When you want an RV custom-built for your needs, converting a cargo van or a school bus is a great option, but what manufacturers are best?
Learning which brands have a reputation for quality construction, reliable engines, and ease of conversion can be challenging, especially when shopping for a used cargo van or school bus.
Luckily, I list the best school bus and cargo van manufacturers for converting to an RV in this guide to make things easy. In addition, I detail why owners like these brands, why you should consider a DIY conversion, and a few tips to help you pick the right vehicle.
If creating a custom RV is something you’re considering, don’t shop for a school bus or cargo van until you read this guide!
Types of School Buses
There are three common types of school buses available, and learning the differences between them will help you when shopping for a model.
Type A School Bus
Type A buses are the smallest, with a weight that does not exceed 10,000 pounds. This type of bus is best for solo or couple RVers looking for a more compact schoolie.
A sub-category of this bus is the Type A-2, which is usually around 14,000 pounds and is made to carry more than 10 people.
Fuel for a Type A bus is almost always gasoline, but some diesel models exist.
Type C School Bus
The Type C bus is the one you see most around town when school is in session. It carries 30-40 passengers, with a dognose front end, and the engine may be gas or diesel.
This type of bus is prevalent for converting into a camper due to the size, which can accommodate sleeping quarters for up to eight people with the proper layout.
Type D School Bus
The Type D bus is another popular choice to convert to an RV for the size and the appearance that closely resembles a Class A motorcoach. Many of these “transit” style buses run on diesel fuel.
The flat front end expands interior space, and with a gross vehicle weight rating of 25,000 to 36,000 pounds, it gives you plenty of leeway to get creative with the build-out.
Best School Bus Manufactures for RV Conversion
When converting a school bus into an RV, you’ll want your “skoolie” to hold up to the strains of road travel and campground parking.
Here are the best school bus manufacturers for RV conversion:
Bluebird manufactures school buses with very high standards for safety, visibility, fuel economy, and serviceability, which is why this company is a top choice for RV conversion.
Current models include:
- The MicroBird – Engine options: propane, gasoline, diesel, or electric
- The Vision – Engine options: propane, gasoline, or diesel
- The All American – Engine options: CNG (compressed natural gas), diesel, or electric
What do Bluebird skoolie owners have to say about their campers?
All agree that driving the bus is comfortable and handles very well, even under stressful conditions such as bad weather, tight construction zones, or heavy highway traffic.
Bluebird owners also find the engines in these buses are long-lasting and perform very well with regular maintenance. In addition, getting them serviced isn’t a huge hassle.
Another bonus is that many bus models have underbody storage and high ceilings, making them more convenient for RV use.
Prevost has a reputation in the RV industry for making superior luxury Class A motorcoaches, so buying a used Prevost bus built for passenger transport for RV conversion will save you tens of thousands of dollars and give you the best framing and chassis available.
Prevost also sells new bus shells you can turn into an RV, but most people prefer to save money by buying an older transport bus and renovating it.
All Prevost buses have a flat front end and high-end finishes on the exterior, so they closely resemble the profile of a Class A motorcoach and look nothing like a classic skoolie.
Prevost builds their buses like a tank, with extra steel cross-members for strength, and stainless steel or Kevlar siding, which means low-hanging tree branches or flying debris will cause little to no damage.
Prevost conversion owners rave about how they can run their camper at 75 mph for hours with no strain. Another bonus of Prevost buses is how easy the engine is to maintain, with many tasks a simple DIY project.
The outdoor storage bays on the Prevost are also hard to match in size and space, especially for large and bulky camping gear.
Thomas Built Buses
Thomas Built Buses have a reputation in the skoolie world as being workhorses and a great choice for full-time adventuring or people who go camp often.
The brand puts diesel engines into nearly all their buses, which provides more power and better fuel economy. In addition, Thomas buses get high marks for a cushy ride, which is why people convert them to recreational vehicles.
The buses also offer Detroit DD5, DD8, or Cummins engines that are very efficient and can gain you those few extra miles per gallon.
