The Complete History of Snowmobiles

the complete history of snowmobiles

From Oversnow Vehicle to Motor Toboggan to the Modern Snowmobile

Modern snowmobiles appeared fairly recently in history, but the development of over-snow vehicles goes back many years. In the United States and Canada, the “snowmobile” went through decades of patenting and perfecting before it became anything like the vehicle it is today. In this blog, we’ll explore the timeline of snowmobiling: how it began, how it stuck, and where it’s come to today. Read on to learn about the complete history of snowmobiling. 

It’s no secret that snowmobiles have increased the popularity of outdoor winter recreation. According to this snowmobile education course study guide, “more than three million people in the United States and Canada snowmobile each winter, enjoying more than 230,000 miles of groomed public trails.” Let’s see how we got from there to here!

Carving the Way to the Modern Snowmobile

carving the way to the modern snowmobile

In places where the winters bring long months of heavy snowfall, traveling over and through snow is a must. In the United States during the early 1900s, this was a problem for many people. As different solutions to this problem began developing, so began the origins of the snowmobile. However, snow vehicles for single riders (snowmobiles) were not the first vehicles built to travel through snow. 

In fact, it was the logging industry that carved the way for the modern snowmobile to appear. In 1908, a man by the name of Alvin Lombard built the first over-snow vehicle. He came from Waterville, Maine, and his 20-ton machine was used only for log-hauling. This machine was huge, resembling a steam locomotive but with a half-track design and front skis. A beast this big could haul through snow, sure, but it certainly wasn’t built for individual travel.

imagine living somewhere like that

Imagine living somewhere in the deep, wintery woods of North America in 1908, and a member of your family falls ill. Unless you live close to town, finding your way to a doctor (or for that matter, a doctor finding their way to you) is going to be incredibly difficult if there’s any sense of urgency. Thus, the impact of the snowmobile was going to be massive. 

Ultimately, recreational use became the real money-winner, though. But it took quite a while (and many designs) before we got to the snowmobile industry we know today!

The First Snowmobile

the model T ford was the first sled in the history of snowmobiles

It all began when a Ford dealer in New Hampshire invented a track and ski conversion system for the Model T Ford. The man’s name was Virgil White, and the year was 1913. About 10 years later, a young man from Canada would begin his journey of patenting and perfecting features of the Model T to travel over snow. 

It was the winter of 1922 when Armand Bombardier designed a wind-driven sleigh using a Model T engine. It was only the first of many snowmobile designs, but not the first patent. Bombardier is now known as the man who first invented the “modern snowmobile”. He is the same man behind the iconic Ski-Doo Snowmobile brand. 

The Motorized Toboggan

the first snowmobile

Meanwhile, in Sayner, Wisconsin, a man named Carl Eliason was working hard on a similar project of his own. In 1927, the first snowmobile patent was issued. His patent defined the first workable, single-track, one-passenger snowmobile. 

Eliason called it a motor toboggan, which essentially described just what it was. It was a wooden, motorized toboggan “fitted with two skis, which were steered with ropes, powered by a 2 ½ horsepower Johnson outboard motor, and pushed by an endless steel cleated track.” 

What was particularly neat about his machine was that it had “a front-mounted, liquid-cooled engine that used a jackshaft.” His version groomed the path toward what we recognize as the modern snowmobile. 

A Timeline of the History of Snowmobiles

In the years between 1927 and 1962, thirteen patents were granted for snow vehicles. Eliason’s snow vehicles went into production through Sayner for fifteen years. During this time, other companies spent decades patenting the many versions of snowmobiles. 

Let’s break down a basic timeline of the history of snowmobiles:

history of snowmobiles

1927

Carl Eliason patented the feature of his motorized toboggan, defining the first workable, single-track, one-passenger snowmobile.

1937

Armand Bombardier patented a tracked vehicle for traveling over snow.

The 1940s

An “iron dog” machine went into production. Larger, slower, and clumsier than modern snowmobiles, it was primarily used by hunters, trappers, and power company service crews.

By 1947, Bombardier began manufacturing snow machines capable of carrying up to 12 people. The military used these machines for the most part. However, the Canadian police, mining and oil companies, and ski resorts adopted it.

The 1950s

Polaris Industries made a commitment to the development, testing, and manufacturing of the definitive single-track snowmobile.

history of snowmobiles

1958-59

Bombardier finally pulled the trigger and launched the Ski-Doo snowmobile. The lighter, more maneuverable machine was a huge success with the public. Numerous other companies soon rushed their versions into production, giving rise to the sport of snowmobiling.

1968

Yamaha manufactured its first snowmobile. They were the most successful of their time, yet with only 350 manufactured in total.

history of snowmobiles

The 1970s 

Snowmobile racing was now very popular. Yamaha’s SRX440 model was at the top of the charts of the racing scene. 

The 1980s

At this point, technology began to allow for special additional advancements. Heated handlebar warmers were one of these new features. Around this time, a man named Gerard Karpik introduced the M-10 suspension. This allowed for harder riding over rough terrain, a necessary improvement for cross-country riders.

The 1990s

Polaris launched a new revolution in the history of snowmobiles with electronic fuel injection. It created a better fuel economy, smoother riding, and better performance in general.

The Ski-Doo

history of snowmobiles

By the late 50s, Bombardier had finally created the lightweight, speedy snow machine that set the stage for how the industry would continue to grow. It was a point of no return! “The modern engines had become small enough and light enough to make this design possible. [His] design revolutionized the snowmobile industry with its tunnel mounted engine, combined chassis/hood, and an endless rubber track affixed via sprung bogie wheels.”

By 1962, he patented his track design in both Canada and the United States. It was approved for mass production in 1964. From there, the competitors really began to trickle in. Brands like Arctic Cat, for example, wanted to change things up, helping to drive the ever-evolving history of snowmobiles forward to the next step.

The Arctic Cat

history of snowmobiles

In 1965, Arctic Cat made some crucial alterations to Bombardier’s suspension design. “They replaced the bogie wheels that were being used in Bombardier’s design, to keep the machine on the track, with a pair of slide rails running on the cleats of the track. This design allowed for shock absorbers to be added, which would aid in smoothing the ride of the snowmobile.” 

“The very next year, Arctic Cat redesigned yet another feature of their snowmobile. The new design moved the engine from on top of the drive unit, located behind the driver, and placed it in the front of the track tunnel, in the belly pan of the front of the machine. By moving the engine they were able to lower the center of gravity of the snowmobile, which balanced it with the rider’s body weight. This proved for substantially better handling and performance.”

history of snowmobiles

To this day, the four major manufacturers use this basic design concept. It took only two years for Arctic Cat to bring the snowmobile into the “unexplored territory of sport riding and performance vehicles.”

A Long History of Snowmobiles

It’s crazy to think snowmobiles started from a log-hauling, 20-ton machine, isn’t it? The long history of snowmobiles will continue changing year after year. Thanks to the genius of Bombardier from 1922 to the 1960s, snowmobiling became what it is today. As the popularity of snowmobile riding continues to grow, so will the technological advances, making for a bright, innovative future ahead!

history of snowmobiles

We hope you enjoyed this as much as we did; maybe you even learned a thing or two. At TMS Parts, y’all know we have a special place in our hearts for all things snowmobile. Take a peek at another recent blog we did featuring a handful of really cool vintage snowmobiles!

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