Bringing Glacier Tour Buses Back to Life

By Beacon Staff

Last week, in his Bigfork workshop made mostly of salvaged wood and metal, blacksmith Jeffrey Funk and his team turned up the music and went to work recreating automotive history.

It’s a tedious process; Funk will be the first to tell you the craftsmanship on cars and trucks from the early 1920s was not a cookie-cutter process, making revitalizing vehicles from this time period a trial-and-error job.

Blacksmith Jeffrey Funk works carbon steel through a bead roller to start bending a small groove along the edge. Funk had to design and fabricate the dies – the round pieces attached to the roller which press the metal into a shape when run between the two pieces – to work with the antique roller.

Funk and his crew, comprised of Darrin Beaudette and Seth Axelsen, are part of a project financed by the non-profit group, the Jammer Trust. The term “jammer” is used for the tour car and bus drivers because they jammed the gearshifts to get around the parks, but it is also often used for the vehicles themselves.

The trust seeks to revitalize old national park tour cars and buses to remind and educate people on the transportation history in these scenic venues.

Part of this goal includes the accurate reproduction of automobile parts and manufacturing methods that have been out of production and use for almost 90 years. Such is the case for the 1925 White Motor Company tour buses used in Glacier National Park before the now-ubiquitous red buses.

The fenders on these cars were created without welds, instead being held together by a complicated series of tight-fitting joints. So it would make sense to commission the work to a blacksmith rather than a modern metal worker, said Jon Derry, who also works on the vehicles for the Jammer Trust.

“It’s nice that the industrial technology that was used in the initial construction of these vehicles we can duplicate here in the valley,” Derry said.

A line of custom built hammers is seen in the foreground of Jeffrey Funk’s blacksmith studio near Bigfork as Funk, left, and Darrin Beaudett work carbon steel through a bead roller to fabricate a fender a refurbished 1925 Glacier National Park tour bus.

Funk and his team of blacksmiths had to figure out how to recreate these joints through a long and often frustrating process of reverse engineering. And to add to the authenticity of the project, Funk found tools from the same era at the Miracle of America Museum in Polson, including a bead roller from the 1920s.

The blacksmiths also had to create unique tools and accessories to finagle the fender joints into existence. Of these, Funk said he learned how to use a lathe to make the dies, which connect to the bead roller and shape the sheet metal into tight, uniform creases and angles.

Another hurdle with the old tour buses was that they were built before automated manufacturing, meaning each was made by hand and is just a little bit different from all the others.

Funk and his team have been working on this project for several years and have created brake parts, clutch parts, bronze door hinges and latches for the tour buses.

In his workshop, Funk and Beaudette worked sheet metal through the bead roller several times, all while referencing their meticulous notes kept on previous fender attempts.

“The process is so particular that it’s not hard to forget small parts of it after a week,” Funk said between passes with the bead roller.

A blacksmith for around 40 years, Funk’s work has been prominent in the valley since he was as a teenager. While many of his commissioned pieces are often gates or other architectural projects, he said he also takes on work like the 1925 fenders as a way to maintain a community presence.

Blacksmith Jeffrey Funk holds an original piece of a 1925 Glacier National Park tour bus, right, and a similar piece, right, fabricated in his Bigfork studio to replicate the original one.

The fender process is a slow one, but it ensures the project’s legitimacy and quality. This means it can take the blacksmiths an entire day to recreate one fender.

“It’s going to be basically as genuine as it gets,” Axelsen said.

When finished, two of the 1925 buses will take part in a September drive through Glacier Park with other classic tour vehicles to celebrate the park’s centennial.

For Derry, the various automobiles from the 1920s and 1930s offer unique challenges as a mechanic, some of which he could not navigate without the help of his mentor Gary Breylinger. There is also a chance to recapture a bit of automotive history.

“The end result, just from an aesthetic and structural standpoint, is important to us,” Derry said. “We could sort of have something welded together, but it just wouldn’t be right. We’re trying to do things as accurately as we can.”

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