the-snow tour coach. Photo by John Layshock
The expression “Some Assembly Required” doesn’t come close to this project. What loomed before John Layshock in 2015 was a life-consuming restoration effort.
BY MICHAEL OBER
Layshock, an accomplished Yellowstone area photographer with over a decade of experience guiding snowcat tours, also cranked wrenches as a snow coach mechanic near the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Knowing that summer visitors already tour the park in iconic yellow 1930s tour buses, Layshock calculated that a parallel experience could await winter visitors in a vintage 1952 Bombardier over-the-snow tour coach. So he bought one.
The coach needed a little, well, TLC and Layshock dug in, summoning the cavalry by way of technicians, neighbors, fellow wrench turners, steel fabricators and plain old motorheads.Working on other area snow coaches helped, he says. “It inspired me to get my own [snow] coach,” Layshock remembers.
But what would drive a person to quit his job for two years, exhaust family savings and seek out loans from friends and banks? “I was possessed,” Layshock says. “These ‘Bombs are really hard to find but I used the Canadian equivalent of Craigslist and tracked one down. It’s always been in my blood to try new things.”
L looking like 6,000-pound beetles clicking across the snow, these signature snow vehicles made a name for the Canada-based Bombardier Inc. as early as the 1940s. After building tank-like tracked vehicles for the Canadian Army in World War II, the corporation morphed the design into a truck-sized over-the-snow machine with a rear track and front ski designed for transporting tourists in winter recreation areas. Its graceful contours and curves gave it a cocoon-like shape; still, it was no beauty queen. It was all utility.
Bombardier produced more than 3,000 C18/B12-model variants from the ‘50s through the ‘70s when the front ski configuration fell to competition featuring all-track designs. In their day, the B12 and C18 vehicles were used as school buses, and mail delivery and emergency vehicles throughout the northern U.S. and Canada. And they were fast, too, with top speeds of 30 mph in the flats, a rate unmatched even by today’s modern over- the-snow coaches. Layshock’s Bombardier is an R18 version, which he calls “The ‘Bomb” and reconfigured to seat eight passengers.
Several owners used Layshock’s ‘Bomb over the years in Canada, and the States including the U. S. Bureau of Land Management, which used it for winter maintenance on pipe lines and power lines. Eventually it landed in private hands as a mobile ice-fishing platform complete with a jury-rigged ice auger fastened to the stern and powered by a clumsy array of pulleys and drive belts. When Layshock bought this R18 in Quebec in 2015, he trailered it to his home in Island Park, Idaho, where most of the restoration took place in a neighbor’s garage. The paint was faded and weathered, the portholes boarded over. Instruments were missing and the seats torn out. One porthole doubled as a chimney hole for a woodstove inside. It seemed like the old Bombardier had come to the end of its purposeful life. But, then, fortune smiles on those who dream.
Like all such projects it was one trip to the hardware store after another, except that all conventional outlets seemed fresh out of 1952 snow coach parts. This was the watershed moment in Layshock’s project: Restore the ‘Bomb with all original parts or go with a modified version that blended its traditional style with a fresh appearance?
Layshock and his crew decided to blow out the original cabin and running gear, and start from scratch. The effort was like jacking up the radiator cap and building a new vehicle underneath it: More calls to the bank, more loans. In all, Layshock spent nearly $100,000 on the restored Bombardier.
Out came the original 318 Dodge V8 power plant and Layshock leveraged in a powerful, gleaming new aluminum block GM L83 EcoTec3 engine from a wrecked 2014 Chevy Silverado. Such a motor was necessary to be compliant with Yellowstone National Park’s emission and noise regulations.
“I’m just a risk person,” Layshock says. It’s in my blood to jump off the cliff. I was raised to explore new stuff and not regret having to try.”
Meanwhile, back at the garage, all vestiges of the ‘Bomb’s former life were disappearing. Tiny porthole windows rendered the interior dingy and cramped so fabricators designed larger openings, including a rooftop opening for panoramic views of the snow-brilliant Yellowstone landscape. Next came insulation and carefully fitted bamboo panels trimmed to perfection, then bench seats padded and covered with vinyl. A resourceful soul, Layshock scavenged additional parts from a Land Rover (heated windscreen), Dodge 3/4-ton truck (rear end), Corvette (fuel pump), Ford (heated seat), Jeeps and Mini Coopers.
Over time the interior became a thing of beauty, the one place in the gutted shell where eye candy could run rampant. Gone was the original cracked-plastic steering wheel replaced with a mahogany version atop the new chrome steering column. All new instrumentation found fresh homes in the walnut-trimmed dashboard and the new high-backed leather driver’s seat looks like it belongs in a man cave in front of a 60-inch flat screen. Highlighting the additions are heat, a back-up camera, satellite radio, power steering and a heavy-duty front cable winch. For paint, the team chose a gunmetal gray atop many coats of primer and, scalloped in a bold graphic, “Caldera Tours” proudly announces its new commercial persona.
For weeks on end, though, the ‘Bomb sat on jacks in a neighbor’s garage-turned-shop awaiting parts or on sawhorses under the paint shroud. Meanwhile, Layshock busied himself in the negotiating process with the National Park Service to prepare the coach to transport passengers into Yellowstone—no easy task, he says. It took hours of paperwork, documentation, phone calls, meetings and inspections in a slow dance with government officials. He “piggybacked” with a sub-concessioner already licensed by the park in a unique partnership.
“Concessioner permits in Yellowstone,” Layshock explains, “are like liquor licenses: hard to get and even harder to maintain. I needed all my own insurance just for $2 million in coverage.” Finally, in 2019 the authorizations materialized. Everything, according to the Park Service, was squeaky clean. The ‘Bomb was ready to perform. Its first official season began in Yellowstone on December 15, 2019.
“I’m just a risk person,” Layshock says. “It’s in my blood to jump off the cliff. I was raised to explore new stuff and not regret having to try.”
Layshock settles into the driver’s seat of his frisky new coach. “I can’t wait for the first snow, but…” his voice trails off. “It’s been a long haul and it’s still a long time ‘til December.” He hits the ignition switch and the whisper-quiet engine settles into a low murmur as if to say “I think I can, I think I can.”
In early October as a series of snowstorms descended upon Montana, Layshock was in Manitoba, Canada doing what any tinkerer would do: buying another one. This ‘Bomb once served as a school coach. “It even has the faded lettering of the original school district on the front cowling,” he says with a wry grin. First steps: Grab the impact gun and light up the wood stove.
Four generations deep in Montana’s history and culture, Michael Ober is a recently retired professor emeritus from Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell, Montana. During his 40-year career as Director of Library Services, he also taught English and Montana history. He also worked for 44 years as a seasonal ranger and wildland firefighter in Glacier National Park, and his freelance and professional writing has appeared in numerous regional and national publications.