Cool School

This ’41 Chevro­let school bus may be the ul­ti­mate diesel-swapped cruiser

Diesel Power - - Contents - Words by BRIAN LOHNES + Photos by BRIAN HOLLINGSWORTH

WE CHAL­LENGE you to try to look at the fol­low­ing photos of Cur­tis and Staci Ost’s ’41 Chevro­let school bus and not smile. We’re 100 per­cent sure you’ll fail. “Why,” you ask? Well, we think the num­ber one rea­son is be­cause a school bus is one of those ve­hi­cles ev­ery­one re­lates to. Cou­ple that with the fact that the Osts’ rig is leaps and bounds bet­ter than the rest, and it’s easy to un­der­stand why we think this way.

We had all kinds of names for the trundling yel­low ma­chines when we were kids. They were cheese wag­ons, loser cruis­ers, and worse, but then again they were never like this one. Our school shut­tles never had the right stance, look, or amaz­ingly thought­ful hot-rod touches— and they never had an in­te­rior like this one. If we’d rid­den to school on this bus we might still be there, just to cruise the streets in this rig twice a day. But we di­gress.

Cur­tis pro­vided pos­si­bly the great­est an­swer in his­tory when we asked why he set his sights and con­sid­er­able tal­ents on a ’41 Chevro­let school bus.

“I have had street rods and hot rods over the years,” he ex­plains. “My wife, who is a school bus driver, asked when I was go­ing to build her some­thing, and one of the op­tions she gave me was a bus.” As so of­ten hap­pens in sit­u­a­tions like this, fate in­ter­vened and clearly set the course. “A cou­ple of days later, my wife said a friend of mine about five miles from our house took this bus in as scrap,” Cur­tis laughs.

“It had been turned into a mo­torhome, there was an old WaveRun­ner hang­ing off the back, it had a smoke­stack com­ing out of it, and some­one had swapped a ’50s-era I-6 gas engine into it.”

Struc­turally sound for the most part, the bus did not re­quire a huge amount of re­pair. But de­spite its sound­ness, Cur­tis’ de­sign abil­ity and met­al­work­ing skills are all over this thing. He hand­made the rear and side doors (they were both rot­ted) and ap­plied his tal­ents to mak­ing things look right. “I ex­tended the side pan­els about 6 inches to give the bus a low­ered look,” Cur­tis ex­plains. “The front fend­ers are an in­ter­est­ing story. In or­der to get the look right and fit the wider tires, I bought a ’41 ¾-ton truck cab that had a front clip on it. I took its fend­ers and widened them about 4½ inches. Then I used the orig­i­nal front fend­ers on the bus to make the rear fend­ers. I feel like they look stock, and most peo­ple have no idea.”

Those rear pieces were not cre­ated with­out trou­ble, though. The Al­coa 22-inch cus­tom alu­minum wheels were not on sched­ule, so Cur­tis con­tacted the man­u­fac­turer and re­quested the di­men­sions. “I called, got the mea­sure­ments, and made the fend­ers. When I hung them, they were more than an inch

“Struc­turally sound for the most part, the bus did not re­quire a huge amount of re­pair. But de­spite its sound­ness, Cur­tis’ de­sign abil­ity and met­al­work­ing skills are all over this thing.”

too nar­row, so I took them off and re­made them,” he says. The last ma­jor one-off pieces on the body (among the hun­dreds we could point out) are the tail­lights. Us­ing ’41 Chevro­let truck head­light buck­ets, Cur­tis didn’t know if the fit would be right. “My wife saw them and thought they looked too big, and I was kind of ner­vous about that as well,” he ex­plains. “I liked the way they looked but was con­cerned about find­ing a lens that would fit. A friend was there when I was talk­ing about this, and he came back 30 min­utes later with some lenses from an early-’60s Ford Galaxie, and they fit per­fectly. Prob­lem solved.”

