If you’ve ever visited Scandinavia (especially Norway) in the summer you might have seen them on the road: former public transport buses transformed into huge campers. Certainly a sight to behold on the highways and camping sites. While it might seem daunting to put in all the time, effort and money into acquiring the necessary driver’s licenses and more importantly, the bus itself, here are some considerations that may make the planning easier.
Getting hold of a bus
When shopping around for a former member of the public transport fleet of your choice, there is an important distinction to make in the available buses. Despite the fact that as a bus driver (or owner) you can change the destination of a bus to anything you want, the former destinations do matter. Buses that have spent the majority of their days driving on city streets, despite having theoretical top speeds that are adequate for highway driving have engines and transmissions which are not “used to” being driven a bit harder and struggle with higher speeds. If you don’t want your road map to be limited to swirly back roads, you might want to give these buses a pass. The same goes for former airport buses (which might also be tough getting a license plate for). Instead, you want to get a bus that has driven more highway miles. These (in Dutch) streekbussen might be more expensive than their city counterparts, but unless you’re a very dedicated mechanic, they are worth it. Though, if you’re less of a public transport and more of a commercial travel operator kind of person, a coach, even a double-decker one, might be a nice option. Two stories make for double the space (it has been done before). Another trait some buses have that others don’t is being an articulated bus. Such buses are even harder to operate and maintain but can also be very spacious when converted.
Being legally able to operate a (former) bus
This might seem obvious. Just get a bus driver license and you’re done, right? Not exactly. In the Netherlands, a bus driver license is required if you will be transporting a minimum of 8 people. So if your bus has been stripped of its seats (or if you just keep 7) you’ll be fine driving it with a truck driver’s license (which is slightly easier to obtain).
Storage and finding camping spots
Besides the costs of acquiring, renovating and maintaining an older (diesel) bus, storage can also be an issue. Taking up five parking spots is not just a rather expensive hobby, it also won’t make you any more popular with your neighbors. Off-site storage is the way to go if you live in a city. If you happen to own a large shed however, this might not be such an issue.
Another thing to consider, which can also partly explain why old buses are more popular in Scandinavia, is finding a campsite or destination that allows buses. As long as you do not disturb or damage anything, Sweden’s allemansrätten allows you to stay on someone else’s land. Countries like Norway and Finland have similar policies. In the Netherlands, however, you might have some more trouble finding a place to stay. Many camping sites have spots fit for campers, but may pass on your 18-meter-long behemoth not originally intended to be camped in. Large tires, weight and engine displacement might also be a hard sell for more nature-oriented camping sites.
While all these considerations will make most people think that converting an old bus is more trouble than it’s worth, there are still people (also in the Netherlands) that will embark on such a journey. The majority of converted buses here end up as camper, werkwagen (hauling cargo to perform maintenance on infrastructure at public transport companies) or to haul large objects like race cars around. There was, however, one entrepreneur that went one step further.
Let’s take a trip to 1980s The Hague. A local entrepreneur, Jan de Bruyne, came up with the idea to establish a “train connection” between the beaches of The Hague and Katwijk using a tractor as a “locomotive” and old buses as its “train cars”. The permit of the coastal municipalities involved was only valid in the off-season, which made the first year of the so-called Strandtrein a modest (though plagued by the bad weather) success. Before the fall rolled around again however, disaster struck when hooligans torched the Strandtrein storage facility, rendering all vehicles unusable. This setback did not stop the de Bruyne. Instead of going with the locomotive and train cars approach, the formula was changed up a bit, making a newly purchased bus more of a railbus-type train (bus) by driving solo. It got the looks and colors to match as well, making it the sand driving little brother of the NS’s matrieel ’54 trains. Aside from this flagship DIY hondekop (a popular nickname for Matrieel ’54 trains), other buses were also purchased (but not modified as heavily).
Despite having a good first couple of months in the new season, good times wouldn’t last. When a bus driver spotted a jeep stuck in the sand, another bus was sent to pull the jeep out. Unfortunately, after the jeep was freed, disaster struck again when one of the tires of the rescue bus blew underneath the Scheveningen pier, causing the bus to sink into the sand. Another rescue mission using fire trucks and an excavator was unfortunately unsuccessful. Adding to the already substantial damage that day, the bus that initially spotted the stuck jeep was destroyed by hooligans in the night. While the damage on the vandalized bus was fixable, this was another blow to the company.
Disaster struck a third and final time when a bus that was purchased to replace the bus lost to the sand found its way into a patch of quicksand. With the tide rising rapidly, this bus also couldn’t be saved.
After this unfortunate series of events, the municipality of Wassenaar (which is situated in between The Hague and Katwijk) pulled the plug on the permit. The next year, the municipality of The Hague followed, sealing the fate of the Strandtrein.
This article was inspired by the book Autobussen In Hun Tweede Leven by Ruud V. Berendes, which is an interesting read. It is also packed with photos of Dutch buses ending up in various places in the Netherlands and around the world. I would recommend the book for anyone interested.
A nice example of a double decker coach converted into a camper (in the Netherlands) can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xeMT1d_L-hw.
The most extreme bus conversion I know of has been done in Canada. This articulated coach has been converted to house a family of eight! The original video has unfortunately been privated, but screenshots can still be found on here: https://tinyhousetalk.com/family-of-8s-big-bendy-bus-conversion/.
This article was first published in the Girugten End of Year Edition (Year 51 of Girugten – issue 03 – June 2021).