Turning a red fire engine ‘green’

Posted on 09. Dec, 2011 by in Issues

Bucky Wagon

Bucky Wagon, restored. Photo: Mark Riechers.

Two weeks before the 2011 UW-Madison homecoming celebrations began, Bill Proft (BSME ‘83), Pierce Manufacturing’s senior chief engineer and marketing manager for rescue products, led the way into a secret project hangar apart from the Appleton, Wisconsin, company’s main buildings. He paused briefly. “Hmmm … we should probably have you blindfolded,” he said.

Relenting, he pointed to a garage stall beside two intimidating military vehicles, where the diminutive frame of a 1932 American LaFrance fire engine fitted with a new electric drive train sat as Pierce engineers and the UW-Madison vehicle team advisor readied freshly painted Badger-red body pieces.

The new and improved Bucky Wagon was nearly ready for its big debut. “It’s taken two years, but we wanted to do it right,” says Glenn Bower, a mechanical engineering faculty associate and the engineering student vehicle team advisor. Bower was instrumental in getting the Bucky Wagon back in action. A cracked transmission and rare replacement parts had threatened to banish the wagon to the scrap heap, so the Wisconsin Alumni Association (WAA) approached Bower in 2009 for advice on restoring the wagon to working order.

His answer? A complete overhaul … but one that also would bring the Bucky Wagon into the 21st century as an all-electric vehicle.

Safety First
Operated by the WAA, this third iteration of the Bucky Wagon has brought Badger spirit across campus and into Wisconsin communities since 1973. But those decades of school spirit had taken their toll,
relegating the once-great campus tradition to an out-of-order antique hidden under a tarp somewhere on campus. “At first, we only had one option, and that was to sell it for parts,” says Mark Blakeslee, the WAA senior director of business operations. “If the College of Engineering hadn’t stepped in, the Bucky Wagon today would just be a memory.”

Even before it broke down, the UW Athletic Department deemed the wagon unsafe in 2001 because of its aging controls. The original cable brakes and unresponsive steering had made running over a UW Spirit Squad member a frightening possibility, so adding power steering and hydraulic brakes became part of the renovated design as well. Bower determined that adding an electric powertrain and safer steering and braking systems were well within his and his students’ capabilities. “We looked at it and decided that it’s something that would fit into what we normally do,” says Bower.

Donors with Badger spirit
Bower and his team needed major design modifications to make modern components functional in the old fire engine. But without the generosity of numerous companies, obtaining all of those components would have proven impossible. “We had guidance from alumni and others on which parts would work best together,” says Bower.

He says the key was a slow but steady process of attracting companies with university ties to the project. “They understand the value of being connected to the university, since the higher education that occurs here is helpful to them,” he says.

Enthusiastic alumni like Mark Polster (BSME ’00) got the wheels turning. President of the Wisconsin Alumni Association Motor City Badgers Chapter and an environmental engineer at Ford Motor Company, Polster helped to convince his employer to pay for a Dana rear axle with a special gear reduction for the Bucky Wagon. Making a case for Ford’s involvement didn’t prove all that difficult, since the company values student experience with green technology. “We have a fairly extensive electrification strategy, so to have students working on this sort of project is very important to us,” says Polster.

Remy International provided an electric motor, A123 Systems donated a lithium-ion battery system, and Phoenix International donated a controller that converts electric energy to propel the vehicle. ZF Transmissions donated a remanufactured manual transmission for a heavy-duty truck, which provides the necessary gear reduction for the electric motor. “Most of the mechanicals are now stock parts,” says Bower. “So, repairs won’t require ordering or manufacturing anything custom-made.”

The all-electric Bucky Wagon's debut at UW Homcoming 2011.

The all-electric Bucky Wagon's debut at UW Homcoming 2011. Photo: Mark Riechers.

Restoring the exterior of the 80-year-old wagon, which had seen a fair amount of abuse at the hands of Spirit Squad members in its time, required some outsourcing. Since the UW-Madison automotive projects predominantly focus on powertrains, automotive body repair students at the Truax campus of Madison College helped restore the exterior by painstakingly disassembling the Bucky Wagon panel by panel. Eau Claire-based powder-coating specialist Envirotech worked its magic to make the frame of the wagon look like new.