The driv­e­train in this clas­sic is prob­a­bly the com­po­nen­try of most in­ter­est to Diesel Power read­ers. The idea was not to build some tire-smok­ing hot rod. In­stead, Cur­tis wanted a re­li­able cruiser that

could be taken to shows and pull a trailer when needed. Prior ex­pe­ri­ences with 12-valve 5.9L Cum­mins en­gines led Cur­tis to choose the ven­er­a­ble I-6 pow­er­plant for the bus. “The engine is re­ally close to stock,” he says. “We get more than 20 mpg on the high­way, and we are able to tow our trailer with it as well. I had done Cum­mins swaps pre­vi­ously, and it made the most sense for this build. I ac­tu­ally used the rear sus­pen­sion and axle from the same truck I bought for the engine.” Out­side of a sim­ple fuel plate mod­i­fi­ca­tion and a freer-flow­ing air in­take, the engine is stock. The trans­mis­sion is an Al­li­son four-speed au­to­matic ac­com­pa­nied by a torque con­verter with a lower stall speed. While the bus weighs 8,100 pounds, it is not nearly as heavy as the loads the Al­li­son was used to mov­ing, so a slightly tighter con­verter helps im­prove fuel mileage and drive­abil­ity. The rear end is the Dana 80 from the Dodge truck that pro­vided the engine to the project.

With com­fort and re­li­a­bil­ity crit­i­cal to the build, the front sus­pen­sion is an in­de­pen­dent setup from a ’70s Chevro­let mo­torhome. Amaz­ingly, the ma­jor­ity of the ’41 Chevro­let bus frame is orig­i­nal. Since the bus spent most of its time in Colorado, that’s an in­ter­est­ing foot­note.

Cur­tis de­signed the in­te­rior for max­i­mum fun. There are swivel­ing cap­tain’s chairs in front and a wrap­around bench in the back. “I made the rear seat frame, and when the in­te­rior shop got it, I asked them to make it like an old diner seat,” Cur­tis says with a laugh. “This is not filled with foam. It has metal springs in it; when peo­ple sit on it, they im­me­di­ately un­der­stand and feel the old-time style of it. The guys did it ex­actly the way I wanted.”

Cur­tis and Staci have ex­actly what they want, a fun and func­tional piece of Amer­i­cana they can en­joy how­ever they please. “We nick­named it ‘Smi­ley,’” Cur­tis says. “Peo­ple can­not look at it, see it on the street, or peek at it when we are at a show with­out smil­ing. It’s the best part of own­ing some­thing like this. It brings peo­ple a lot of joy, and that’s re­ally my fa­vorite thing about it.”

Cur­tis can down­play his de­sign and met­al­work­ing skills with us all he wants. This ’41 Chevro­let is amaz­ing on ev­ery level.

The party on wheels! A vin­tage Frigidaire-look cooler with trick metal-sprung, wrap­around seat­ing takes an al­ready in­ter­est­ing rig and vaults it over the top of the cool­ness scale. Note the cus­tom stereo speak­ers as well. This is one school bus we’d...

Just be­cause the Cum­mins does not make huge power doesn’t mean Cur­tis cut corners on the driv­e­train. The Dana 80 rear axle is a tes­ta­ment to that. Note the mas­sive sway bar that keeps body lean in check. Also, look at all the tire un­der there!

Driv­ing the Brat Rod is done in com­fort. This swivel cap­tain’s-style seat gives Cur­tis or Staci the best view in the rig, and it al­lows for easy en­try and exit. The tilt col­umn also suits a driver’s taste in steer­ing an­gle. Keeping the yel­low-and-black...

The un­der­side is as nice as the top. The Al­li­son trans­mis­sion is an au­to­matic with a torque con­verter that has a slower stall speed. This bus weighs way less than the amount the trans­mis­sion was ini­tially de­signed to move, and the engine can move the...

In 1941, the engine in this heavy bus would have had the same num­ber of cylin­ders but a lot less power than the Cum­mins in it now. Choos­ing to go for full-on re­li­a­bil­ity rather than speed, Cur­tis chose to leave the 5.9L I-6 pow­er­plant nearly 100...

If this grille could talk! When you con­sider that el­e­ments of the body are 77 years old, the ma­chine be­comes even more in­ter­est­ing. The grille has seen the harsh­est win­ter storms and the most swel­ter­ing sum­mer days. To­day, it’s a pam­pered piece.

This is one of the most unique and awe­some ve­hi­cles that has ever hit the pages of Diesel Power. The ’41 Chevro­let school bus has been mas­saged, al­tered, and re­pow­ered with a 5.9L Cum­mins engine and Al­li­son trans­mis­sion.

There’s not a sharp cor­ner on this thing! One of the ma­jor chal­lenges of work­ing on ve­hi­cles of this era is re­pair­ing, recre­at­ing, or, in this case, in­te­grat­ing com­pound curves to change the body’s ap­pear­ance but main­tain its flow. Cur­tis’ met­al­work­ing...

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