31 July 2012

Motorized Fun in the Frozen North

Proof that it’s possible to have a great time on noisy old machines in sub-zero conditions.

 

My only previous experience on a snowmobile took place in the ’80s as a student at the University of Colorado-Boulder. All it took was some foolhardy hot-dogging on skis, and my reward was a snowmobile pulling my young, unwise and unconscious (admittedly, that last qualifier wasn’t so unusual during those years) self to a hospital in Breckenridge.

I grew up in St. Louis, and while it snows there a few times each winter, it rarely stays on the ground for long. Bad snowmobile country.

My first winter in northern Michigan, however, had me feeling as though I’d joined the cast of “Ice Road Truckers.” the snow doesn’t melt until at least April and, eventually, most parking lots sport a 2/3-scale replica of Mt. Kilimanjaro formed from plowed snow. Good snowmobile country.

What little I did know about snowmobiles came from a vague familiarity with their colorful names that I couldn’t quite place and that struck me as things like “Permafrost Panther” and “Tundra Terror.”

Traverse City, Michigan, had been enjoying a relatively mild spell in January with lows in the 20s, until my date with snowmobile destiny arrived. An Alberta Clipper dropped the overnight low into negative numbers. The thought of adequate clothing briefly had occurred to me the night before and I made a half-hearted effort to prepare by buying some long underwear at Old Navy.

The real snowmobile guys arrived in quilted jumpsuits. I was reminded of stories I’d read about the Germans at Stalingrad pathetically stuffing their inadequate uniforms with newspaper in a vain effort to stay warm while Red Army snipers in white quilted jumpsuits (not unlike the ones these guys were wearing) picked them off at their toasty leisure.

After eating a breakfast of four eggs and every breakfast meat known to man at Peegeo’s—gracious host of the day’s get-together for the Traverse City chapter of the Antique Snowmobile Association—I was told I would get a thorough check-out on snowmobile operation before setting off on my own. And if I couldn’t ride with these folks, I could sure eat with them.

I don’t know what I was expecting as far as the tech session, but in actuality it consisted of showing me the location of the throttle, brake and kill switch. I pondered the scenarios in which I’d use the kill switch: “If I’m still on the thing, well, then I can damn sure reach the brake, and if I’m tossed off and the throttle sticks open, well, then the kill switch would be out of reach, now wouldn’t it?” In reality, the brevity of the tech briefing was really a reflection on the simplicity of snowmobiles. No gears, transmission or clutch like a car or a motorcycle; you just start it and open the throttle.

And off I went on someone else’s beautifully restored 1973 Rupp 440 Nitro, into a tavern parking lot crowded with trucks, trailers and other equally nice vintage snowmobiles. It was a quick lesson in snowmobile dynamics and control. On the whole, it reminded me a bit of a Detroit muscle car from the 1960s. Great throttle response, plenty of power, with steering and braking that were largely theoretical.

After successfully circumnavigating the Peegeo’s lot, we set off for a large open field where I could ride and compare several vintage sleds, along with a brand new 2011 Polaris Rush. Upon arrival at said field, I was urged to try a sled called the “Diablo Rouge,” a large, articulated thing built in 1968 by Bolens. It looked less like a traditional snowmobile and showed a greater resemblance to a nuclear-powered snow blower attached to a Flexible Flyer, complete with a lawn mower handle for steering. It proved every bit as difficult to handle as it looked. It was not unlike driving a car with no power steering, wide tires and a lot of weight over the front. Turning at low speeds (which is all I dared on this monster) was nearly impossible, and there was always the concern of having the back meet the front with one of my legs in between.

Next I tried a Skee Horse. It was compact, light, and had a front reminiscent of an Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite or an old Subaru 360. I actually got quite comfortable on it. So comfortable, in fact, that I decided I’d try one of those tail-out, power on, low-speed turns I’d been seeing all morning. I shifted my weight and got on the throttle but didn’t quite account for the uneven ground. As I tipped over on the sled (seemingly in slow motion), for some odd reason I heard the voice of Howard Cosell repeating the iconic “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!” call from the 1973 Joe Frazier-George Foreman fight. Ah, the agony of defeat. At least the photographers and onlookers got what they so badly wanted to see—snowmobile greenhorn city slicker tossing himself off a sled.

My last sled of the morning was a 2011 Polaris Rush 800 with about 120 hp. It had an exhaust note reminiscent of a superbike, rather than the corn popper-like clatter of some of the older two-stroke sleds. Throttle response was virtually instantaneous and acceleration was positively vicious, accelerating from 0 to Scaring the Crap Out of Me in about a second-and a half. This was obviously the Corvette ZR-1 of snowmobiles. The contrast between the modern and vintage sleds I’d ridden made me realize how compressed the development time had been in the snowmobile world— from the Wright Brothers to an F-22 Raptor in about 40 years.

The vintage snowmobile hobby is in a wonderful spot and my sense is that the people involved in it realize it and aren’t anxious to see it change—and for good reason. It’s not unlike the collector car hobby 40 years ago: Great restorable sleds are still available for free to anyone with a trailer, and the holy grails of vintage snowmobiles are hard-pressed to break 10 grand. It’s a real eye-opener for those of us used to $700,000 Shelby Cobras and $1.7 million Hemi ’Cudas.

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To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Winter 2011 issue of Hagerty magazine

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