One of Glacier National Park's 33 historic red tour buses is currently sitting in the lobby of Ford World Headquarters in Detroit - spiffed up and ready to roll.
Sometime this week it will be heading out to Philadelphia to be put on display at the Clean City National Conferences, according to Eric Jenkins of Carron Industries/ASG Renaissance in Dearborn Heights, Mich.
The 33 buses, nicknamed "jammers" because of their manual shifting difficulties, had continuously operated in the park for 65 years, with only a brief interruption during World War II. The fleet was removed from service in August 1999, after random inspections identified structural fractures, metal fatigue, and other safety hazards, according to a park statement at the time.
Bus 98 was delivered to Carron in February last year for complete overhaul as a prototype for the rest of the fleet. Glacier Park Inc., the fleet's owner, put up $25,000 and Ford Motor Co. put up $75,000 to fund engineering analysis, design work, new parts and labor to bring Bus 98 up to 2000 vehicle safety standards and equip it with alternative fuel equipment.
Jenkins said Bus 98's classic red body was removed from its chassis, sand-blasted and repaired in a few places, then repainted. Small modifications were made to fit the body to the chassis of a Ford F450 truck.
Adjustments were made to the ride height so the body rides lower to the ground, giving the bus a retro look. The running boards are within stepping distance.
Bus 98 now has a 5.4 liter dual-fuel propane or gasoline engine and an automatic transmission. An F450 frame and drive train is commonly used for delivery trucks and small RVs. The original canvas for the carryover roof was in good condition and not replaced, Jenkins said. An aftermarket steering wheel with a retro look was installed and the seats were reupholstered.
Park spokesperson Amy Vanderbilt said last week that she did not know when the jammer would land in Glacier.
Ford Motor Co.'s connection to the project extends back to 1915, when Henry Ford set out with friends Thomas Edison and John Burroughs to tour America's most beautiful settings, including the national parks. The tour lasted nine years. Ford even had a Model T pickup modified with a deluxe camp kitchen.
Today Ford is part of the Proud Partner of America's National Parks program, which addresses the problem of limited vehicle access to some of the country's national parks and the need for alternative transportation systems.
At about the same time in the 1930s that Glacier Park got its fleet of red buses, a similar fleet began operating in Yellowstone Park. Only one of Yellowstone's buses remains attached to a 1956 Ford school bus chassis and used as a VIP shuttle vehicle.
Carron Industries has been in business supporting the automotive industry since 1950 and employs 700 workers in Dearborn Heights. It specializes in Tier 1 Engineering analysis, design, testing and fabrication for modifications to existing vehicles or full ground-up prototype vehicle assemblies. Carron typically builds and assembles 2,500 prototypes a year, and it maintains an active classic car and "muscle" car restoration facility.
About $5 million in funding is needed to bring all 33 historic red tour buses up to 2000 vehicle safety standards and equip them with alternative fuel systems. Last year $225,000 from the federal TEA-21 program was obligated for a Park Service Alternative Transportation Planning study of current and future transportation needs in the park.
The Glacier Park Foundation, a nonprofit group, has expressed strong support for rehabilitation of the jammers. The Glacier Fund is also working on an arrangement whereby the nonprofit group could assist in the rehabilitation of the fleet.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation has consulted with GPI and urged the concessionaire to nominate the buses for the National Register.
The Montana Congressional delegation and state Department of Transportation have likewise supported bringing the red tour buses back to the park in good running order.
The jammers are perhaps the longest lasting fleet of tour buses in the world. The park envisions a need for additional buses to augment the 33 jammers. An estimated $765,000 will be needed to design, fabricate and test a prototype bus, and another $5 to $10 million will be needed to build the fleet.
Richard Hanners writes for the Hungry Horse News.