Baja Buses -

Get there, with a House

(Especially nice when out pub-crawling)


UPDATE:

Steve the Australian Baja Bus Camper can now be reached at VanMan@BAJA.COM, and you should see the Baja Bus Page at http://www.baja.org/kombi!

Yep, he's been promoted from author to publisher. I, however, choose to keep this article posted for its sheer quality and excellent introductory content.


I field a lot of questions about Baja Buses. Seems that anyone's who seen one loves the style. And anyone who's seen one in the backcountry Knows what they can do!

The early style bus had the lowest gear ratios known to VW-style man. With gear reduction boxes on the axles, these things can pull stumps! They're durable, relatively lightweight, and they have that excellent VW engineering which lends itself to offroad use. The beam-type front suspension is the same - the independent rear suspension is the same - aircooled, of course - affordable - why NOT consider a baja bus?

So they're heavy, ungainly and long-wheelbased when compared to a baja bug. Granted. I, however, find it to be a real challenge to fit 3 people and gear into my baja for an offroad adventure. Even if I'm not necessarily going fast over rough terrain, just going over rough terrain, my baja is my vehicle of choice, I just wish I had a better way to carry the gear and crew! And I've seen baja buses in some VERY ROUGH locations. With no 4WD trucks around. These Things Can Go Places.

VanMan wrote me about this subject. After some correspondence, he wrote the Australian point of view. Read on, and Enjoy!


BAJA BUSES
- by VanMan

The Baja bus is becoming more and more popular in Australia and after checking out a few I decided to build one myself. Its not finished yet so I can't say I know all of the answers but I've done a lot of research and am underway in the build process. Here are the obstacles that many of the people that I have spoken to have come across and what they did to get around them.

THE REAR WHEELS

To most people fitting big tires under the back of a bus seems to be the biggest headache. There are several solutions depending on the size of tire your after, with a bit of work anything upto about a 33"x12.5"x15" will fit but smaller is much easier.

To fit a 30"x9.5"x15" only minimal work is required. I've found that a 15"x7" Mercedes wheel (steel) with the right offset will mean this tire will fit after just resetting the rear torsion bars down until they sit just off the stop when the bus is on the ground. I won't go into resetting the rear as it is covered in many places already. I'm not sure what model the wheels are off but they are numbered ET25 7x15h2.

If you want to go larger you may just fit a 31"x10.5" under the guards on these same wheels although it would be a very tight fit.

The better option is to cut the rear guards. Take the rear wheels off and look inside the wheel arches. There is a seam, if you cut along this seam the rear guards will be about the same height as the front guards.

Check this carefully as I personally haven't cut the guards but have seen several buses that have been cut and their owners assure me its simple if you take your time. Whatever you do don't use heat to cut them as they metal distorts easily.

After the guards are cut put on a small rubber flare and you're done.

To fit anything bigger the guards will have to be cut regardless of the wheel offset, as 9.5/10.5 is about the maximum you'll get without cutting.

If you want to go taller than 31" then clearance inside the guard can be a problem. I think you can just about get a 33"x9.5"x15" tire under there but when the suspension is fully compressed it might just touch the inner guards at the rear. I am planning to try this size and will update this when I know for sure.

I have seen one bus with 33"x12.5"x15" tires and the inner guards were slightly modified to avoid the tire rubbing, they were just slotted where the tire rubbed and then pushed upwards and patched from the inside. The guards were also cut higher than the seam to remove the area where the inner guard curves downwards.

After all this tire and guard work you need to be very careful the first time you open the sliding door, if the wheel offset isn't correct or the tires are very wide the door can end up with as nice bend in it.

To avoid this cut the arm that pushes the door away from the body and lengthen it. You will also need to move the stop that this arm hits when you close the door towards the back of the bus the same amount you lengthened the arm by.

So, when it comes down to it, with the right wheel offset a 30"x9.5"x15 will fit. A 31"x10.5"x15 may fit but you will probably have to cut the guards. Anything up to 33" can be made to fit but the only ones I've seen have had inner guard modifications as well but are not outside the realms of someone handy with a welder. If you've gone even bigger than this I'd love to know what you did!!

