All Aboard the Greyhound Express!
Brave Adventurers Take to the Road in 1951 Vintage Bus Conversion
By Randy Sallis
Traveling from Florida to New Hope, Pennsylvania, in a 1951 General Motors, Greyhound Bus converted to a motorhome/coach sounded like a good idea. Don Fenwick, our captain, pilot, and owner of the bus, asked three of his friends to join him, all fellow members of the Lambda Car Club International (LCCI), an all-makes classic car club. Joining Don was Don Chapman, co-captain and second driver; Bruce Burbage, back-up driver and navigator, who operated the GPS and kept us on track and monitored our speed; and your author Randy Sallis, back-up driver and flight attendant.
We were headed to the Lamdba Car Club’s 25th Anniversary Grand National Invitational, hosted by the Del-Valley Region, where the club was founded. We were proud representatives of the Florida region, the Flamingo Auto Group. This was the first long-distance trip for the bus. We all thought it would be fun, adventurous and campy, and it was. We also knew there might be a few bugs to be worked out along the way, and there were.
When this bus was first put into operation, it was built without a speedometer and without a gas gauge. It was built specifically to run from the Port Authority in New York City to Poughkeepsie, NY, every single day until it was retired from the line. Years later it was purchased by a gentleman who converted the bus into a motorhome coach. Features include a living area with two swivel rockers, a pull out full-size bed/sofa plus a king-size bed in the rear. It was also equipped with an apartment size refrigerator with freezer, a four-burner stove, microwave, convection oven, ice maker, a double stainless-steel sink, dishwasher, washer and dryer, a separate shower stall and a bathroom with sink and seat. What made the interior so campy is the décor of the back bedroom and the bathroom, festooned with mirrored ceilings and walls. The only thing missing is a disco ball.
Days and weeks prior to departure, everything was checked and rechecked from bumper to bumper, and top to bottom. The transmission was checked, air lines cleaned and checked, a rebuilt generator installed to run all the electric, two new air-conditioning units were installed on the roof, the water heater replaced, brakes checked, rear axle greased and checked, all the grease fittings greased and even though there were just a few thousand miles on the rebuilt Detroit Diesel engine, it too was checked.
Two GPS (global positioning system) units were on board. A smaller portable unit was on the dash to keep track of our speed and mileage, and another one was downloaded on a computer to do the same, plus track our pre-planned route. A fresh coat of paint was given to the top and trim, and the aluminum was polished to a gleaming shine, like a silver bullet. She looked great and as eager to hit the road as we were.
Don Fenwick packed every conceivable tool that he thought we might need including an air compressor, battery booster/charger, replacement parts, plus extra gas and oil filters.
Most of the luggage was stowed below in the storage compartments of the bus; provisions (food and beverages) were packed and tucked away in every cabinet, cupboard, nook and cranny. Space in a motorhome is quite limited and every space is well planned and carefully utilized. My motto is; "Everything has a place and there’s a place for everything!" Being extremely well organized was part of my job, including packing the bus and find a place for all the food and cooking utensils.
Allowing plenty of time for the trip, we started out on the road on a Sunday (August 13) to arrive in New Hope on Wednesday. Our first stop Sunday morning was a Wal-Mart to pick up pastry, and a couple of last-minute items for the trip. The looks we received, as Don Fenwick pulled up to the front door of Wal-Mart to let me out to shop, was priceless. I was in and out in less than five minutes and just like a bus stop, Don pulled up, swung the door open and I stepped in as if I were expected to hand Ralph Kramden a transfer or token.
Just then the generator quit, which meant no air-conditioning! The obvious cause was simple to figure out: we were out of gasoline for the generator. Our next stop was at the gas pumps to fill the gas tank for the generator and the two, 55-gallon tanks of diesel fuel to feed that big, thirsty, Detroit Diesel engine.
Surprise: Six New Tires
After picking up Don Chapman and Bruce Burbage, we were Interstate bound, roaring up the highway. Other motorists turned their heads, giving us the thumbs up, waving and occasionally a beep of a horn in amazement. We were doing great, until about 90 miles away from home, when a re-tread gave way, causing the bus to shake and rattle. It shook like a 747 in turbulence, thus I made my way down the aisle to instruct everyone to put their trays in the up-right and locked position and put their heads between their legs and kiss their butts good-bye.
