A couple of weeks ago, during the first of a seemingly endless chain of blizzards here in New England, I wrote a piece for Car Talk on vintage snowmobiles. Car Talk’s Senior Web Lackey Doug Mayer called me and said, “Hey, how’d you like to go up Mount Washington in the SnowCoach?” Sure, I said, not knowing that I was going to ascend Mount Washington the morning after the second blizzard.
Volkswagen sent up a 2015 Volkswagen GTI for the trip. Instead of being able to test the GTI’s mettle on some of the greatest roads New England has to offer, I was crawling along at 35 miles an hour most of the way to Mount Washington, because the roads the next morning were still barely plowed. At least the heated seats and the radio provided some comfort. We’ll post a full review next week.
I met up with Howie Weymss, who runs the Mount Washington Auto Road before my trip up the mountain. He gave me the rundown on the SnowCoach:
The vans they’re using right now are Chevrolet 15-passenger one-ton vans, like every church in America still uses. The Auto Road never sees them when they’re purchased, though. They go directly to Quigley 4×4 in Manchester, Pennsylvania.
Quigley has been building four-wheel drive vans that I’ve lusted for since 1974. Bill Quigley started out selling trucks in the late 1960s, and then started customizing vans in the very early days of “If This Van’s a Rockin’, Don’t Come a-Knockin’.” He quickly established himself as the guy for retrofitting four-wheel drive systems to full-size vans, starting out with Dodge, and then building 4×4 vans from every manufacturer within a couple of years.
Since 1977, Quigley’s been buying all-new four-wheel drive components directly from the OEM, and they become the basis for its current conversions. On these GM vans, Quigley provides the same 4×4 system used on GM full-size trucks and SUVs, typically using an independent front suspension based on GM’s 2500 or higher series full size van and cutaways.
Quigley can equip a GM van with four-wheel drive to maintain the original van’s ride height gives easy driver access and provides the ability to park in standard garages. But in the Auto Road’s case, ground clearance is key, so the vans opt for Quigley’s LIFS or Lifted Independent Front Suspension system. It provides a three-inch lift, while maintaining the coil-sprung independent front suspension for better ride quality.
Four-wheel drive is obviously necessary for running up the mountain, but you wouldn’t get six feet on a set of tires. To provide the van the ability to ascend the Mount Washington Auto Road, SnowCoaches have been equipped with treads.
In the early days, the SnowCoaches were using a different brand of treads, but each of the four treads weighed more than 700 pounds. They were so heavy that they required backup electric power to allow the vans to turn at low speeds.
The current vans use treads supplied by American Track Truck. They’re an aluminum frame, equipped with the bogey wheels and treads from a traditional snowmobile, which makes finding parts a whole lot easier in an emergency.
Howie Weymss notes that the Auto Road has been purchasing replacement parts from American Track Truck, but it’s nice to know that any decent snowmobile supplier in the region can supply parts if all hell breaks loose. He also says that the company has been fantastic to deal with, reinforcing parts that received wear during daily use in the winter.
There’s also a benefit in the milder months. Where it used to take two people to move one of the 700-pound treads from the old SnowCoaches, American Truck Track’s treads come off easily and the maintenance staff can move them around independently. In the summer, the SnowCoaches act as backup vans for the more traditional coaches that bring tourists up the mountain.
The trip itself is fantastic, and you can read more about it at Car Talk.
For more information on the SnowCoach, visit www.mtwashingtonautoroad.com.
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