Glacier National Park’s fleet of 33 buses might just be the oldest working fleet of passenger vehicles in the world. Built by the White Motor Company between 1936 and 1938, each 15-passenger, convertible bus with a rollback canvas top has an estimated 600,000 miles on it. And each one has always been painted bright red, to match the berries of the Mountain Ash.
The Cleveland, Ohio company that built them—once a leading maker of trucks and buses that began as a subsidiary of the White Sewing Machine Company—was purchased by Volvo in 1987. The similar White Motor Company buses that once ran in other national parks have long since been retired.
The noisy manual transmissions responsible for the bus drivers’ nickname “gear jammers” were replaced with automatic transmissions in 1989. The buses themselves were almost lost during the summer of 1999 when developing cracks in the chassis were discovered.
Author Ray Djuff wrote in a 1999 issue of the Glacier Park Foundation’s Inside Trail newsletter that “an expert on White Motor Company vehicles stated recently that, but for an unfortunate retrofitting project in 1989, Glacier’s reds might have run without major problems for another 60 years.” The power steering added when the transmissions were replaced created stresses on the vehicles’ frames.
Since repairing the fleet didn’t appear financially viable, the Glacier Park, Inc. transportation company, once a subsidiary of the Great Northern Railway, told the National Park Service that the buses should be retired. But the pubic saw it differently
After all, when “The Reds” were introduced, they became the most popular way to experience Sun Road or to travel the Chief Mountain Highway from Many Glacier Hotel on the east side of the park up to the Prince of Wales Hotel in Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park. “Everyone rode them—including Clark Gable, Carol Lombard, William Randolph Hearst, and, more recently, then-Vice President George H. Bush, the Queen of the Netherlands, and Robin Williams,” wrote Amy B, Vanderbilt in On the Road Again: Glacier National Park’s Red Buses. “The Reds provided a memorable experience to every visitor and a reminder of when adventure.”
Designed by Count Alexis de Sakhoffsky, a famous industrial stylist and advocate of streamlining styles, the buses represented the park’s golden age when visitors arrived on the Great Northern Railway’s Empire Builder and Oriental Limited. The visitors were lured by western myths and a See-America-First advertising campaign that used some of the best writers and artists in the country. In 1999, the majority of the 7,000 comments received during the park’s General Management Plan review wanted the National Park Service to keep Glacier the way it was—including the historic buses.An endowment was created through the contributions of park concessionaire Glacier Park, Inc, the Glacier Park Foundation and the Ford Motor Company to inspect and evaluate the fleet for prospective restoration. Ford was seriously interested in the project. The rehabilitation solution included a lengthened Ford F450 chassis, a 5.4L V8 bi-fuel power-train, and upgraded flooring, insulation, doors, wiring and instrument panel.
According to Vanderbilt, “The Red Bus project took more than 2 years and a team of over 200 experts from over six different organizations to make the dream of returning the historic Red Buses a reality. Ford completely renovated the Red Buses using new technology and its extensive expertise in alternative fuels. While preserving the exterior of the buses along with their historic charm, Ford used alternative fuel technologies to change the engine and drive-train, making them cleaner and quieter than the originals.” The buses now run on either gasoline or propane.
In the world of restoration, one might say that the buses are rather like the standard example of “Paul Bunyan’s Axe.” The handle is replaced, then the head is replaced, then later another handle is needed. Are these Reds the same buses the White Motor Company built in the 1930s? Yes and no. Even without the old symphony of whirring and squalling gears, the essential ambiance of the riding experience remained in 2002.
Sure, the bus drivers no longer jammed the gears as they double-clutched their ancient horses up over Logan Pass. But they were the once again the knights of the mountain roads who spun tall tales along the backbone of the world with the mysterious daring-do deportment of all minstrels who know how to enchant and steal hearts.
When the buses came back from their rehabilitation at Ford in June, 2002, the mountain gods chased the celebration inside with a heavy snow storm. It was a good sign.
Copyright (c) 2010 by Malcolm R. Campbell, author of “The Sun Singer,” a mythic novel set in Glacier National Park