Ok now to move a bit further forward to the transaxle.

THE TRANSAXLE

Before a tire decision can be made the gearing needs to be considered. This basically comes down to the engine you run in the bus. Check out Sandlizrd's gearing table.

If you've got a 1600 engine then forget about putting big tires under your bus. Any change that makes the gearing taller will probably be too much for it combined with the effort of turning heavy wheels and moving a heavy bus. 2.0lt and bigger engines are what you need. I have yet to see a baja bus with an engine smaller than 2.0lt.

If you have a 2.0lt engine and 2.0lt transaxle then the 30"x9.5" tires are probably a good compromise. I have been assured by an owner of a 2.0lt full camper, fridge cooktop the lot, that this configuration doesn't cause any extra strain on the clutch when pulling away and the slight drop in revs when in top provides better cruising and lower fuel consumption. You may even get away with 31"x10.5"

If your planning to really use/abuse :) your bus offroad and want bigger wheels then a change to a 1600 transaxle is needed to bring back some of the acceleration and to get the final gearing closer to standard. This also allows for a 'crawl' speed with the engine just idling over and helps to keep the revs up and the engine cool.

I guess the only problem with this is the 1600 transaxle isn't as strong as the 2.0lt but then again there are a lot more of them out there that can be used for spares and several 3rd party places that can build a tough one.

I originally had a 1600 transaxle with 29" tires in my bus with a 4.4lt alloy V8 engine. With this combination the gearing was way to low and I was able to pull away in 2nd with no trouble at all and never changed below 3rd for going around corners.

With such a lot of torque, and because the 1600 transaxle 'blew up', I am now changing to a 2.0lt 091 transaxle and 30" or 31" tires. The 091 transaxle is very strong and has larger bearings than the other transaxles and a lot of heavy external webbing to strengthen the case.

I think that with any engine a lot larger than the 2.0lt you should have no trouble using the 2.0lt transaxle and 31" tires. After this I will experiment with 33" tires and let you know the results.

Ok further forward onto the front end lift.

THE FRONT TORSION BEAMS

Getting bigger tires under the front of a bus is much harder than the back. You really can't expect much more than a 215/75 on a 15" wheel. Again a Mercedes wheel numbered ET37 6.5x15h2 fits and provides a good offset.

I have seen one bus with 30"x9.5"x15" tires on this wheel and they seemed to fit OK although there was a very big lift. Its probably a good idea to get a couple of second hand tires and mount them to your rims and see which ones work the best for you before you buy the real thing.

There are two ways of lifting the front of a bus. The first is fairly obvious and means putting in an adjustable front end, much the same as a Baja Bug. The only problem with lifting a bus like this is it changes the geometry of the steering gear and doesn't allow the wheels much 'drop' before they hit the stops.

The other method I have seen, and am going to use myself, is to fabricate two plates. These plates are welded onto the torsion beam housing behind the shock mounts where the holes are for mounting the beam to the frame, one on each end of the beam.

The plates extend upwards from the beam and have holes in them to emulate the original beam holes. The beam is then mounted to the frame by bolting through these plates. These plates can give about 4" of safe lift if they are thick enough. If you want more weld them to an adjustable beam and dial-in 4" of lift in the adjusters as well.

After lifting the front make sure the flexible brake lines are long enough to cope with the suspension at full drop.

That's about it for the almost do It yourself baja bus. If you want to go really wild you can do more.

Try fabricating some plates to hang the engine and gearbox lower in the frame, weld a second trailing arm to the bottom of the first and use that to mount the wheel on. This will give you a massive lift when adjusted to the max but won't give you any more ground clearance under the engine than the simpler lift and is a lot of work to get right. How about dropping the front beam even lower with 6" plates and then putting in adjusters to lift the bus further. Sound crazy :) I know of one bus with this setup running a 4.2lt V8 and a total lift of 12"!!!! The sky's the limit :)

Steve, Baja camper (Eventually)