Our first unscheduled stop was a rest area on I-75. We parked next to all those big tractor trailers so we could survey the situation. One re-tread tire was in pieces and another was about to give way, which meant we had to replace tires. Each of us were given the opportunity to decide if we should turn around and head home, to change vehicles and travel to New Hope in a daily driver, or have the tires replaced and continue in the Big Silver Greyhound.
We voted to replace the tires and continue.
A trucker suggested calling Flying J’s just up the Interstate to replace the tires, so I did. They suggested calling a truck service company. Fortunately the tire company was open on this Sunday, had the size tires we needed, and was able to come out to replace them. It took the guy about an hour and a half to reach us and he went right to work: jacking up that bus, making all kinds of noise with his power tools and spinning tires around like it was nothing. What a hero! Wouldn't you know, it started to rain for a good half hour and that man never stopped until all six tires were replaced and we were back on the road.
Of course it was time for me to return to my duties in the galley, and I made lunch for everyone. We had planned on meeting up with our friend Sid, a long-time member of LCCI, in Georgia for lunch, but at this point we were at least four hours behind schedule and still in Florida. Once on our way, the bus began spitting and sputtering, would lose compression, and when we stopped for a potty break and stretch, she stalled and wouldn’t start.
Like a NASCAR pit-stop crew, we opened all the compartment doors, pulled out tool boxes, filters, and parts and went to work like surgeons, until all of us had diesel fuel up to our elbows and she was running again. We didn’t make it to Sid’s in Georgia until 8:00 that night, exhausted and reeking of diesel fuel.
After a stressful day, we welcomed the opportunity to relax. We were up for hours with Sid catching up and chatting, and finally had to call it a night well past midnight.
Bright and early the next morning, we put on our mechanic hats. We checked fuel lines and filters, hoping the old fuel was now gone, and with it the engine problems we'd experienced. We took a tour of Sid’s collection of more than two dozen very rare and extraordinary classic cars in showroom condition, and then it was time for breakfast before re-fueling and hitting the road.
Monday’s travels were a little less eventful, with no major breakdowns, although it was sometimes difficult trying to get the RPMs synched to shift though the gears without the transmission grinding. The bus wasn’t running at 100 percent perfection, but close enough.
We stopped at the North Carolina Welcome Center to stretch our legs, take a break and gather information on campground locations. We agreed on a KOA Camp, and called ahead for reservations, describing our 35-foot motorhome and needing full hook-up. Their jaws dropped when we pulled in with a classic 1951 Greyhound Bus! We parked, pulled out the awning, lit the grill, made ourselves comfortable, had dinner and relaxed for the evening.
Tuesday wasn’t as uneventful as we would have hoped. The throttle was acting up, throwing off the RPMs, which made the transmission grind in almost every gear, and still spitting and sputtering and stalling nearly every time we stopped. A couple of times the batteries wore down and we had to jump start the bus with the battery booster/charger.
It was a nightmare trying to keep the bus running, blowing out fuel lines and changing fuel filters at almost every rest area we stopped. The overflow line from one of the tanks was shooting a stream of diesel fuel from one end of Virginia to the other. We finally reached Don Chapman’s house in West Virginia, parked the bus, and disembarked to the warm southern hospitality of Don’s family.
Don showed us his many collectible classic cars and memorabilia. Don’s family came to meet and greet us, and made us feel at home with a down-home family barbeque.
One of Don’s nephews, experienced in Detroit Diesel engines, made some adjustments to the throttle. He suggested we drain the main gas tank and replace the fuel to alleviate the problems we’d been having. Bright and early the next morning the Pit Crew went to work, draining the fuel tank, blowing out the lines, changing fuel filters and blocking off the fuel line and the overflow from the secondary tank. Confident that we had fixed all the problems, we showered and headed for town for lunch before hitting the road. We can’t thank Don Chapman and his family enough for all of their generosity, help and hospitality.
Reason to Celebrate
The bus ran remarkably well through the mountains of West Virginia and Pennsylvania as we made our final approach to New Hope, Pennsylvania. Don Fenwick surprised himself and all of us as he maneuvered this 35-foot Greyhound, passing through small towns with very little room for a vehicle of this size, and driving two-lane, winding, country back roads.
Arriving at the Best Western in New Hope was a sight to see as we pulled into the parking lot, like a vision from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The only thing missing was the giant high-heel shoe and a flowing boa. Club members stood with eyes wide open, jaws dropped to the ground, pointing and laughing with delight, as we made our grand entrance. Within minutes the awning was open, the turf carpet laid, lawn chairs and tables in place, decorations and accessories hung.
