Someday soon, the snowmobile manufacturers will create more diverse and interesting sleds and may start a revival that could compare to the glorious 1990s. And, if that happens, you can thank Mikhail Gorbachev.
Don’t believe me? Follow my twisted logic.
History remembers Gorbachev as the leader of the former Soviet Union starting in 1985. He introduced us to big, 50-cent Russian words like glasnost (meaning “openness”) and perestroika (meaning “restructuring”). Late U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1987 demanded, “Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall” in Berlin, and, low and behold, Gorby did. OK, he wasn’t actually driving the bulldozer and there were other factors, but Gorbachev is widely credited with lowering the Iron Curtain, dismantling the Soviet bloc and allowing capitalism. The past 25 years haven’t been easy in Eastern Europe, but that part of the world has weathered a tremendous transition.
Russia, while still strong, doesn’t control half of the world anymore, but it does have a lot of three important things: oil, winter and rural land. The booming oil and gas business has driven Russia’s economy in recent years, helping create a moneyed class. And increasingly, those people are finding new and interesting ways to enjoy long, cold, snowy winters in their vast, largely unsettled country.
The snowmobile industry is exploding in Russia — annual sales increased more than 30 percent last year. Sleds are also selling well in some other Eastern European/former Iron Curtain countries that have mountains and winter climates. The snowmobile industry has always had sales in Scandinavia, but this new market is a good thing for many people.
High profile western heroes who run riding clinics — the Dan Adams and Chris Burandt sort — are spending an increasing amount of their winters in Russia, teaching well-heeled Russians how to develop their skills. Companies that make accessories or performance parts are also finding sales there.
Look at the numbers: Sales of new sleds in the U.S. last year were 48,536; Canada was 44,022 and overseas sales were 52,043. Compare that to 1998, when U.S. sales were 162,826, while 68,818 sleds were sold in Canada and overseas sales were 26,492. In other words, U.S. sales are currently 30 percent of 1998 figures, Canadian sales are 64 percent, while overseas sales have doubled.
This new reality has caused the snowmobile manufacturers to spend a lot more time in Russia, setting up dealers and distributors and getting ready to do big business. It’s also affected the snowmobile lineups, as all four manufacturers have added more utility crossover machines, which are popular in that region. However, the Russkies aren’t just buying Skandics and Bearcats anymore; there are a lot of RMKs, Summits and XFs being shipped there.
This new market will cause the snowmobile manufacturers to develop even more interesting lineups. The harsh reality is this: If the snowmobile manufacturers were solely dependent on North American sales, they would be less likely to invest in new products and innovations, because 90,000 units divided by four manufacturers equals little profit or revenue for R&D. Throw in another 50,000 units and a booming market overseas, however, and suddenly you’ve got reason to invest.
Which brings us back to Gorbachev. He may be remembered in history books as the person who led the dismantling of the U.S.S.R. But without that, the snowmobile industry would be in a significantly more difficult position right now, and the future wouldn’t look nearly as bright.
Do you think we can find a spot for Gorby in the International Snowmobile Hall Of Fame? I warned you that my logic was twisted.
Editor’s Note: I actually got to cover Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990, when he came to Minnesota as part of his groundbreaking tour to the U.S. and I was a reporter for a daily newspaper. I stood right next to the man as he shook hands with a female reporter standing to my right. Gorby definitely had some charisma, but I was most captivated by the red-ink colored stain on top of his head…. This column first appeared in the February 2014 issue of Snow Goer magazine. To subscribe and get seven issues of sled reviews, aftermarket product evaluations, travel adventures, feature stories and more delivered to your house, click here.