Home » Check Out The Well-Thought-Out Interior Of This Small School Bus-Based Camper

Check Out The Well-Thought-Out Interior Of This Small School Bus-Based Camper


Earlier this year, I said goodbye to my nightmare skoolie project. I also decided to get my dream U-Haul fiberglass camper instead of converting a piece of transit history. Despite that, I still pay attention to what’s going on in the skoolie world. Today, I found camper conversion that’s both small without also compromising on equipment. This 2009 GMC Savana 3500 school bus camper conversion almost has it all, and you won’t even need to shower outside.

Some of you have sent me emails or even told me at our car show that since starting here I haven’t written much about skoolies and wacky camper conversions. Looking at my history, you’d be right. So, let’s change that! And I think that I found a decent one.

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A number of the school bus conversions that I have written about for a while were built out of large buses. Big buses are great! I find them fun to drive and you have lots of space for whatever your mind cooks up. But, fuel economy isn’t nearly as fun and you need an extra-large space to park the things. Plus, you still have to drive a big bus that would normally require a CDL if it weren’t registered as an RV. So, there’s an appeal to going small.

But I sometimes find myself disappointed by smaller builds that lack amenities like toilets, showers, or places to put your cookware that won’t send a pan into the back of your head on hard braking. For an example, check out this skoolie of roughly the same size:

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It’s gorgeous, right? But it doesn’t have a bathroom, and the kitchen’s refrigerator does have a lot of space. Oh, and you don’t get an oven, either.

That’s what makes this little 2009 GMC Savana 3500 refreshing to me. It looks like its builder actually thought about having to use it for camping. And the seller claims to have camped in it over a year and 28,000 miles, so it seems to do the job.

This bus started off as a Thomas Minotour. As vehicle history site Coachbuilt notes, the Minotour has been in production since 1980. And “Thomas Built Buses” itself has an interesting history. It started in 1916 by Perley A. Thomas to build streetcars.  It built streetcars until 1936, when it followed industry trends and started building buses.

Thomas Streetcar
Thomas Built Buses

In 1980, the cutaway chassis cab van was still a fresh concept. In the 1970s, the Big Three introduced models of their vans that featured the forward cab up front and a bare chassis out back. These cutaway vans allowed body manufacturers to build a variety of small and medium-sized commercial vehicles on the back of an existing vehicle. For Thomas Built Buses, it meant the backbone for a 30-passenger school bus.

It isn’t said when this 2009 was taken out of service, but it looks like it survived school service well. Mileage isn’t noted, but under the short hood is a 6.6-liter Duramax turbodiesel V8. This is good for 250 horsepower and 460 lb-ft torque.

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Of course, the big reason to go diesel with something like this is the fuel economy. The seller says that it scores 15 to 17 mpg. In my experience, an equivalent gasoline-powered bus of this size would get about 12 mpg.

The living space of the bus is built out like a cabin in the woods. The first thing that I love is that directly behind the driver seat is the bathroom, which features a toilet and shower.

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The room is lined with cedar and you get a big window to look out of while you read the Morning Dump in the morning.

Aft from there is a wall of National Park maps, a couch, and then the kitchen. I love this, too, because the refrigerator is large enough that you could get by without having a separate cooler. And there’s an RV-style range with burners on top and an oven.

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For electrical power, it features power outlets, 400 Watts of solar power, a 300Ah house battery, and an inverter.

May be an image of indoor
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May be an image of indoor
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In the back of the camper is another couch, which leads out the back door to a porch. From there, you can climb a wooden ladder up to the party deck. It looks like a rather nice place to pop a chair and watch a sunset. 

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It looks like you don’t get an air-conditioner, but there’s already a spot to add that. Like I said before, it looks like the builder thought about having to camp in the thing. They didn’t try to chop the roof off to raise it and the builder even thought about storing stuff while on the road. I reached out to the seller for more insight, and I’ll update this if they get back to me.

The asking price is also pretty reasonable. At $29,999 it’s not the cheapest thing out there, but it seems to have a decent bang for its price. That aforementioned pretty bus above is $58,000 and doesn’t have nearly the same amount of kit. This little bus makes me wonder: Would you rather camp in something like this, or buy one of the many campers coming out of factories in Indiana?

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31 Responses

  1. I own a pretty similar shortie, it’s a 2002 Ford E450, really sort of sought this one out because it was the cheapest converted DIESEL shortie I could find in the US:

    The conversion wasn’t done super well, and the bus didn’t run right due to bad injectors, so the price was pretty cheap. Arranged to have it towed/repaired at a local diesel repair shop, then drove across the country to pick it up:


    I’ve only spent about 3 weeks in it this year, but it’s been a blast! With 200w of solar and southern CO sun, I could work remote all day and not worry about running out of power for the laptop. The bathroom situation still sucks (bucket) and no shower, but for now I’m happy with it. It honestly drives better than my Astro van… kind of shocking to be honest. Super relaxing to drive, whereas the astro is soft/twitchy at speeds.

    Anyway, I love my skoolie. Good deal. Under 8k all in right now. Will hopefully be working remote this winter. Cheers!

  2. I was pretty into m the whole #vanlife thing when it first started becoming a thing a few years back, but grew out of that pretty quick based on all the instagram fakeness. Like cool, another $150k sprinter.

    Anyway, this build rules! Don’t think I’d use it enough to make sense, maybe in a few decades when I’m ready to retire and there are electrified options. But I really like this one.