We were ready for our open house, as members and guests stopped by to meet, greet and take the grand tour. Throughout the weekend we offered our very own recipe of Diesel Juice (fruit punch, in “regular” and “ethyl” versions), along with an array of snacks as we took groups on a guided tour showing the transformed Greyhound and its fabulous, campy interior. Priscilla II was the hit of the car show: We received an award for the Tail-light Glow Contest plus the Hard-Luck Award.
The 25th Anniversary celebration for LCCI was a sensational success. The friendly camaraderie, the rare, unusual and beautiful cars, the well-planned events, the restaurants, host hotel, banquet and entertainment, were all unforgettable. It was wonderful, and we enjoyed every moment.
Before heading back to Florida, Don Fenwick made an additional check on the fuel lines, filters and the remaining mechanics of the bus. We re-fueled, re-stocked essentials, and headed for the Interstate.
It wasn’t long after we crossed the Maryland state line that the bus started to act up again! The compression was weak, and we kept losing momentum as we tried to climb the smallest of grades. Finally, we came to a complete stop one mile from an exit on Interstate 95. Three lanes of traffic flying by us made it too dangerous to deploy for our usual pit-stop maneuvers.
We had no choice but to call the motor club for a tow off of the Interstate. We were assured they would send a tow truck and a taxi to take all but the driver to our destination (a Honda dealership) in Perryville, Maryland. There, the bus would be serviced first thing Monday morning! Yes, it was Sunday and no repair facilities were open.
The taxi arrived and took Bruce and me to Perryville. The tow truck cancelled soon after, and there we sat for six hours trying to arrange for the bus to be towed. Desperate, we finally called another taxi to retrieve Bruce and me in Perryville, pickup Don Chapman from the bus, and deliver us to a Ramada Inn a mile off of the Interstate.
We then found a towing service with a tow vehicle large enough for the bus and deliver it to the Ramada Inn with Don Fenwick, who by this time was a nervous wreck. Exhausted, aggravated, hungry, and tired of the bus and its continual breakdowns, we showered, went for dinner and discussed the prospect of aborting the bus. The thought was to leave it in Maryland, rent a van to get us back to Florida, and make arrangements to ship the bus back to Florida.
The team decided to give the bus one more try in the morning. If we couldn’t find the problem and get the bus running and running right, we were going to follow through with our plans and leave Priscilla II behind.
Can't Give Up Now!
Don Fenwick was up and out hours before any of us woke that morning, trying to find the problem, fix the bus and get us on our way. In doing so, he discovered a leak in the main fuel line to the engine. After breakfast we patched her up, packed up and headed for Perryville, to a local mechanic Bruce and I had found the day before, who is well equipped to handle large trucks and diesel motorhomes.
Unfortunately, he was unwilling to help us. Through a stroke of luck, a customer over-hearing our dilemma offered to drive one of us to find a replacement hose. Two hours and four shops later, the fuel line was changed and we were headed for home . . . Florida!
A couple of hours later we discovered it was getting balmy and warm in the bus. The air conditioning had stopped because so had the generator. We agreed that we wouldn’t spend any more than an hour at the next rest-area to diagnose and fix the problem, as we had lost too much time from the prior day. We wanted nothing more than to get home.
At the rest stop, we changed the fuel pump and re-wired the generator to over-ride the system. Nothing, though, would keep the generator running for long. Without the air-conditioning, the remainder of the day's trip was stuffy. There are only two working windows in the front of the bus that open and two vents on the roof for circulation.
We discovered a road-side camp site off the Interstate in North Carolina with a couple of nearby gas stations offering diesel fuel, and decided to call it a day. It was soon obvious this camp site was not quite a KOA campground, but we were thankful for the opportunity to stop and relax.
The next morning we grabbed breakfast, re-fueled and headed south for home. The bus never ran better the entire trip; idling as smooth as silk. RPMs were right where they’re supposed to be, gears shifting with very little to no grinding, and no more spitting and sputtering, just smooth sailing. Of course, we were still without air conditioning.
With the bus running exceptionally well we were able to make up a lot of lost time and found a nice, clean KOA campground near the Florida border in Georgia and nestled in for the night.
The next morning Don made one last attempt to get the generator to run and made a phone call to the guy that sold him the generator for some advice and assistance, to no avail.
We packed and boarded the bus for our last few hours drive, this last day together aboard Priscilla II – The Greyhound Express. In unison, we clicked our heels three times and unanimously said, "There's no place like home; there's no place like home."