rapid Transit Series (RTS) is General Motors’ successor to the famed New Look transit bus. Back in 1970, the United States Urban Mass Transportation Administration launched the Transbus program to reverse declining bus ridership while advancing bus technology. The Transbus program was the result of a 1968 study by the National Academy of Sciences. That study suggested that more people would ride transit buses if they had low floors and wide doors. Further, the government was worried about the aforementioned declining ridership.
According to government records, mass transit systems had a ridership of 19 billion in 1945, falling to just 5.7 billion by 1975. Of those mass transit rides, the bus eventually became the favored mode of public transportation. In 1945, 8.3 billion of those 19 billion rides were on a bus. By 1975, 4.2 billion of the 5.7 billion rides were on buses. According to the data, bus ridership surpassed all other forms of public transit, but bus ridership was also falling without a sign of slowing down.
The study also found that buses currently on the roads were racking up an average of 30,000 miles a year with some transit systems driving buses over 40,000 miles a year. The study also found that many buses weren’t getting retired until they reached odometer readings of around 660,000 miles, but some transit systems were keeping their buses going long after a million miles. The Transbus program made durability a key element; the buses had to be able to survive over a million miles of punishing service.
The program was announced in 1970 by the Urban Mass Transportation Administration and in 1971, UMTA launched the program in earnest with the intent to purchase 100 prototype buses. Booz-Allen Applied Research was awarded the contract as Systems Manager for the program. A year later, three manufacturers were chosen to compete: General Motors, AM General, and Rohr Industries’ Flxible.
Above, you’ll see UMTA’s photos of the prototypes offered by the three bus makers. Since the Transbus program sought to create a standardized bus, all three are similar at their core, but with their own quirks. The buses were required to have a tandem axle at the rear for weight loads, resulting in two of the designs having three axles. Rohr/Flxible’s entry utilized small low-profile tires, resulting in two front and two rear axles. Unlike Flxible and GM, AM General did not have a bus in development outside of the Transbus program.
Along with a floor just 22 inches off of the ground, the Transbus was supposed to be faster, more reliable, with bigger doors, and importantly, the Transbus was supposed to be attractive. In 1973, the project also became about accessibility, as the Transbus would need to be wheelchair accessible and get low enough for people of limited mobility to board. The Transbus was intended to be the bus of the future and so good that people would willingly leave their cars behind just to ride it. This concept was so grand that the Urban Mass Transportation Administration told transit bus manufacturers that all of them will be building one standardized Transbus.
GM was already working on its successor to the New Look and decided to meet the goals of the program. In 1968, before the genesis of the Transbus program, GM unveiled the innovative Rapid Transit Experimental, or RTX. This distant predecessor to the RTS featured three axles, fiberglass body panels, curved acrylic windows, a unitized structure built in sections of stainless steel, and power from a GM GT 309 gas turbine engine hooked up to a toric continuously variable transmission.
Its interior had a focus on luxury and passengers sat in bucket seats that were totally locked to the 1970s. The RTX was developed into the RTS-3T, which was designed to meet the exacting requirements of the Transbus program. General Motors even had a kneeling bus technology in development for these transit buses.
The three manufacturers submitted their entries by 1974. Ultimately, the program would wither and die by 1976. The bus manufacturers were primed for this and were developing buses outside of the program. General Motors released the RTS-II in 1977.
Why The RTS Is An Icon
The production RTS-II kept a lot of what made the prototype buses great. Not all of the advancements were lost on the way to production. The gas turbines and third axles were left in the past, but the stainless steel, curvy unitized body stuck around. So did the plastic skin and acrylic windows. That unitized structure also came in five-foot sections, allowing for a variety of modular sizing options.
Early RTS-IIs suffered teething issues from engines that overheated and underpowered air-conditioners that failed to doors that failed to close. Sometimes the engine cradles cracked, too. Sadly, the RTS-II also failed to be the home run its predecessors were. GM managed to move 38,000 “Old Look” buses and 44,000 New Look buses.
