Student engineers drive Bucky Wagon's green makeover

Oct. 14, 2009

Badger fans always recognize the spirited Bucky Wagon by its bright-red exterior, but inside, the historic vehicle's engine is going green.

Bucky Wagon

Mascot Bucky Badger and cheerleaders from the UW Spirit Squad drive along Regent Street in the Bucky Wagon before the Penn State game at Camp Randall Stadium on Oct. 11, 2008. Beginning Oct. 2009 and lasting for nearly a year, students from the College of Engineering will renovate the Bucky Wagon into an electric-powered vehicle with a hydraulic braking system, as well as power brakes and steering for safety.

Photo: Bryce Richter

During the next year, students from the College of Engineering will renovate the Bucky Wagon into an electric-powered vehicle with a hydraulic braking system, as well as power brakes and steering for safety.

Mechanical engineering faculty associate Glenn Bower, who advises the college's six vehicle project teams, is bringing together students from the teams and undergraduate mechanical engineering design classes to complete the renovation.

The project will preserve the vehicle's exterior, wheels and hubcaps to maintain the iconic appearance of the wagon, which is owned and operated by the Wisconsin Alumni Association (WAA).

"During the last 20 years, our leading automotive program teams have developed seven generations of hybrid vehicles," says Paul Peercy, dean of the College of Engineering. "This partnership with the Wisconsin Alumni Association is an excellent opportunity for the students to apply their innovation to a great Badger tradition."

The current Bucky Wagon is a restored 1932 La France fire engine, donated in 1971 to WAA by Jay J. and Norma Normington of Wisconsin Rapids, who both graduated from UW-Madison in the late 1940s. Painted red, and until recently, running on all original parts, the wagon can be heard blocks away by its distinctive horn, which plays the tune of "On, Wisconsin!"

WAA uses the Bucky Wagon to bring Badger spirit across campus and throughout Madison on football Saturdays and for each year's Homecoming festivities and parade. Until 2001, the Bucky Wagon was used on game days to carry the Spirit Squad into Camp Randall Stadium. The wagon has also been featured in Middleton's community parade, the Monroe Cheese Days parade and countless alumni and university events.

"Generations of alumni remember seeing the Bucky Wagon on campus or being among the lucky few to have been on board for a ride on game day," says Jeff Wendorf, vice president for programs and outreach at WAA. "The Bucky Wagon broke down late last year, and replacement parts are expensive and hard to find. The new and improved Bucky Wagon will be friendlier to the environment and will remain a familiar sight for Badgers everywhere."

The current Bucky Wagon, which reaches a top speed of about 30 mph, is the third in a line of vehicles known by this name. The previous wagons were first used to transport shells for the crew team from lake to lake and later provided transportation for the Badger football team.

The wagon is in good hands for the renovation. Under Bower, more than 1,500 students have participated on the vehicle teams and developed innovative vehicle designs that will affect the future of the automotive and snowmobile industries.

The teams have a very successful track record. Most recently, the two snowmobile teams, one a zero-emissions sled and the other an internal-combustion sled, won their respective categories in the 2009 Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Clean Snowmobile Challenge. In 2007, the Formula SAE team claimed the world championship. The Formula Hybrid, EcoCAR and Baja SAE teams have also done well competitively. Coupled with the Hybrid and Baja SAE teams, Wisconsin has been victorious at 16 different international automotive competitions since 1998.

The Bucky Wagon renovation is happening as Bower and the students work to raise funds for a vehicle-team endowment, which will allow the teams to continue working on campus projects and to excel in competition. Follow the renovation through the Bucky Wagon blog and learn how to get involved with the endowment at http://vehicles.wisc.edu.

"This project shows our commitment to UW-Madison as a whole since the wagon is a key symbol for the university," Bower says. "This is a unique way for students to learn something while restoring the wagon, and the past success of the teams shows they have the ability to do a good job."