It was in June of 1977 when I was asked to haul what was one of the first Ski-Doos to arrive in the United States to a gathering of antique snowmobile collectors. The sled was a 1960 model and I was the service manager for Bombardier Corp. in Duluth, Minnesota.
A friend and co-worker, Bob Falls, said that clubs were being formed all over North America for collectors of what, initially, were called antique snowmobiles. I agreed to make the trip and set off for one of the earliest gatherings of enthusiastic collectors of old snowmobiles.
I pulled into The Musky Inn in St. Germain, Wisconsin, and got acquainted with some of the participants at the event. Dennis Mayer, vice president of the Antique Snowmobile Club of America (ASCA), was there with two beautifully restored machines, a 1964 Polaris and a 1963 Arctic Cat. I then met Bud Wieman, president of the ASCA. There were about 50 antique machines displayed at that get-together and everyone I met was genuinely enthusiastic about their sleds and the gathering.
Bud then introduced me to Carl Eliason, the then-78-year-old inventor of the snowmobile. He attended the gathering with his original, 1924 Eliason upon which he took out the first patent for a snowmobile. Between Carl’s very early Eliason and the 1960 Ski-Doo I towed from Minnesota, we had the two oldest snowmobiles at the event. I was blown away by being able to meet Mr. Eliason and quickly realized how important the establishment of these “collector clubs” would become.
The People Who Restore
Since that first event I attended in 1977, antique, vintage and classic snowmobiles have created the fastest growing segment of the snowmobile industry today. Antiques are generally considered to be sleds built in 1968 or earlier, vintage snowmobiles include machines built between 1969 and the early 1980s, though the final year for the classification changes every few years. Classic snowmobiles can be any machine that is at least 10 years old.
There are many segments of this “antique-vintage-classic” collecting world, but the enthusiasm has to do with the aging generation of original snowmobilers, and I’m one of them. As kids in the late 1950s and early 1960s, many of us clearly remember how much fun we had riding that first Polaris, Arctic Cat, Trade Winds, Rupp or whatever. While some of the early riders own and ride modern sleds today, many still want to have one of those oldies that introduced them to the sport they love.
Some antiquers simply get an old sled back into running condition and don’t worry about how perfect it looks compared to how well it runs. I’ve met many of these “old” enthusiasts on the trails and it’s always fun listening to their stories and checking out their old machines.
Some collectors enjoy the hunt for a special old sled, often a race sled with a storied history. These collectors will sleuth out a machine to restore and often loan their finished gems to museums around the country. Collectors who enjoy the hunt and restoration process have saved many wonderful pieces of history.
There are also collectors who restore and build personal collections of machines that are simply fabulous. In many cases these collections are family affairs and include details that display clothing, accessories, signs, toys and brochures and manuals that help to preserve the history of a particular brand.
Another interesting group of collectors has sprung up in the past 10 years or so. These are people who build, nearly from scratch, “clones” of rare sleds. Many of these clones are incredibly well done and only a well-seasoned snowmobiler can define them over an original. Many shows and clubs now have a “clone” class to judge and rate these pieces of handiwork.
People who totally restore old snowmobiles don’t necessarily want to build collections of sleds, but instead, they enjoy restoring sleds as faithfully as they can. These folks generally have incredible mechanical talents and go to great lengths to make sure their restorations are accurate. They usually display their restorations at shows around the country and if they’re offered a reasonable price, they’ll sell their gorgeous project sled. Each sale of one of these sleds pumps up the value of other old snowmobiles.
I’m a collector who has a specific interest in vintage snowmobiles; engines. I have been involved in the snowmobile industry for the better part of my life and have had access to some of the most interesting engines that existed, including some for which I have modified and created.
While my collection of Rotax engines is on display in my home, there are few people who know what they are or when they were used. I can track down the use of Rotax engines in Ski-Doo from 1963 to this day, but I am constantly bugging old friends at Bombardier to provide me with what is new today.
Restoring Is As Fun As Riding
I have a long history with Ski-Doo and receive calls from all over North America and a few from Europe from restorers working on their latest project. I had recently received a few calls from Gerald Varin in New York who was restoring a 1970 Ski-Doo 771 T’NT. He finished his restoration and sent me a few photos of the sled. I was absolutely blown away by the quality of his restoration. Everything looked perfect on the sled, even better than the way the sled came off the assembly line.
Gerald is an avid snowmobiler who had some medical issues that kept him from riding for a time. He had a 1969 399 T’NT in his garage and decided to restore it during his down time. By the time he finished the project, Gerald discovered he enjoyed restoring old sleds nearly as much as riding them.
He quickly dove into another project with a rare, 1970 T’NT 771. His research to restore the sled accurately and the nationwide search for parts combined with his talents put together a museum-quality restoration that is helping to preserve the history of our sport.
What’s New Today Is Tomorrow’s History
For active racers, there’s nothing much less useful than a year-old race sled. If it’s a factory race sled, that machine is often cut up and sold as scrap unless a collector can get his or her hands on it. It is certainly fortunate that many old race sleds have been found and restored.
Wouldn’t it be great to have and restore one of Toni Haikonen’s first MX Zs or Kirk Hibbert, son Tucker, or Blair Morgan’s winning Arctic Cats? I know there are people actively chasing down some of these sleds and in the case of Jeff Johnson of McBain, Michigan, he’s already landed a few of the future, collector gems. Jeff has purchased Arctic Cats driven by Kent Ipsen, Blair Morgan and Kurt Crapo and you’d better believe they will only appreciate in value.
The interest in restoring, collecting, trading and selling old snowmobiles has created a strong segment of the snowmobile industry and will surely grow. Clubs and organizations have helped develop this market and they deserve support. Keep on looking and participating at club gatherings. There are still a lot of treasures out there to be found. And if anyone knows where there’s an original cast aluminum recoil starter for a 1963 Rotax 163cc, please let me know!
Finding Long Lost Parts
One of the growth areas of the industry that has been spawned by the interest in antique, vintage and classic snowmobile collecting is the birth of parts suppliers who produce reproductions of old parts.
There are many parts that the average garage mechanic cannot fabricate, such as castings, complex exhaust systems, seats and plastic, rubber or fiberglass parts. As New Old Stock (NOS) parts have been consumed by collectors, new suppliers are entering the market every year. A little digging on the Internet will reveal who and where they are.
Snowmobile clubs all over the country sponsor swap meets. These meets bring together individuals with “junk” parts, which are many times treasures to the finders and hunters who are thrilled to find the part they have been looking for. If you have any interest in restoring an old sled and are hunting for a specific part or information on an old snowmobile, hit up a local swap meet. You just cannot guess at what will show up.