  3. I’d rather rock this than a new RV. Build quality of a RV is always shoddy at best. The pandemic made that far worse. The life cycle of a RV is that it is always under repair from the moment it leaves the factory until it gets abandoned in a field by the fourth owner. The first owner having shaken out the bugs is a good thing.

  4. Having “full-timed” and traveled around the West in an RV for a year and a half during the pandemic, I’ve always had a fascination with skoolies, and love seeing the well built ones. But 2/3 of them look pretty sketchy on the outside, despite what they may look like on the inside. This is why skoolies and other similar conversions are banned in a lot of rv parks.

    This is what kept me from pursuing a build on my own and instead I just purchased a new mainstream RV. Skoolies etc are an interesting niche, but expect to be side eyed a lot wherever you go, especially if your skoolie still resembles the transit vehicle it once was. You get enough side-eyes as someone living in a bright shiny new RV full time.

  5. The engine can be a bit of an accessibility challenge on these, but so much cheaper to maintain than the big buses. Way easier to drive with much lower clearance needs in all directions. This is easily worth the ask and so much nicer than most of the factory built options. It should still tow too! So a second vehicle is not out of the question.

  6. I guess at this point, annasmith has become a permanent part of Autopian culture. Maybe she will make an appearance at the next meetup.

  7. Great design, marginal implementation. Too many open voids, exposed edges (splinters!!), and visible wires. That said, it probably works better than a lot of new flimsy crapwagons out of Indiana.

  8. To each his/her/their own, but if I wanted to build something on this scale, I’d start with a cutaway cab box truck. You get much more room in the back, especially height.

    1. I love the way you roll! I giggle at the thought of buying an old U-Haul, converting it, then rolling up to a KOA. Oh, and you have to keep the graphics, of course.

  9. So the last thing I expected when I woke up this morning, was to see a photo of a street car literally in front of my high school. I can’t count how may times I rode that streetcar to school after missing the bus. Or how many times I ate at the Camellia Grill, which is in the background of the pic. BTW, if a car wasn’t in the far background, there would literally be no way to date this photo. Could have been taken any time over the last 80 or 90 years.

        1. Almost at the intersection of St. Charles Avenue and S. Carrolton Avenue, about a block from the Mississippi River in New Orleans. This specific area is sometimes referred to as the Riverbend.

  10. These home-depot conversions scare the shit out of me.

    I can barely begin to explain how unpleasant the idea of several hundred pounds of lumber stock and ceramic tile flying at the back of my head in an accident sounds.

    There’s a reason – beyond cost – that commercially built RV’s never feature this much wood in the passenger cabin. I’m not saying RV’s and campers are the pinnacle of build quality and safety – but they are absolutely designed and engineered to be what they are, rather than a retired bus filled with 2×4’s and self tapping wood screws.

    1. Commercially built RVs don’t use this much wood because it’s heavy and eats into payload. School buses tend to have a surprisingly high payload, so it may be just fine. Structurally, I don’t see how 2x4s and screws are any worse than OSB and staples.

  11. I dig the clean looks of the first one, but it doesn’t have a toilet or shower. I think the second one is more practical, but I don’t care for the aesthetic.

    I guess I just don’t understand it. I think $29,000 (or $58,000!!!) buys a lot better vacations. I’d rather fly somewhere than drive at 65mph getting 12mpg.

  12. I love this. This looks practical and usable. I think my favorite part of the whole thing is the cowboy had holder above the driver seat. I don’t even own a cowboy hat, but you could be damn sure I would buy one if I owned this thing just to use that holder!

  13. 100% the Albus.. with one of these you wouldn’t ever need to go to a RV park here in the Mountain West, just find a bit of BLM or Forest Service land and park..
    Particularly love that wall of National Park maps.. could just rotate through all the parks on an annual basis..
    Not shown in the article, but it has a green wooden front door replacing the original folding door.. absolutely fabulous !
    And it’s a diesel with plenty of life left, 15-17mpg instead of the 5-10 of the average giant RV.

    Still have 3-5 years before retirement, maybe I should just pre-emptively buy this and park it out back in the meantime.. I could go live it in on the weekends and dream..

  14. I’d love to build something like this one day and take the family on a camping trip.
    The space is okay but all the seats are gone, except the drivers seat.
    What are the rules for seating passengers in these? If you take out all the passenger seats, can they just hang out on a sofa in the back? How about small kids in car seats?

  15. I like the hippie bus feel of the interior harking back to wood shingled campers in Some Turtles Have Nicer Shells. To hark back to comment on the German lighting site. This bus looks like a machine for living in and not a machine for looking at.

  16. I just like that it is obviously owned by a Harry Potter fan!

    But I really don’t understand why people always built them so heavy, with wooden closets and metal racks. And dragging all that other crap around too.

    I owned a 1991 VW T4 eurovan diesel cargo version once. It had a wooden floor in the back and nice isolated sides, so you could sleep in it. I had a portable fridge but had to take the showers elsewhere. With all my semi lightweight camping equipment in it and 2 bicycles on the back it still got 31 MPG going 3000 miles all around France, even dragging a small foldable 1974 “CombiCamp” trailer (Google them, they’re great!)

  17. My grandmother always said that if she won the lottery, she would buy one of those beautiful RV buses, and hire me to drive it. In other words, a bus is wonderful as long as someone else is driving it.

    If I’m doing the driving, then I would want a little thing like this every time. (Although I probably would have taken Grandma up on her offer if it had ever come to pass.)

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