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16 June 2016

The Weird and Wonderful World of Retro Snow Vehicles

Travelling by motor took us a long time to get right, and all-terrain transport has taken even longer. We’ve just about managed it now, with land vehicles capable of conquering just about every kind of terrain you can think of. In years past though, it was an inventor free-for-all as everyone tried to figure out solutions to the on-going problem of driving on anything that wasn’t a road.

Ice and snow were a particular focal point, with so much of the civilised world experiencing heavy snowfall on such a regular basis. The first snowmobiles were fan powered and ran on skates, they could pull light loads, but were notoriously difficult to manoeuvre, or even just keep from tipping over. Later designs were developed using tracks, ultimately leading to what we know today, as well as a number of other effective snow vehicles, but there were many, many other iterations that didn’t catch on to quite the same extent.

The Armstead Snow Motor

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This bizarre contraption was, as you can see, based on a Fordson tractor. It was developed in 1924, and represents one of the earliest examples of a ‘screw-propelled’ vehicle. The concept actually dates back to 1868 (or to Archimedes, if you’re being pedantic), but until then only a few attempts had been made to put it into proper practise.

The Armstead Snow Motor (or Snow Devil) was to be put into regular production. It turned by changing the power output ration to the two big screws which moved it along. It seemed, ostensibly, to work rather well, which makes you wonder why it never really took off. A few screw-propelled vehicles have popped up since, some for snow and others for amphibious transport. The British Ice Challenger team used a screw-propelled vehicle called Snowbird 6 to get across the Bering Strait, but for firmer ground the screws came away to make way for traditional tracks.

The Ridge Runner

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The Ridge Runner would certainly win the award for Most Adorable Snow Vehicle, if such an award actually existed. A whole range of variants on this twee theme were developed by the Minneapolis company during the 70s. They were touted as a cheap (around $2000) lightweight alternative to using your car in winter.

It had a hydraulic transmission system which enabled both tracks to be powered at the same time. For this reason, it could turn on a pivot, as well as move forwards or backwards. Most models had a convertible roof, and were around 1 metre wide at the nose and 2.4 metres long from bumper to bumper.

BMW Schneekrad

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The thing we’ve been able to figure out about tracks is that you kind of need at least two of them for the balance and weight distribution to be effective. Clearly they weren’t as aware of that in 1936. A number of caterpillar tracked motor bikes were developed, but BMW’s Schneekrad (Snowmobile) was, as the name suggests, one of the only ones purpose built to work on snow. As you might be able to tell from the image, it could also work as a regular bike, the conversion simply involved fitting some guards, taking the back wheel off and fitting the track.

Very little is actually known about the Schneekrad, suggesting that only a small number of prototype models were ever actually built, and some fundamental design flaws prompted BMW to scrap the project and sweep it under the rug.

Tatra Aero Sledge

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Tatra started out in life as a Moravian company building horse drawn cars, train cars and later motorcars, but things really shifted gear when the country (by this point part of Czechoslovakia) was invaded by Nazi Germany. At that time, the Germans were leading the way in automotive design, thanks to Volkswagen, but they had other plans for Tatra. Like so many other factories, they repurposed the Tatra HQ for the development of military hardware, and in 1941, when the Nazis had begun encroaching on Russia; they were tasked with developing a lightweight combat snowmobile.

The result was this weird thing, the V855, or Aero Sledge, or to some “Hitler’s Sledge”. The distinctly un-warlike looking body was taken from the company’s T87 family sedan, which was then outfitted with pivoted skis on the front and static ones on the back. It was powered by a comically oversized 2.9 litre V8 engine and a huge propeller. It used a big trailing drum for braking. Only 2 prototypes were produced before the project was cancelled, as the Russian front descended into chaos. One contributory factor to that was probably the military snowmobiles that the Russians were already using, which certainly looked a lot more suitable for warfare, if nothing else.

Arctic Snow Cruiser

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It’s only recently that we’ve been able to explore the poles using motor vehicles. The 2007 Top Gear special, in which Jeremy Clarkson, James May and a small team of experts and film crew reached the North Pole in a convoy of modified Toyota pickup trucks. Long before that, various engineers had attempted to tackle the problem. One of them was explorer and scientist Thomas Poulter.

He was the namesake of the Poulter Glacier in Antarctica, but his greatest legacy was the vehicle he designed to explore that landscape – the Arctic Snow Cruiser, or Penguin 1. It resembled something straight out of Thunderbirds, and featured everything from a chart room to a machine shop to a space on the roof where you could land a plane. A goddamn plane.

It was finished in 1939, and after a brief mishap involving it plunging into a stream in Ohio during the maiden voyage, it set off for the Antarctic. There were huge problems from the outset, it couldn’t be unloaded properly, it was too heavy for the snow and it had virtually no traction. In fact, the only way it could get any decent traction was in reverse gear, leading to a 148km stretch of progress made completely in reverse. Nobody actually knows where it is now, it was abandoned by the crew once the project was cut in favour of funding WWII. It was dug up once in 1958, but hasn’t been seen since. It’s thought that it ended up in the sea when part of the Ross Ice Shelf broke off in 1960.

Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop.