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Flashback: The 1976 Massey Ferguson Whirlwind

By David Wells
1976 Massey Ferguson Whirlwind

1976 Massey Ferguson Whirlwind. Photo provided by Valdi Stefanson.

Canadian-based Massey-Ferguson – the world’s largest agricultural business in the 1970s – had been building the tractor-like Ski Whiz snowmobile since 1969. But despite a large network of rural dealers, the company never fully understood snowmobiling, illustrated by its indifference to the performance segment that was beginning to dominate the market at the time.

By 1975, Massey’s red snow trac-tor was deep “in the red” due to a non-competitive product, a soft economy from the 1973 oil crisis and lighter winters in parts of North America. A final effort to tweak the Ski Whiz to be more appealing among consumers was ultimately unsuccessful. Other manufacturers were bailing out of the snowmobile business, but the rural-oriented company still believed it had a place in the changing market.

After two months of negotiation during the spring of 1975, Massey-Ferguson concluded an agreement to have Scorpion Inc. manufacture its sleds. Scorpion engineers completed a prototype in only five days to seal the deal.

The agreement provided Massey-Ferguson with a more competitive product to sell, cut production costs and released manufacturing capacity at its Des Moines, Iowa, plant to build more lawn and garden tractors for that growing segment of business. For Scorpion – which had been cut loose by big conglomerate Fuqua Indus-tries at the end of calendar year 1973 – the increased production would help offset its market weakness in Canada as well as the overall sales decline and resulting financial losses for the brand.

Scorpion already had considerable private brand manufacturing experience, so the deal looked like a win-win for both companies.

The Wind Sleds Blow In

Official announcement of the merger was held off until the fall of 1975, when new sleds were introduced. Unsurprisingly, the “new” sleds produced were nothing more than thinly disguised Scorpions with the tempestuous names of Cyclone, Chinook and Whirlwind, and “Massey Ferguson” now as the brand name, with the Ski Whiz moniker resigned to history books. The brand had no dash between Massey and Ferguson, but the company name did.

Covered in black with a red laser-stripe on the hood and red trim, the family-oriented Whirlwind was the mainstream offering. Essentially a Scorpion Whip with dual headlights, it also featured a straight handlebar instead of Scorpion’s signature buck-horn bars, and leaf springs that were adjustable for different snow conditions like those on the Ski Whiz.

The Whirlwind’s power was provided by either a 340cc or 440cc Cuyuna axial-fan twin. Formerly known as JLO engines, Scorpion had purchased the name, manufacturing rights and the entire JLO factory from Rockwell International to acquire a captive engine brand – moving more than 200 tons of tooling and other materials from Germany to northern Minnesota. The move significantly eased the transition for Massey-Ferguson because Ski Whiz sleds had always been JLO-powered, so Massey dealers were al-ready familiar with the engines and had the reference materials, training and parts needed to service them.

Initial promotion of the “wind” sleds was quite good. Impressive full-color brochures, snowmobile magazine advertising/product publicity and lots of retail ads in newspapers were used to create aware-ness of the new lineup.

One of the lightest sleds in its class, the Whirlwind quickly won the approval of critics. Snow Sports magazine called it a “pleasant surprise” at spring testing in Leadville, Colorado. Writers reported that it was mid-pack in most performance tests, and summarized it as a “good all-purpose family sport sled.” Our Snow Goer predecessors reported the Whirl-wind got 25.6 MPG in an economy evaluation, the best of 26 machines during the spring testing.

Owners liked it, too. A post-season evaluation report in Snow Sports indicated that 96 percent of 340cc Whirlwind buyers were pleased with their purchase. Some owners were particularly impressed with the dual headlights, while others noted comfort, good fuel economy and stability as positive attributes. On the downside, ice and snow build-up in the hybrid Para-Rail suspension and clutch issues were cited most often as negative factors.

The Wind Goes Quiet

Despite the vastly improved new models, there simply weren’t enough buyers for Massey Ferguson sleds to stay competitive. Burdened by Ski Whiz inventory that wasn’t selling despite big price cuts, the company continued to lose money on the snowmobiles.

Massey-Ferguson finally called it quits when its production agreement with Scorpion expired after the 1977 season. Regardless of the inevitable demise, the company had outlasted most of its big name competitors like AMF/Harley Davidson, Ariens, Bolens, Mercury, OMC (Evinrude & Johnson), Penney’s, Sears and Suzuki.

Scorpion was never profitable again, sold to Arctic Cat and died in the 1981 Arctic Enterprises meltdown.

Today the Massey Ferguson “wind” sleds are a rare sight at a vintage show or ride. But if you keep your ear to the wind, you may find one from time to time.

Editor’s Note: This Flashback article from International Snowmobile Hall of Fame writer David Wells first appeared in Snow Goer magazine. To see more of Wells’ great articles on interesting old sleds, plus in-depth new sled evaluations, aftermarket product tests, informative how-to story, interesting travel features, Snowmobile Science articles and much more, subscribe to Snow Goer magazine

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