No snowmobile ever deserved this epitaph more than the 1974 Chaparral SSX.
The second liquid-cooled snowmobile to hit the market — the Brut was first — was not only ahead of most of the industry in engine technology, but also in chassis construction and equipment options. And unlike the pricey, high-performance Brut, the SSX was intended from the outset as a high volume, mainstream product from a full-line manufacturer. In fact, Chaparral predicted that fully one-half of its 1974 snowmobile sales would be the new liquid-cooled machines.
The “Wet Head” Sled Liquid cooling for snowmobiles was a radical idea in the early 1970s. Advantages included more power and better gas mileage over a wider temperature range, reduced noise, increased reliability and longer engine life. Key drawbacks were weight and cost.
The pricey, low-volume Brut had demonstrated that liquid-cooled sleds were not only possible, but actually made sense. So while the rest of the industry gingerly experimented with “water burners” on the new Sno Pro factory racing circuit, Chaparral rolled a “wet head” sled out the door for consumers.
The new engines from Fuji Light Industries cooled themselves pretty much like an automobile does. A belt-driven water pump circulated a 50-50 mixture of ethylene glycol and water through extruded aluminum heat exchangers — not a radiator — and then back to the engine. A thermostat allowed proper engine warm-up.
Chaparral also promised that liquid cooling and their exclusive Mikuni BNO “spill dam” carbs with enriching circuits rather than a traditional choke would “virtually eliminate vapor lock.” This now-unheard-of condition was a major plague on the sport back then. It could and often did render an engine useless until it had sufficiently cooled down to be restarted.
The Mikuni carbs, reed-valve induction and capacitor discharge ignition (CDI) made these new Fuji liquids very advanced powerplants for their day. Most of the competition had few or none of these features, all of which would one day become standard equipment on most sleds.
But that was just the beginning. The SSX was built on Chaparral’s riveted aircraft aluminum chassis. This strong, flexible and lightweight construction wasn’t a Chaparral original either, but it was light years ahead of the heavy and failure-prone welded steel chassis still used by many competitors. Extensive use of aluminum for the chaincase, motor mounts, ski spindle mounts, bumpers and other parts helped keep the advertised weight less than 375 pounds. The machine did retain the classic engine-on-the-tunnel configuration, but a low-mounted split gas tank and a tight turning radius helped make it a very stable and generally well-handling machine.
Ride quality was improved over earlier Chaparrals by an all-new slide rail suspension that weighed 15 pounds less than the old unit. With a full 5 inches of travel, which was very good for the time, it rode like a cloud compared to the bogie wheels and crude sliders remaining on many competitive sleds. And an additional 5 inches of seat increased room for the rider and passenger. The mechanically efficient internal-drive molded track was another advanced feature compared to what was on a lot of competitors’ products.
A sophisticated color scheme used a burnt orange hood and bellypan with yellow, red, and black trim. The burnt orange hue was repeated on inserts on the extruded aluminum bumpers. And a three-dimensional chrome hood emblem added more class to the looks. Brown upholstery and a simulated wood-grain dash panel completed the appearance package. Many consider it the best looking Chaparral ever made.
Other standard equipment included a kill switch, wrap-around tail light, comfortable plastic passenger hand holds, chrome ski shocks and full instrumentation.
Carbide ski runners and a hydraulic disc brake were optional. Standard on most sleds today, these items weren’t even available from most brands back in 1974.
And to reassure potential customers, the SSX was backed with Chaparral’s industry-first “No Downtime Protection Plan” that was also ahead of the rest of the industry. This included a full one-year warranty, a parts and service “hot line” to the factory and loaner sleds from participating dealers.
Out Of Time
The SSX never really got a chance to show what it could do because time ran out on Chaparral in February 1974. Parent company Armco Steel announced that, based on “general conditions,” it would exit the recreation business immediately.
The general conditions certainly included the 1973 Arab oil embargo that had altered the American economy virtually overnight, as well as the overproduction and glut of unsold inventory that was killing the snowmobile industry.
Although the 1975 Chaparral line was ready to go and American Motors Corporation and two other companies all considered purchasing the business, Chaparral was done. The SSX and its stablemates and predecessors were orphans.
Available in dealer showrooms in 1973, the liquid-cooled Chaparral SSX was so advanced that it would still have been a competitive model into the next decade. My friend Bruce had one, and it was his pride and joy. He rode it into the mid-’80s until some bad guys stole it from his yard one night.
Other people who had these advanced sleds loved them, too. The Chaparral cult was not as visible or as vocal as the boosters of some other departed brands, but they were just as loyal in their own quiet way.
Unfortunately, Bruce’s story doesn’t have a happy ending. The law caught up with the kids who stole his sled. But all he got back were a few parts, including that very progressive liquid-cooled engine, amazingly. His irreplaceable, ahead-of-its-time SSX was no more.