At that point, Bower had a dismembered fire truck on his hands. The Bucky Wagon needed the steady hand of an expert to put it back together, and thankfully, the largest producer of fire engines in the country–Pierce Manufacturing–sat just two hours away in Appleton. And, its engineers couldn’t wait to put their stamp on Badger history.

It started to look like Swiss cheese
In some ways, the body of the Bucky Wagon had taken more damage over the years than anything else–the sheet-metal running boards arrived in Pierce’s hangar workspace twisted and bent, and the back half of the truck looked like it barely escaped a firing range. “People drilled a lot of holes to mount various things over the years, and nobody fixed any of them,” says Bower. “It started to look like Swiss cheese.”

Ryan Rowe (BSME ‘01), another UW vehicle team alumnus, jumped to work on the restoration project alongside Bower in Pierce’s project hangar. As a senior project engineer for Pierce’s parent company, the Oshkosh Corporation, Rowe works on designs for several specialized vehicles, including the type of imposing military transport visible just beyond the Bucky Wagon frame in the garage. Yet Rowe still learned a lot from studying the wagon. “There were lots of pieces of old technology. The shift mechanism–everything was levers and linkages,” says Rowe.

Still, there was an air of reverence for the old wagon among those working on it. “It was archaic, but at the same time, it was kind of neat to see the amount of design work that went in to these components 80 years ago,” he says.

The fire engine’s “green” makeover challenged Rowe and Pierce engineers to maintain the vehicle’s old look while designing a vehicle that will last for generations of new Badgers. “We build all the unique trucks–mobile command centers, SWAT trucks, canine units, all kinds of things,” says Proft. “Our rescue products crew is very good at taking unique concepts and turning them into reality. They’re not afraid to tackle something like this.”

With Pierce’s complete production resources at their disposal, Pierce engineers had the capacity to discard body pieces that were beyond saving. “If something wasn’t in good shape, Pierce had the machinery to remake the part correctly,” says Bower.

In the end, Pierce engineers refabricated about half of the Bucky Wagon body. This also meant they could reinforce replacement parts to better suit the rigors of a typical game day. Now, the driver needn’t worry about Spirit Squad members falling from bent running boards as the wagon rounds tight corners. Pierce’s fresh coat of Badger-red paint and new aluminum rims from Alcoa put the finishing touches on a vehicle that at this point can only be described as a Wisconsin original.

A bridge between education and industry
Corporate donations made the restoration a reality, but Pierce’s contribution went above and beyond: 30 employees put in 1,000 man-hours to rebuild the Bucky Wagon exterior. But Tom Quigley (BSME ‘94), vice president of engineering in the Oshkosh Fire and Emergency Segment that includes Pierce Manufacturing, says its involvement represents the company’s commitment to an ongoing relationship with the College of Engineering. “Our initiative is to get the university involved, to get young students understanding who Pierce is,” says Quigley. “We’re relatively close to the university, but I don’t think there are a lot of students at the university who really understand what Oshkosh and Pierce are and what we do.”

It also helped that Pierce is packed with UW-Madison alumni and Badger fans. “There have been a lot of people on the Pierce side that have been very excited to work on this. I see a lot of smiles when I talk to the people that have worked on this. It allowed us to take our everyday creativity from the fire truck side and apply it to a great project for a lot of Wisconsin Badger fans,” says Quigley.

Those fans showed Bower and his students the fruits of their labor at the 2011 UW-Madison homecoming parade: Fans snapped photos and held up excited kids while murmuring about all the hard work they’d heard had gone into the brand-new Bucky Wagon. Bower smiled as he sat at the wheel, driving with all of his students as they waved to the cheering fans along State Street. “It was invigorating. I was awestruck at how well it was received,” says Bower, humbly recalling the experience from the driver’s seat in the homecoming parade. “I didn’t realize it would have that much appeal.”

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