The dictionary defines the word “élan” as ardor, enthusiasm or vigor, so the term made a great name for Ski-Doo’s new, compact snowmobile that was introduced for the 1971 model year. An outgrowth of a study to create a child’s snow machine, the Élan replaced the outdated Olympique 12/3 as Bombardier’s low-end model. Little did anyone know at the time that this basic snowmobile would become the industry’s longevity champion.
The new model was a small, lightweight snow machine with a full-sized track. This configuration gave the Élan fantastic flotation in deep snow. Ideal for beginners, women, kids and the exploding second-machine-in-the-family market, the cute little snow bug was the least expensive Ski-Doo ever, retailing for less than $600 in manual start mode, or another hundred bucks with factory-installed electric start.
The Basic Snow Machine
Powered by a single-cylinder engine devoid of any performance pretensions, the Élan stuck to the hugely successful Ski-Doo formula of a steel chassis with stirrups and the engine on top, a bogie wheel suspension and a rubber track. No ski loops, no snow flap, and no instruments were included or even available, but there was a console to shield the rider from the engine. To further cut costs, the track suspension had three bogie wheels per set instead of four. At a foot shorter than any other Ski-Doo, the Élan could be stored or transported in spaces where other sleds simply would not fit. The fact that the rider was theoretically limited to 150 pounds was lost in the exhilaration of the low price and other advantages of the new machine.
The Élan also played a role in Bombardier’s landmark SnoPlan. Another 1971 launch, SnoPlan was conceived to promote creation and maintenance of a North American snowmobile trail network. Snowmobile clubs that participated in SnoPlan by purchasing a Bombardier grooming tractor also got an Élan to raffle off and help pay for their groomer acquisition.
Despite sub-standard ride and handling, the attractively priced Élan was a huge success, with almost 35,000 sent to market in its first year. But the machine had design issues. For 1972, structural deficiencies in the frame and bellypan were addressed, the ski stance was widened 2.5 inches for better stability and ride quality was improved with thicker seat foam and more bogie wheels in the rear suspension.
Numerous safety upgrades included rubber-tipped skis with loops, a kill switch and a handlebar pad. Nevertheless, it was still an old style sled that absolutely demanded to be ridden either standing up or very slowly. Its small size made maneuverability excellent as long as the rider was willing to stand and use a lot of body English. If not, well, as one magazine put it, “the Élan has been known to go its own way in a turn.” Braking remained relatively poor, too.
Being a lightweight, however, made it a natural for competition and a small number of 1971 Élan Type 246s, also called Élan Blizzards, were built with a 24 hp single-cylinder engine for the European 250 racing class. This opened the door for a spin-off company, North American Élans, and subsequent versions were built with 250 twin and even 294 twin-cylinder engines. Some also had slide rail suspensions, and ski shocks and instruments became available. By 1975, there were a half-dozen Élan models in the line, starting with the basic 250 single with bogies.
The base model with nothing more than cosmetic changes was also sold as the Moto-Ski Spirit from 1977 through 1983.
Despite its obvious shortcomings as a trail sled, the petite and inexpensive Élan continued to sell in serious numbers through the 1970s. Its original reason for being was undercut in 1978 by the introduction of the Citation, an all-new entry-level model.
By 1980, the spin-off Élan models were history. But the basic one-lunger with bogies soldiered on, relegated primarily to the utility market where hunters, trappers, ice fishermen and cabin owners prized its deep snow capability that allowed superior mobility off of groomed terrain. Still, there were also a small number of sport riders who continued to prefer the small size, maneuverability and off-trail capability. And the low price continued to make it attractive as a first new sled for a youngster.
The Élan was also a star in the far north where its bogie wheel suspension didn’t care whether there was snow cover on the tundra or ice pack. The ultra-practical native people of the area valued the simplicity of Bombardier’s throwback model. A CDI box could die and leave a rider stranded out in the middle of nowhere, but the Élan’s time-tested magneto and breaker point ignition could be repaired anywhere, allowing the sled to take its rider home. Without oil injection pump, liquid cooling system or microprocessor-driven electronics to fail, the Élan was both very reliable and easy to fix with what was on hand if it broke. It continued to sell as basic transportation in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions well into the 1990s.
By the time Élan production finally ended after the 1996 season, it had become the longest-running, essentially unchanged model in snowmobile history — a title it retains to this day.
For 26 years the little sled with the big track introduced beginners and kids to the sport, carried people far off the trails where no other sled would go and played a unique role in the creation of the North American trail system that we now enjoy.
And in doing so, the modest little Élan that evolved from an attempt to build a kids’ sled became one of the all-time great machines.
1971 Ski-Doo Élan
Manufacturer: Bombardier Ltd., Valcourt, Québec
Engine: Rotax Type 247 radial fan-cooled, piston-port single
Carburetion: One Tillotson HR73A diaphragm pumper
Compression Ratio: 7.5 to 1
Ignition: Magneto and breaker points
Lubrication: Pre-mix at 20:1
Power Output: 12 hp
Exhaust: Single pipe with muffler
Drive Clutch: Bombardier Round Shaft
Driven Clutch: Bombardier
Type: Welded and painted steel chassis with steel stirrups and bumpers; polycarbonate cowl
Weight: Claimed 246 pounds dry
Front Suspension: Mono-leaf springs
Ski Stance: 23 inches
Rear Suspension: Three sets of three bogie wheels with torsion springs
Track: 15- by 114-inch 3-ply molded rubber with steel reinforcing rods
Brake: Pivoting arm drum type on driven clutch pulley
Fuel Capacity: 4.4 U.S. gallons
Standard Equipment: Decompression switch (for starting), rear storage compartment, safety reflectors, electric start on 250E
Price: $595 manual start, $695 electric start, MSRP excluding freight and other charges