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University, private-sector collaboration brings Bucky Wagon back for Homecoming

October 7, 2011

Decades of rust, bent running boards and unreliable cable brakes and steering aren’t suitable for a campus icon.

Bucky Badger and cheerleaders from the UW Spirit Squad drive along Regent Street in the Bucky Wagon in this 2008 file photo. The 1932 LaFrance fire engine has recently been refurbished by College of Engineering faculty and students, with support from a multitude of corporate donors.

Photo: Bryce Richter

That was the case on the UW–Madison campus when, in 2009, old age finally caught up to the 1932 LaFrance fire engine affectionately known as the Bucky Wagon. Its cracked transmission and rare replacement parts threatened to banish the wagon to the scrap heap. But thanks to both the hard work of UW–Madison College of Engineering faculty and students and a multitude of generous corporate donors, the wagon will make its debut Oct. 14 and 15 at the UW–Madison Homecoming celebration.

This time, it’ll be an environmentally friendly electric vehicle.

Operated by the Wisconsin Alumni Association (WAA), this third iteration of the Bucky Wagon has brought Badger spirit across campus and into local Wisconsin communities since 1971.

But the decades of school spirit had taken their toll. “At first, we only had one option, and that was to sell it for parts,” says Mark Blakeslee, WAA’s senior director of business operations. “If the College of Engineering hadn’t stepped in, the Bucky Wagon today would just be a memory.”

Glenn Bower, a UW–Madison mechanical engineering faculty associate, identified the ailing wagon as a potential project for his student vehicle teams when, in 2009, WAA approached the college for an expert opinion on the vehicle’s fate. “We looked at it and decided that it’s something that would fit into what we normally do,” says Bower.

The objective would be to update everything under the hood — add power steering, hydraulic brakes and an all-electric powertrain — all while maintaining the classic look of the Bucky Wagon. “It’s taken two years, but we wanted to do it right,” says Bower.

He and his students needed to make 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, explaining the 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.”

Helpful alumni such as Mark Polster got the wheels turning. President of the Wisconsin Alumni Association: Motor City Badgers Chapter and an environmental engineer at Ford Motor Co., Polster helped 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 that 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.”

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. And finally, the whole wagon was re-assembled at Pierce Manufacturing in Appleton — but not before Pierce engineers determined how many of the pieces were unsalvageable. “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.”

In the end, Pierce engineers refabricated about half of the Bucky Wagon body.

The fire engine’s “green” makeover challenged those 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 Bill Proft, senior chief engineer and marketing manager for rescue products at Pierce. “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.”

Pierce manufactured the new body pieces on site, reinforcing them to better suit the rigors of a typical game day. The driver needn’t worry about Spirit Squad members falling from bent running boards as the wagon rounds tight corners now. Pierce’s fresh coat of Badger red paint and new aluminum rims from Alcoa put the finishing touch on a vehicle that at this point can only be described as a Wisconsin original.

“We had some hiccups in the road, but we’re to the point where it’s coming along and our plan is to have it done in time for Homecoming,” says Proft.

The Bucky Wagon will now bring Badger cheer to alumni, university and community events under a joint operating agreement among the College of Engineering, UW–Madison and WAA. It will make its public debut as part of the Homecoming parade at 6 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 14.

Members of the media can take a sneak peek at the wagon from 1-2 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 13, on the patio at Union South, 1308 W. Dayton St., when a special event will allow for photo opportunities and a chance to talk to Bower in detail about the renovation process. In case of inclement weather, the event will move to the front of Engineering Hall, 1415 Engineering Drive.

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