Want to empty a bus? Squish a skunk through its vent

We were a “traveling time warp” (description stolen from my pal Warren).

Dave Millhouser

The company I worked for had bought the entire fleet of a transit company in South Carolina, and we were toddling northward toward our facility in New Jersey.

Fifteen ancient GM “flat-bottom” transits sporting 6-71 Detroit diesels and two-speed automatics roared up Interstate 95 at “flank speed,” occasionally exceeding 50 mph on long downgrades.

Desperate for drivers (otherwise yours truly would not have been on this jaunt) we had even drafted our lead mechanic for this winter trek.

About 100 miles into the adventure, he smelled something strange and noticed liquid trickling from under the dash and dribbling down the aisle. Simultaneously, he figured out that he was cold and getting colder.

Then his temperature gauge pegged and his hot-engine light fired up. It turned out that the smell was antifreeze — the liquid he saw in the aisle was from a leaking heater core. The coolant that his engine needed to keep running was instead puddled on the floor.

Pretty quickly the venerable Detroit gave up the ghost (a hissing white cloud of steam).

An astute driver would have noted the cloying smell of antifreeze and stopped to look for its source. A clever mechanic would have known that losing cabin heat is a symptom of low coolant.

Our guy was neither, and we sold the bus, on the spot, for scrap.

You’re guessing our target here is cooling systems. Gotcha.

It seemed a neat idea to discuss bus smells. Part of your training is the pre-trip inspection, and good drivers take the time to walk around their coaches at every stop, looking for puddles, parts falling off or other harbingers of disaster.

Why not chunk Bussy B.O. into the mix? Frequently, the earliest hints of impending disasters are olfactory. Most of us recognize the distinctive smell of overworked brakes. It is remarkably similar to the cooked clutches of ye good old days.

If you pick up that scent while driving or stopped and you haven’t been punishing your brakes, then something is wrong, such as a stuck caliper or some other nastiness that, if ignored, can lead to a fire.

If you notice a puddle under your parked coach, your bus may be marking its territory. But more likely it’s hemorrhaging some precious bodily fluid. If it smells like water, it may just be A/C condensate.

But oil, power steering fluid, antifreeze and DEF each have unique aromas. They ain’t Eau de Bus.

If you aren’t familiar with them, ask your shop folks to let you sniff around the garage. You’ll get an education and some funny looks.

Don’t taste stuff because some is toxic and none is delicious (don’t ask how I know).

Electrical problems often have a unique aroma. It’s hard to describe, but once experienced, it’s seared into your memory (pun intended).

In ye olden days, for a dense driver (like me) the first sign of a flat tire on a dual might be the distinctive scent of burning rubber. That’s because the vibration normally associated with a flat is sometimes disguised by rough road (or the desperate hope that it is anything BUT a flat).

Modern tubeless tires make tire fires less likely, but the smell of burning rubber is never good. Gee, maybe it’s just a frying belt.

Sometimes odors originate outside your coach. The truck next to you has a flat or bakes its brakes. Your lavatory may need service OR you’re passing a sewage treatment plant (or both).

The point is that, if you don’t know the source of an unusual smell, assume it’s your problem until you can be certain it’s from outside.

Some smells require immediate action, while others are less urgent. A pungent lavatory is a problem that can wait a bit. A flaming dual, not so much. Like cats, tire fires have nine lives. You want to kill them early and often (fires, not cats).

In ye pre-A/C days, an integral part of coach “climate control” was vents on the front of the bus. In summer you opened them for ram airflow.

A convoy of Brills was rolling westward in close formation one night on the Kansas prairie when the leader hit a skunk. The unfortunate (and irritated) little stinker was tossed high in the air and landed “dead” center on the following coach’s wide-open vent. Several lessons were learned from this single event.

First, tailgating is bad. A bit farther back and Brill No. 2 would not have learned the second lesson: the fastest way to evacuate a bus is to squish a fresh skunk through its vent.

Third, when a manufacturer installs a screen over an opening, don’t remove it. The distinction between inside and outside odors can be significant when skunks and ram air are involved.

Dave Millhouser is a bus-industry marketing consultant and freelance writer. Contact him by email at Davemillhouser@gmail.com.

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