The look of the various Thomas Built buses is on par with Bluebird, with just a hint of beefier lines yet sleeker, more rounded edges.
Thomas makes these five lines of school buses, as well as other types of buses that are also good choices for RV conversion:
- MinoTour – Gas engine
- Saf-T-Liner C2 – Diesel engine
- Saf-T-Liner C2 Jouley – Electric engine
- Saf-T-Liner EFX – Diesel engine
- Saf-T-Liner HDX – Diesel engine
Thomas Bus owners also appreciate the availability of parts, even for older models, which makes maintaining their skoolie much easier.
Best Cargo Van Manufactures for RV Conversion
When converting a cargo van into a recreational vehicle, the following three brands are consistently the top choice.
Sprinter vans are an RV conversion favorite because Mercedes doesn’t skimp on quality, materials, or efficient engineering.
Owners admit they feel safer in their Sprinter because the van is reliable and rarely leaves anyone stranded on the roadside with a breakdown. They also like that older model years hold their value yet are much more affordable than buying new.
Here are the three Sprinter models available:
- Sprinter Cargo Van – Gas or diesel engine
- Sprinter Crew Van – Gas or diesel engine
- Sprinter Passenger Van – Gas or diesel engine
Most people making a campervan choose the passenger van model, as it has big windows and more interior space. The van also has safety features like 360° cameras, various driving assist alerts, and emergency calling if it detects an accident.
The Sprinter models offer different ceiling height options, which is another reason why people flock to this cargo van manufacturer when looking for a unit to convert into an RV.
The Ford Transit cargo van gains customers for the best fuel economy paired with a durable build. The Transit also delivers tech-forward features like the SYNC 4 multi-function display and auto-braking if it senses danger.
Van-conversion owners love the array of choices for roof height and length, making customizing the unit more manageable. The van comes with either rear-wheel or all-wheel drive.
Transit models include:
- Cargo Van – Gas engine
- Crew Van – Gas engine
- Passenger Van XL – Gas engine
- Passenger Van XLT – Gas engine
While current Transit models only offer a gasoline engine, older models did have a diesel option, so you’ll need to buy used if this is what you want.
The Tour – Ford Transit Camper Van Conversion (Video)
RAM Promaster Van
The RAM Promaster cargo van consistently gets high marks for a wider body that increases interior living comfort, and flat interior walls that speed up the building process.
The front-wheel-drive is another feature Promaster owners love, as it provides better traction in wet, muddy, or snowy conditions.
With four different length options and standard or high roof heights, they are easy to customize to suit your needs.
Here is the Promaster van model lineup:
- Crew Van – Gas engine
- Cargo Van – Gas engine
- Window Van – Gas engine
The Promaster only offers gas engines, but for normal vanlifers, this option shouldn’t cause concern. The engines are fuel-efficient, gas is cheaper and easier to find than diesel fuel, and engine repairs and service are less expensive.
Veteran’s Amazing Budget Self Converted Ram Promaster (Video)
Reasons to Convert a School Bus or Cargo Van into an RV
Control Over the Build
The number one reason to convert a school bus or cargo van into a recreational vehicle is to have complete control over the project.
Let’s be honest. Most new campervans and motorhomes, even fancy Class A motor coaches, won’t offer the layout, appliances, storage, and comfort in the combination you want. So why spend $50,000+ on an RV you’ll most likely spend extra money renovating to suit your needs?
You can design and build an RV from a school bus or cargo van from scratch with an empty shell. The ability to control where the lights and plumbing go, how many beds to include, and where to place cabinets will increase your enjoyment and comfort once you finish the project.
As a full-time RVer who renovated a Class C motorhome, I can attest that making use of every inch in a way that works best for you will transform your camping experience.
Plus, you’re getting a one-of-a-kind recreational vehicle you can show fellow RVers, who’ll wish they had that massive kitchen countertop or full-size shower in their camper.
Another lesser-talked-about aspect of renovating a school bus into an RV is safety. A bus is made to protect children in an accident, so the structure of a bus is exceptionally rugged, with steel framing all around.
