It’s been snowing pretty much non-stop for the last two days and we’ve witnessed people in technologically advanced SUVs with all-wheel drive almost send their rigs out into the woods, regardless. In the old days, battling winter required specialized heavy equipment that looked like it came off the set of The Road Warrior. Let’s take a look at a few of these beasts:
Tucker was — and still is — based in Medford, Oregon. It started building two-tracked Sno-Cats with a ski up front for turning back in the late 1940s, but it pretty quickly moved to the more familiar four-tracked version, most with two side doors, and a third door in the rear.
For a long time, Sno-Cats had a rugged steel track like a tank, that revolved around a steel “pontoon” with a sprocket at the very top that was connected to the axles.
Later Sno-Cats like the ones you still see grooming the slopes at ski areas all over the country have a different track setup, with rubber belts fortified with steel cleats. These belts ride on a series of rubber idler wheels, and turn via sprockets that mesh with the belt.
There were several famous Tucker Sno-Cats. This one appeared in the 1953 movie How to Marry a Millionaire, starring Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Bacall:
It’s a Model 443, with two tracks and skis for turning.
Four specially prepared Tucker Sno-Cats made Sir Vivian Fuchs’ Trans-Antarctic Expedition possible. Between 1955 and 1958, the expedition was the first overland crossing of Antarctica via the South Pole.
Three of the Sno-Cats returned, and are located in the Canterbury Museum in New Zealand, the Museum of Science and Industry in Wiltshire, England, and in storage at Tucker’s own facility. The fourth Tucker Sno-Cat was famously captured in this photograph:
This Sno-Cat — driven by 28-year-old Lt. Thomas Couzens — was suspended over a crevass on the Ross Ice Shelf on November 19, 1959. Soon after the photo, the Sno-Cat fell into the crevass, claiming Couzens’ life in the process. Couzens Bay — an ice-filled inlet between Siena Point and Cape Goldschmidt on the western side of the Ross Ice Shelf — is named for the lieutenant.
The Massachusetts State Police have a Tucker Sno-Cat on display:
Thiokol was probably the most unlikely vehicle producer in history. Its moneymaker was a foul-smelling adhesive compound that clogged a sink in the laboratory confounded the janitorial staff by being resistant to any kind of solvent. That accidental substance turned out to be a revolutionary type of synthetic rubber which ended up as the stabilizer in solid-fuel rockets.
In the name of diversity, Thiokol also built ski lifts. The ski industry is fairly well established in the United States now, but after World War II, it was a veritable land rush to build ski areas everywhere it snowed, and companies like Thiokol jumped into the business in a big way. As it strung up telephone poles with pulleys and suspended chairs, it also recognized the need for a vehicle that could both shuttle staff around the mountain, and groom trails at the same time.
Thiokol built Imp, Super-Imp and Spryte snow machines in its factory in Logan, Utah. It also had a heavy duty version called the Juggernaut, a four-tracked design similar to the Tucker Sno-Cat that could accommodate heavy equipment like drilling rigs and small cranes.
Interestingly, John DeLorean bought Thiokol in 1978, nearly simultaneous with his attempt to built cars in Northern Ireland, and for about two years, these snow machines were branded as “DMC” vehicles, just like the DeLorean DMC-12. The company was sold to its management in 1981, which changed the name to LMC for “Logan Machine Company.”
A couple of popular thrillers from the early 1980s featured Thiokols:
The John Carpenter remake The Thing featured a Thiokol Imp 1404.
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining included a Thiokol Sprite 1202 in a quick exterior scene near the film’s frightening conclusion.
LMC ceased operation in 2000, but was most notable for producing fire engines and the motorhome that Charles Kuralt used on his On The Road segments on CBS Sunday Morning.
Bombardier is quietly one of the world’s foremost vehicle producers. The $22 billion multinational aerospace and transportation manufacturer is based in Montreal, Quebec. It started out rather quietly, though, when Joseph-Armand Bombardier began building enclosed, snow-capable machines in 1935.
These early machines could carry a few passengers in relative comfort, skating over the snow on tracks, steered by skis.
Think about Quebec circa 1935 and you can understand how Bombardier’s company took off: Outside of Montreal, the province’s roads were barely maintained, and snow-covered for a good chunk of the year. Bombardier was building 1,000 vehicles a year, many B12s which were used as school buses. In 1948, though, the Quebec government mandated that all of the provinces roads be cleared of snow, putting a damper on Bombardier’s business.
It’s greatest snow machine success was the BR-100 or Bombi. Competitive snow machines like the Thiokol Imp — despite its size — were heavy and crushed the ground it ran on.
It wasn’t exactly light at 2,000 pounds. But its winter tracks were huge. At two feet wide, they had 2,812 square inches of surface area, which did an admirable job spreading that ton of weight. It allowed the Bombi to operate on up to a 60% side hill, or an 80% vertical hill, making the Bombi a favored tool in the ski industry.
The Bombi was powered by the industrial version of the Ford Kent four-cylinder engine, the Bombi’s form certainly followed its function. The engine was mounted longitudinally, but behind the driver. The drive shaft ran to the front of the Bombi and turned an axle fitted with hub sprockets to turn the tracks.
But as the booming ski industry helped Thiokol and Tucker, it also helped Bombardier. Joseph-Armand Bombardier’s major success would be in Ski-Doo snowmobiles, but it continues building large snow machines used for grooming to this day.