Portland and London, England have several things in common: spitting rain, short summers and a wide variety of tasty ales. On July 1, we'll share one more trait with our friends across the pond—a red double-decker bus.
In 2009, University of Oregon graduates Brooks Thompson and Kent Metcalf were having a good time on a U of O party bus when it dawned on them that Portland lacked a luxury charter industry. The roommates’ brainstorming sessions quickly evolved into market research during study breaks. What they found was a niche just waiting to be filled.
“We were surprised to see that there wasn’t an upscale charter service already in operation,” says Thompson. “But we just felt that what we did would be with a double-decker bus.”
The iconic double-decker buses are common in the United Kingdom and in some European cities where they’re used for public transportation. They are also popular as tour buses because of the sight seeing vantage point from the upper level.
Finding the Right Bus
The first prospective Double Decker PDX bus was discovered in Boise, Idaho. Based on the description, photographs, and price, it seemed like a deal worth pursuing so Metcalf, 23, and Thompson, 22, flew to Boise the weekend before midterms. What they found was a disappointment.
“The guy was living in the bus with his kids, dogs and a cat. It needed a lot more work then what we expected,” says Thompson. Still, at a paltry $6,000, it was tempting.
“We were proud that we walked away though,” says Metcalf. “It felt good that we showed restraint.”
The next bus they found was sitting in a parking lot in Osage Beach, Missouri. It was a green, 1959 Bristol Lodekka being used as a billboard for a real estate broker’s business. After serving Londoners for nearly 30 years, the vehicle had been shipped to Chicago where it was used as a tour bus. Eventually, it was retired and sat idle for a decade before the Missouri owner purchased it.
There were aesthetic flaws and it needed mechanical work but most of the bus’s original interior was intact. The owner was asking $50,000. The partners negotiated and in the end, Thompson says they were able to purchase the bus for “a really good price.” They won’t reveal what they paid.
Thompson and Metcalf say they approached a number of credit unions, national and regional banks for a business loan, with no success. Although they had saved some money from past businesses (a mobile car detailing company and residential window washing service) the entrepreneurs had to secure private financing to purchase the bus and to complete the complicated renovation.
The next challenge was getting the bus back to Oregon in the dead of winter. Acknowledging that driving across the Midwest on winter roads was a bad idea, the partners took advice from Thompson’s grandmother and found a way to ship the bus to Portland by train. But first, they had to get it to Kansas City.
At less than 40 miles per hour, Thompson and Metcalf made the 280-mile trek from Osage Beach to Kansas City in ten hours. It was a bumpy ride considering the suspension was designed to carry the weight of up to 60 people, and Thompson was driving from the right side of the vehicle, but the partners say it was a memorable experience. “We drove through a lot of country,” says Metcalf. “It was a great way to see it.”
Restoring the Bus
After the bus arrived in Portland, Thompson and Metcalf hired truck mechanics to convert the engine and drive train using parts from a donor truck with low mileage. What they assumed would be a straightforward job was anything but that. It seemed that converting a large vehicle that operates from the right side was far more complicated than expected—and costly.
“The conversion was over budget 50 to 60 percent,” says Thompson with a grin. It also pushed their launch schedule back two months.
When the bus was finally ready to roll, the owners had just six weeks to complete renovation on the interior before their first job. Ceiling panels, flooring, stairs, windows and upholstery needed to be replaced. Plus, they wanted to add extra party details like speakers, lighting, a small refrigerator and a bar.
“We’ve definitely worked into the night many times,” says Metcalf, whose father, a contractor, helped with the craftsmanship and finishing. Some of the more challenging details like the recycled leather upholstery and flooring were contracted out but Metcalf and Thompson did most of the interior work. They used recycled wood throughout and located the perfect piece of oak fell-wood for the bar.
The newly converted engine runs on biodiesel—about nine miles to the gallon—and each time the bus is used for an event, the owners purchase carbon offsets through Trees of the Future. Metcalf says they calculated their estimated number of miles per year, plus more to be on the safe side. They figure over 500 trees will be planted each year to offset their bus emissions.
The owners hired a truck driver with nearly 30 years of road experience and a Million Mile Safe Driver award to pilot the eight-ton bus but they consider themselves the official hosts. They intend to be onboard for each event to ensure everyone has a good time whether lounging at the oak bar on the first floor, or gawking from the upper level.
Double Decker PDX will makes its official debut to the public on July 1, at Portland’s First Thursday art walk in the Pearl District. The red bus will be parked at Urban Studio, 206 NW 10th Avenue. The owners encourage everyone to stop by for free beer, wine, snacks, and a chance to walk through the freshly restored bus.
For more information on the bus and rental opportunities visit the Double Decker PDX web site.