In Lieu of Snow: A strange snowcraft roundup
Posted on 02 January 2016
Winter is finally hitting home in Portland, but PDX is not a snowy place. We're located in a warm river basin and sandwiched by hills and mountains that take most of the brunt off the city. The temperate weather means we miss out on a lot of in-city winter experiences, like easy access to ice skating, gritty snowball fights, and months of trudging to work in slush. For me the greatest downside to snow-free winters is the lack of creative problem-solving that comes with it. Just outside the city personal snowplows and salted roads aren't foreign and exotic ideas, but in the drippy 50-degree heart of town they feel like it. However hard to imagine, for as long as people have lived in snowy climes they've come up with wingnutty ways to get through it.
To live vicariously through those colder compatriots, here's a round up of highlights in the history of ingenious snowy vehicles I might never need.
Screw-propelled vehicles have a history of proposed use as amphibious options in wet, mucky or snowy terrain, starting around the 1920s. Crazy options abound, and most look difficult to use anywhere other than their promo reels, but I'm partial to the early Fordson Snow Motor: a wildly modded tractor with a killer engine. A bit exposed for my delicate sensibilities, but if this doesn't make you want to chug through the New England countryside like a screwy bat out of hell... you probably don't want to drive with me.
In the same era, Ford's "Universal Car" kit for the Model T offered a slightly more approachable option. Its belted treads and guide wheels are unsurprisingly similar to those of a tank - the design was first developed with all-terrain defense in mind. Difficult to install and less practical for regular civilian use, the kit didn't make it into many garages. Maybe if they'd bothered to weatherproof the car's cab it would have caught on faster?
For you solo snow drivers, consider the Leheitre snow bike: tracked, treaded and probably totally terrifying on turns. Terrible mileage and minimally increased traction over traditional motorcycles can't take away the shine of a totally boss design.
In the '30s, the innovative Czech automaker Tatra developed incredibly powerful propeller-driven snow mobiles. These started out as Nazi-approved terror tanks on ice, and wound up as weirdly beautiful snow speeders by the '60s. Either way, watch your fingers.
The Lorch Snow Plane might look like a paper thin blimp with skis, because it was. If steampunk had icier leanings this thing would have modern reproductions with a coal fired engine and be piloted by the largest handlebar mustache imaginable.
Bombardier was a big innovator in snow craft too. If anybody knows snow, it's the Canadians, whose economy has long depended on access to northern reaches and between snow-locked settlements. This handsome 1950s snow cab seats 12 and looks like a cheery (if clattery) way to get a whole group from A to B, with Catbus-styled charm. Bombardier vehicles were so reliable the company has been credited as the creator of the entire snowmobile industry. It survives to this day as the Bombardier Recreational Products Company.
Though it had no shocks, air conditioning, or opening windows, the Icefield Snow Coach does look like it would be fun as hell to drive... once emptied of tourists. For a couple decades these weird caterpillar busses were the finest and only way to reach the Athabasca Glacier high in the Canadian Rockies, but their lacking niceties earned them the nickname "Shake and Bake".
The Antarctic Snow Cruiser deserves a mention, should you ever need a cautionary tale of how not to build a mobile snow home. This turtle-slash-submarine looking thing was designed in the 1930s for use during scientific exploration in the Antarctic. It was meant to house up to 5 researchers for up to a year, with everything from an onboard machine shop to a parking spot for planes on top. Unfortunately its entire career was plagued by odd failures: the inaugural R+D test drive accidentally took it off a bridge and into a river, and after finally being shipped up to the Antarctic the drive off the boat broke the ramp and once on land refused to move in the snow. Turns out good traction is pretty crucial to making your snow mobile mobile.
Even after modifications, the Snow Cruiser moved just 92 miles from landing, during which it had to be driven entirely in reverse. It was used in a limited (stationary) capacity for some time, before being abandoned to the snow. It was rediscovered briefly in the late '50s, but its location is no longer known. It may have been found and salvaged by Soviet researchers or, more likely, have sunk as the moving ice shelf it lived on moved onward into the ocean.
Fan powered skid boats are still a smooth way to get around the issue of semi-frozen rivers. Whether you've got slushy chop or chunky solid ice between you and the grocery store, it slides and it sails! But it also seems like a great way to lose an arm if you pilot one as casually as this guy. Hands in the boat, bud.
For us practical everyday drivers, I'd look to the north and east. This sweet soup-up is designed by a Kyrgyzstani company to turn your personal vehicle into a fat wheeled ski(d) machine. File it under "good bad ideas" and sign me all the way up.