Driving 30+ year old vehicles comes with it inherent problems up front. Unless you are an experienced mechanic and hopefully have the tools, space, and other resources to support these vehicles, finding reliable, EXPERIENCED mechanics can be a challenge.
We first encountered this with the purchase of the 1980 bus. We were fortunate to find a bus shop in our then home of Las Vegas that had many years of experience with GM coaches. Unfortunately, a year after we bought the bus, he retired and closed his shop. We had learned of a few remaining GM mechanics, one on the west coast and one on the east coast, but having to drive thousands of miles for mechanical work wasn't our preferred option. We did find another "bus shop" within close proximity but ended up paying a premium price for any work we had done.
A few years later as we were fulltiming, we lost the clutch crossing Hoover Dam. Not a good place to break down. Thankfully we had the FMCA roadside insurance through CoachNet and were hauled back to Las Vegas to the Freightliner dealer for repair. So here's the lesson learned from this experience:
- Roadside assistance policies are worth their weight in gold. For a $100 annual premium, we avoided paying a $450 tow bill. I can't imagine traveling without this protection. CoachNet was very helpful and responsive. Our 40' bus cannot be towed front wheels up and must be flat hauled. Not all roadside policies pay for this, so make sure you choose one that does. Even the GMC Motorhome may need to be flat hauled if the airbags are deflated.
- Realize that the roadside assistance provider will have you hauled/towed to the "nearest" service facility, which may not be the "best". If you want to end up someplace else, negotiate with them to do this. It may cost you additional, but it could be worth it.
- The major truck franchises (like Freightliner) charge premium rates for RVs and in my opinion don't really like working on them. Avoid them if at all possible. Make sure you discuss in detail with the service writer what your repair needs and expectations are and make them provide you a written estimate of repair costs. We were given a verbal "around $800" quote to replace our clutch using parts we provided. After 6 days of waiting, we were presented with a bill for over $1700. The mechanic that actually performed the work told me that our clutch could have been adjusted and didn't need replacing. Since they hold you "hostage" you often have to pay the bill or end up with a legal battle on your hands later on.
After we bought the Palm Beach I took it to the "neighborhood" mechanic for a check-up. It was running rough and was in need of new belts, hoses, etc. He discovered 4 stuck and bent valves. $2000 later, we had rebuilt heads, new belts and hoses, and a tuneup. I didn't consider this amount exhorbitant, but again, make sure you have a clear understanding with the mechanic of what you expect to be done and how much he estimates it will cost. The GMC Motorhomes, while unique in design, use many standard GM parts and "most" reputable mechanics can perform basic repair on them. When our mechanic replaced the hoses, he capped off the lines that went to the water heater, not knowing the coach design and where they went. These kinds of issues can be avoided by taking your coach to someone with experience working with them.
Most recently, I took the bus to the local International Harvester truck dealer (didn't I previously say to avoid these guys?) Out of frustration here in Tucson, they were chosen because they were the closest shop with a pit and had done work for other local bus friends without complaint. All I needed was a competant mechanic to walk under the coach, locate, and fix the air leaks. Simple enough, or so I thought, and I had expressed this in detail to the Service Writer. 3 days after the promised date, I was contacted and informed that the rear leak was due to a bad air tank. It was "obsolete" and they had no way of finding a replacement, end of statement. The front leak however was simple to fix. I needed new airhorns. But wait, I said, I disconnected the OEM airhorns when I first bought the bus since they didn't work and there should be no air to them. Nope, they were leaking and could be replaced, said the Service Writer. At $105 per hour and 75% markup on parts, I really didn't need the airhorns to work and I would eventually replace them myself, so I told them to just "cap off" the line and call it good.
When I picked up the bus, the total bill was $174 (could have been much worse I thought), so I gladly paid the bill and went out to start the bus. The first problem I had after I got it aired up was the parking brake (air) would not disengage. Never had this happened before. After a few attempts, it released and I was off to the house. When I arrived home, I was unable to set the parking brake...hmmmm.... So I shut the bus down, left it in gear, and went out to investigate my problem. What I discovered first stunned and then infuriated me.
The air valve for the parking brake exhausts through a 1/4" airline which drops out under the coach just below the driver's seat area. The mechanic (and I use this term loosely) had inserted a capscrew into the line to "plug the air leak" DOH!!!!!! To add insult to injury I also discovered that the air horns they were referring to were the cheap $20 plastic set I had bought at Checker and stuck under the cab. They had pulled the plastic airline off of them and disconnected the 12v wire that powered the electric momentary compressor. Now I knew why the parking brake wouldn't set or release properly. After an email, a letter, and a voicemail, I still have not heard back from the Service Manager.
SUMMARY & CONCLUSIONS
- Accept and understand that we drive vehicles that are no longer serviced by the manufacturer nor many of today's repair facilities.
- Those that still claim to work on our vehicles may not be skilled nor qualified to do so. Make sure they are recommended by another GM owner or are a recognized business through one of our GM clubs or groups. (I have compiled my trusted vendor list below)
- Never have your vehicle worked on without an estimate (written preferred) of the repair costs.
- Communication is the key to successful repair work. Ask questions and clearly define your expectations.
- Realize that the remaining businesses that still work on GMC Motorhomes and buses are in all reality doing it because they share our passion for the vehicle. Very few (if any) could survive fulltime on the business we provide them.
- You are paying not only for the actual work, but more importantly, the expertise to know what you need, where to get it, and how to install it correctly. Yes, the price may be higher than the franchise parts store.
- Don't be a cheap ass. The motto of the Western GM Bus Group is "If you can't run with the big dogs, stay on the porch." Playing with these vehicles can be costly. If you are unable to pay the price, consider buying another type of RV. Or as my favorite bar sign reads, "If Broke, Stay Home".
MY TRUSTED VENDOR LIST (4/1/2008)
Cooperative Motor Works