Choosing the best bus body style for your build

Choosing a body style of a bus depends on YOUR preferences, and what pros/cons/features are important to you. 

The first thing you’ll want to decide on when choosing a bus is what length you’re looking for. Old school buses max out at 40ft, and although technically the law allows up to a 45ft school bus today, it's very uncommon to find one longer than 40ft. So if you're looking for the max amount of space, look for a 40-footer. Or on the other end of the spectrum, you can get a short bus - either a van conversion or cutaway (basically, a Ford or GM van front-section with a steel or fiberglass bus back-section) or a Type B short bus (usually looks like a full-sized dog-nose bus, but shorter, and weighing less than 21k lbs).

The two primary full-sized body styles are the conventional dog nose (Type C) with the hood out in front of the driver and the entrance behind the front wheels, or a flat nose, with no hood at all (Type D), which can be front-engine (FE), rear-engine (RE) or mid-engine, both with the entrance in front of the front wheels.

The obvious draw to having a full-sized bus is the increased floor space you have to work with (up to a max of about 270sq ft of useable space). A shorter bus is easier to navigate, park in neighborhoods (or your driveway) and usually gets better fuel mileage. Most full-timers will go for a longer bus, and if you’re just looking for a weekend camper, you might be fine with a shorter one.

When looking for a bus, you'll often see them listed by how many passengers they carry, rather than length. 84 passengers typically means a full 40ft bus. That's counting 3 kids to a seat, so 14 rows. 

Layout options

Each bus type presents different challenges when you go to layout your floor plan. Make sure to take into account the wheel arches and engine cover, and on front-engine buses, the fact that you have a driveshaft and exhaust running down the center under you bus might limit where you can put your water tanks or storage compartments.

Use the information below to pick which type of bus you're after, keeping in mind that there each manufacturer is slightly different, and there are exceptions to some of these pros/cons.

 

Dog-Nose (Conventional)

PROS OF A CONVENTIONAL DOG-NOSE

  • Good for backroads (best approach angle and good clearance)
  • Easily accessible engine
  • Rear door allows for creation of garage/storage space
  • Only 2 wheel arches to build around
  • Classic "school-bus look"

CONS OF A CONVENTIONAL DOG-NOSE

  • Drive shaft and exhaust run length of bus, limiting under-storage/tank options
  • Can have poor departure angle on the longer Type C buses
  • Less interior space than a flat-nose of same length
  • More likely to get rejected from RV park

A conventional school bus tends do have better ground clearance, and a better approach angle, since the front wheels are further forward, making them better for going off the beaten path. That being said, on a full 40ft bus, the rear overhang on a conventional bus can be so long that you’ll drag your tail easily, and might not have any extra off-highway capabilities compared with a flat nose. The engine is also very accessible on a conventional bus.The downside to a conventional bus is that you lose about 40sq feet of floor space since part of your length is used up by engine, and isn’t interior space. But this is probably your best bet if you're going to be off the beaten path frequently, and the ability to build a garage/storage area accessible from the back door is a huge feature for some people (especially those who have a lot of outdoor gear).

Front-Engine Flat-Nose (transit)

PROS OF A FRONT-ENGINE FLAT-NOSE

  • More interior space than a conventional bus of same length
  • Rear-door allows for creation of garage/storage space
  • Good front visibility
  • Less likely to be rejected at RV park (compared to a dog-nose)

CONS OF A FRONT-ENGINE FLAT-NOSE

  • Drive shaft and exhaust run length of bus, limiting under-storage/tank options
  • Poor departure angle on the longer buses
  • The noisiest/hottest option when driving (engine hump is right beside driver)
  • 4 wheel arches to build around on the interior

An FE bus is usually built pretty similarly to a conventional bus, except you have more interior space. Downside is that you have a large engine hump next to the driver, which creates a lot of extra noise and heat. But if you're looking for maximum square footage while keeping the rear-door access options, this might be your best bet.

Rear-Engine Flat-Nose (transit)

 

PROS OF A REAR-ENGINE FLAT-NOSE (TRANSIT)

  • More interior space than a conventional bus of same length
  • Quietest option while driving
  • Tend to have longer wheel-base, smoother ride
  • No driveshaft/exhaust running under bus, so better storage/tank installation options
  • Typically has better departure angle than same length FE bus
  • Good front visibility
  • Less likely to be rejected at RV park (compared to a dog-nose)
  • Best traction, with weight of engine over drive wheels

CONS OF A REAR-ENGINE FLAT-NOSE (TRANSIT)

  • No rear door, so no good option for garage (they'll have a side emergency exit towards the rear, so you can still have another entrance, just more difficult to turn into garage/storage area)
  • Often have lower ground clearance due to storage bays
  • Engine hump in the rear limits rear floor options
  • 4 wheel arches to build around

A RE flat nose usually has a smoother, quieter ride, since the engine is located at the opposite end of the bus from the driver. Probably the best option for a highway cruiser, or if you're trying to get the absolute most amount of living space out of your bus. A misconception is that the engine is harder to work on—however with rear and side engine door access, it's usually not an issue. You do lose floor space in the rear where the engine box is located, but usually can still make use of the space by installing a bed or storage above it. As long as you make use of the space above the engine, an RE flat-nose gives you the most floorspace of any model of the same length. Another advantage is that with the engine located behind the rear axle, there is no driveshaft or exhaust running under the bus, which means this option has the most freedom for designing the layout of your bus, and for massive underbelly storage. One major drawback for some people is the lack of a rear door—so for those of you hoping to install a back porch, or a “garage” area, it’s much more complicated. 

Mid-Engine Flat-Nose (transit)

If you're after a mid-engine bus, you'll be limited to a Crown (1991 or older) or a Gillig (1982 or older). Converting one of these can be a little more challenging, since you've got an engine under the floor that you have to maintain access to (through the floor) and are also limited in under storage and tank placement (although this does mean that they typically have a good storage area accessible from the back of the bus, and great weight distribution means great handling...for a bus). Other than that, the pros/cons are pretty similar to a rear-engine transit style. The look of the early Crowns & Gilligs is hard to beat! These were only west-coast buses, so can be especially hard to find. They come in both mid & rear engine variants.

One other note on the older Crowns/Gilligs—some of them will have drop-sash windows (like the one pictured above), instead of split sash. If you're getting rid of all the windows and replacing them with RV windows, this doesn't matter. But if you're planning on keeping them, realize that this means you have a lot less light coming in from the windows (they're about 2/3 the height of most modern bus windows), and it's tricky to insulate the space right below the windows (since the window needs to slide into that space.