by Ted Laturnus
Glacier National Park, in Montana, is one of the most majestic wilderness areas in North America. The Road To The Sun Highway, past the Weeping Wall, near the Alberta border, is by itself unmatched in terms of sheer scale and panorama. Regular visitors to the park are well acquainted with its rugged beauty and breathtaking vistas.
They’re also familiar with Glacier Park’s fleet of Red Buses, which for almost 70 years, transported tourists and rubberneckers through the Rockies and across the Continental Divide. With their 1930s-era full fendered body style, wind-down windows, and roll-back canvas roofs, the unmistakeable oversize jitneys were a common sight for generations of campers and sightseers. Hundreds of thousands of people have ridden in them over the years.
But all things must change, and in 1999, they were taken off the road. The reason? They just wore out. The White flathead six cylinder gasoline engines and bodies had been rebuilt, patched, sewn back together, and worked over as many times as possible and it was time to put them out to pasture.
This is when Ford enters the picture. Working with the aftermarket manufacturing company, TDM, of Livonia, Michigan, Ford agreed to rebuild every single one of the 33 Red Buses. It was a daunting task; the Red Buses had essentially out-lived their usefulness and had to be completely rebuilt, bolt by bolt, from the bottom up. Ford and TDM technicians ash-canned the original chasses and replaced them with one taken from an F-450, fitted a fuel-injected 5.4 litre V8 engine that runs on either gasoline or propane, replaced the obsolete drum brakes with four-wheel discs with ABS, and replaced all the original glass and lighting.
The bus bodies, which were originally made of steel, were brought back from the dead using fibreglass and sheet metal components, and the plywood floors were replaced with aluminum composite. All the seats were re-upholstered with fire resistant fabric, all the gauges and tinware were either overhauled or replaced, and a public address system was installed to allow the driver to communicate with passengers.
The biggest challenge was to bring the Red Buses up to modern standards while retaining their authenticity. “We worked diligently to maintain the historic integrity of the buses and applied Ford’s and TDM’s expertise in alternative fuel vehicle and safety,” says Bruce Gordon, director of Ford’s alternative fuel vehicles. “It was a bigger challenge than any of us imagined.” And, from a distance at least, the new Red Buses are indistinguishable from the old ones. Needless to say, they can now handle the steep grades up and down the Rocky Mountains much more easily….in either direction.