Snowmobile engineering blunders

For all of us who love snowmobiling, we have to take our helmets off for all the wonderful designs engineers come up with year after year. While we all appreciate the good things we’ve experienced with our snowmobiles, there have been some bad ideas, too.

This column is not intended to be list of complaints, instead it’s a fun look back at some of the concepts that just didn’t work out. I hope this gets you talking — and laughing — with your snowmobiling friends about some of those interesting concepts of the past that never really worked too well.

In The Beginning …
In the very beginning, there was a lot of sorting out to do just to come up with what a snowmobile should be. As soon as the automobile started taking over from the horse and buggy, people in the Snowbelt started considering ways to power their way over the snow. Many half-track conversions were designed for Model T and Model A Fords going back to 1917. Henry Ford himself designed a machine based on his Fordson farm tractor that looked like a pontoon boat but the “pontoons” were fitted with screw-like threads that counter-rotated, “screwing” the machine through the snow. It was a goofy looking contraption but it did actually work.

Carl Eliason was awarded the first snowmobile patent in 1927. In 1940, he sold his patents to the Four Wheel Drive Automobile Company (FWD). In 1951 FWD designed a new model named the K-10 that evolved into the K-12, which was the machine that inspired David Johnson and eventually the Hetteen brothers who put together the first Polaris snowmobile in 1954.

As the snowmobile industry exploded onto the scene, it seemed like everyone with a sheet metal brake and a welder tried to get into the business. There were some really strange sleds that actually made it to market but not with great success. The Huskee and the Bolens Diablo Rouge had similar designs that looked like a garden tractor on tracks pulling a sled behind them. Another strange design was the ski-less Larven, which didn’t make it a year. A number of small machines like the Sno-Pony tried to make it in the game, as did the Chrysler Sno-Runner.

Profits Soared,Innovations Kept Coming
Companies were starting to make some heavy profits in the 1960s and ’70s and everyone wanted to get some of it. There were even some strange motorcycle track and ski conversions designed. Many of these designs were just plain embarrassing. By the mid-1970s, the industry began shrinking and all of the really weird designs disappeared. The remaining manufacturers kept right on innovating, however, but some of those innovations just didn’t work out either.

Engines were rapidly gaining horsepower and drive belts weren’t holding up in the early 1970s, so some manufacturers turned to hydrostatic transmissions as a shot at the solution. Arctic Cat introduced its VIP Panther in 1974 with a hydrostatic transmission and Yamaha followed with one of its own design the following year. The devices were heavy, expensive and didn’t work nearly as well as centrifugally governed variable pulleys — when the drive belt held together on them. Eventually, aramid fibers and new rubber recipes solved the drive belt durability problem.

Systems like breaker-less capacitor discharge ignition (CDI) systems looked like a good thing right off the bat. The problem was the early designs did not hold up well. Solid-state components used in them were also new and their failure rate was excessive. When Ski-Doo used its first CDI on Blizzard racing engines, they failed 80 percent of the time. Component problems were soon eliminated and we herald their use to this day.

A concept that came along with CDI was surface gap spark plugs. They promised to end spark plug fouling for good. Well, they didn’t, and their omni-heat range design took away the ability to use the spark plug to help control combustion chamber temperatures.

Until the patents on Bombardier’s endless rubber track began to expire, most manufacturers used built up, cleated tracks. The Gates Polytrack was an endless polyurethane track that was supposed to be able to run directly against a metal slide rail, but it couldn’t because the track melted to the rails in marginal snow conditions. Replacement tracks like the Fasttrack were made of individual segments of plastic that were hinged together with thin rods. Those were downright dangerous because the Fasttracks broke at the joints and came flying out the rear of the machine.

Summer Uses And Direct Drive
In an effort to make snowmobiles useful year-round, wheel kits were available to replace the skis. Some of these kits included steel skis with their bottom sides covered with rollers. There were even some conversion kits that turned a snowmobile into a boat of sorts. They led to the original Sea-Doo watercraft in 1968.

A system that mounted the driven pulley directly onto the drive axle eliminated the need for gear reduction between the engine and the drive axle. Bombardier first used it on its 1971 X-2R speed record machine. Direct drive showed up on the John Deere Spitfire and on the 1981 Polaris Cutlass. The system worked but produced little bottom-end torque to pull the machines off the line from the start.

There were many traction products that came along through the years. One of the more interesting ones I remember was the cutter wheel that mounted on the skis. The device included a bearing-mounted wheel about three inches in diameter that would cut into hard surfaces and provide better steering. Many racers tried the “pizza cutters” and often sharpened the wheels for better bite. The wheels were quickly banned from use in sanctioned racing because they could inflict a major injury to any driver who was run over by one of them.

Ski-Doo produced two models introduced for the model year 1987: the Stratos and Escapade. The sleds utilized a large polycarbonate windshield that was shaped to force heated air from the engine to the driver and passenger. The windshield was thicker at the base than at the top and acted like a lens. While looking through the top of the windshield, everything was fine but when loading the machine on a trailer or maneuvering in tight locations, the “lens” took away the driver’s perspective of distance and many machines crashed into trailers.

There were many odd clothing items that quickly came and went, too. One of my favorites was the Turbo Visor. This gadget mounted to the helmet and included a circular plastic visor with vanes on it that allowed it to revolve on a bearing that mounted it to the visor. It was supposed to use centrifugal force to throw snow from it and its constant rotation would keep it fog free.

Moon boots were a quick fad, too. They were reasonably warm but offered virtually no support or protection to the ankles and they wore out in just weeks. Thankfully, they went away.

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