The National Parks are turning 100 this year, marking the centennial of the signing of an act that would preserve the nation’s most stunning wilderness. Since 1916 there have been major changes, like the advent of paved roads, all-weather buildings, and countless species lost and reintroduced. One thing that looks much the same is a bus in Yellowstone that has been chugging along for nearly the whole time. Like visitors did 80 years ago, you can ride the 1936 White Motor Company Model 706 through the park, a vehicle nearly as old as the National Parks themselves.
The White Motor Company was an Ohio-based automobile manufacturer that existed until 1980, and the 706 was specially designed for National Parks. This particular coach was designed with rear access doors on the right side of the vehicle to prevent excited tourists from exiting into traffic, and a folding canvas roof that allows a near-panoramic view of wild bison, bull elk, and wolves.
According to Yellowstone Association tour leader Phil Knight, in Yellowstone’s early years it was difficult for private cars to navigate the Park’s network of unimproved roads. So they commissioned a bunch of 706 motorcoaches in 14- and 18-passenger configuration, and strapped powerful six-cylinder engines under the hood. By 1940, there were nearly 100 of the motorcoaches roaming the untamed plains.
Most of the buses were sold as private vehicles by the late 1960s after the paved road network was complete. In the early 2000s, Yellowstone bought back eight of the White coaches, and refurbished them at an estimated cost of $250,000 per coach before putting them into service. The biggest change was to swap out the original chassis for one engineered by Ford, changing the frame, transmission, brakes, and axles, among other mechanical components. The engine then was replaced by a 330-cubic-inch Ford V-8, and power steering makes it a lot easier for the driver to maneuver. The driver and front passenger are treated to power windows, while roll-up windows line the rear compartment. But that’s where the modernization stopped. Chrome covers the original bumpers, and the original license plates are still there, restored to near-mint condition.
Although the Yellowstone Association tours are almost sold out for this summer, sign up with some friends if you can. (It’s worth the price of admission.) You’ll feel the history as you roam through Yellowstone unlike 99 percent of the millions of visitors who are expected to set foot in the park this summer. For car guys, it’s an added bonus that makes the visit even more worthwhile. And if you’re not yet a car guy, riding around in an icon might turn you into one.