The GMC Truck & Coach Division built the RTS-II from 1977 to 1987, producing 20,000 units before passing the torch to Transportation Manufacturing Corporation. TMC kept things going until 1994 when Nova Bus took over. Nova produced its version of the RTS until 2002 and produced 5,256 units along the way. Nova passed RTS bus rights to Millennium Transit Services that year. Production finally ceased for good in 2012.
Despite the RTS’ issues, the buses became the backbone of so much of America’s transit systems from coast-to-coast. Regardless if you were in Texas or New York, you probably saw these buses reliably carting riders around.
Subsequent manufacturers improved on the RTS design, too, equipping the coaches with better air-conditioners, different engines, and other quality-of-life improvements. The buses proved to be reliable enough that some fleets, like New York City’s MTA, kept the buses running after they passed two decades of age. They still looked pretty good, too, owing to their durable construction. As one report suggests, MTA could have kept its RTS buses going for even longer, but by 2019, when MTA retired the RTS, the buses were old and obsolete.
Ultimately, the RTS was an innovator, but one firmly from its era. Modern low-floor buses are more useful for a transportation system today. But that’s fine because the surviving RTS buses need homes, too!
This 2000 Nova Bus RTS-06
This bus was built when Nova Bus had the rights to the RTS. Power comes from a Detroit Diesel Series 50. It’s an 8.5-liter four-cylinder turbodiesel making 250 horsepower and 735 lb-ft torque transmitted through a five-speed ZF 5HP592C push-button automatic. This bus was originally a unit that operated for the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County, serving Sparks and Reno, Nevada. It’s unclear what gearing this bus has but many Novas were geared for higher speeds, allowing for comfortable highway drives.
Based on Nova’s internal naming system, this bus is an 82VN. In this naming scheme, “8” is the number of five-foot sections that were used to create this 40-foot bus. “N” means it has narrow doors while “V” is supposed to indicate a V-drive layout, even though Nova’s RTS units were not built with straight-in engines like that.
The modifications to this bus have been extensive. The exterior was painted in an olive drab with a white roof and you’ll spot an air-conditioner unit where the roof emergency exit once sat. Nova’s RTS buses didn’t have locking doors so there’s no surprise to see the sort of lock you see on a plumbing van there.
Inside, the entire dashboard was gutted and replaced with a motorhome-esque dashboard made out of wood.
Aside from the dash, the driver seat appears to be original and there’s a huge button bank, likely for the controls displaced when the factory dash was removed. I see where the builder was going with this, but I think the original dash looked better. Here’s what that dash looked like before the conversion, using my bus as an example:
Behind the driver seat is what appears to be a completed conversion. I spot a full kitchen with a residential refrigerator, an RV stove and oven, a microwave, a double basin sink, and plenty of counter space. Next to the kitchen is a living room with the air-conditioner, a sofa, a bench, and a dinette. An electric fireplace sits under a TV behind the driver seat.
Like any good motorhome, the seating surfaces convert into beds and there’s a bedroom in the rear featuring one large additional bed. It also has a full working bathroom as well. The seller says it comes with a full complement of the RV gear including holding tanks, a furnace, propane tanks, and more. That said, apparently, the furnace needs to be hooked up. The engine also has an oil leak and sometimes smokes during shifting. My RTS doesn’t have the oil leak, but it does occasionally let out a puff of smoke during a shift.
Overall, it’s not the best transit bus conversion I’ve seen, but it’s not a nightmare like that pirate bus, either. Using a transit bus as a base is also something I like more than a school bus build. This bus isn’t going to rot like many skoolies do and its air-ride suspension is less punishing, too. As a bonus, it also looks somewhat motorhome-like, something not easily achieved with a school bus build. If this unit’s air-conditioner is anything like the air-conditioner in my RTS, it gets so cold in there you end up opening a window to get some heat in there.
The seller wants $25,000 for it, which I bet could be negotiated. If you’re crazy like me, head down to Elmira, New York and pick up this motorhome. If anything, you’re getting a whole bus for a fraction of what people want for a converted Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van. Besides, there are few camper vans with a history like one of GM’s great transit buses.
(Photos: Facebook Seller, unless otherwise noted.)
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