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The same can’t be said for mass-produced motorhomes, which are nothing more than tin boxes filled with less-than-stellar materials. As a result, an accident in a traditional RV often ends in a total loss.
And because a school bus is made so solid, you can trick it out with heavier and better grade materials than you can in a traditional RV that requires you to stay within a weight limit.
Control Over the Money
As I stated above, buying an RV off the showroom floor or even a used camper can cost a pretty penny.
Making changes to an existing RV will require more work (and money) to move furniture, plumbing, or wiring around and patching it all up, so it looks good.
You can buy a used school bus for around $2,000 and $6,000. A used cargo van can run anywhere from $4,000 to $80,000, depending on the brand, model year, and mileage.
A school bus requires some work to remove the seats, but a bus and a cargo van are empty shells. After that, you can invest the rest of your money on only the items you want and need in your RV.
For example, maybe you have plans to do a lot of camping off-grid during temperate seasons. You can incorporate a solar power system into your build and forgo installing a dishwasher, microwave, or energy-sucking air conditioner found in many standard RVs.
The ability to spend each dollar on ONLY the features you want in your school bus conversion or cargo van customization gives you the ultimate freedom to create a camper that provides the most convenient and comfortable space for travel.
Even if you plan to hire out the construction of your new skoolie or van conversion, you’ll nearly always save money versus buying a traditional RV and converting it to your needs.
Control Over the Size
Luckily, there are many different sizes of cargo vans or school buses, so you can select the length you need, not be stuck with whatever new or used RV size is available when you’re ready to buy.
A full-size bus can become an incredible tiny home for full-time living or the ideal RV for a large family to take camping on the weekends. An 18-foot-long cargo van can become a solo traveler’s dream camper that allows you to stealth camp in urban areas or tuck away into a peaceful campsite a larger RV won’t fit.
You’ll Become Part of a Special Group
Within the RVing community, you’ll find and build a special bond with other skoolie owners or camper van “nomads” that share the same experiences as you.
Many of these niche groups hold rallies or smaller events across the US each year, allowing you to see what others have done to make their conversion unique and for you to showcase your custom ride. Check out Skooliepalooza for an idea of what I’m talking about.
You’ll also get insider information on what private RV parks are skoolie-friendly or where the best places are to park your van conversion to get free internet access.
With many pros and cons of turning a school bus or cargo van into an RV, learning all you can from fellow travelers can save you time, money, and headaches.
3 Tips for Buying a Used School Bus or Cargo Van
1. Search for Used Vehicles from Southern States
Start your search in the southern states if you want a school bus or cargo van without rust or corrosion. During winter, warm regions don’t need to salt their roadways, which damages the vehicle’s undercarriage, axles, and wheel components.
People continually tracking snow or wet shoes into the bus or van also damage the floors and subflooring, which you may not find until you tear it up during your conversion.
1. Buy a Bus from School District Auctions
Buses that schools retire must adhere to regular maintenance schedules, so they tend to be in much better shape than those you may see listed on craigslist, Facebook marketplace, or large bus auction companies.
Call local school districts to inquire if, when, and where they hold public auctions or where they send their buses when they take them out of service.
How to buy a $5,000 School Bus for $1,600 (Video)
Know Which Type of Bus You’re Buying
School buses fall into two categories: the “activity” bus and the “local” bus.
Activity buses have a transmission, engine, and rear end for highway-speed travel to take kids on long-distance trips. As a result, they can drive at faster speeds with more stability and fuel efficiency.
A local bus is built for shorter runs at lower speeds, with a top speed of around 55 mph for best efficiency and handling. Trying to push a local bus at 65 mph for long distances can result in a rough ride and wobbling that can lead to an accident.
Taking on a cargo van or school bus conversion so you can create the RV of your dreams starts with buying a vehicle from the best manufacturers.
I hope you put the information in this guide to good use when shopping for a school bus or van, so you end up with a reliable ride that will take you on countless adventures!
"Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore."
-- Andre Gide