Most people have no idea how the snowmobile came about. The fact is its history is incontrovertibly tied to the car which got America motoring down roadways in big numbers, the ubiquitous Ford Model T. That might sound like a stretch, but the first snowmobiles were modified Model Ts as people wanted to use their newfound freedom even when snowpack made it otherwise impossible. Thus, the snowmobile was born out of necessity, as are many inventions.
The idea for the Ford Model T snowmobile was dreamt up by a Ford dealer named Virgil D. White. Selling cars in Ossippee, New Hampshire came with a few challenges, including customers who couldn’t drive their prized vehicle in the winter since the many rural roads weren’t plowed.
White realized the most sensible thing to do was to modify the Model T instead of trying to invent a whole new vehicle. He figured with skis replacing the front tires and powered treads in the rear the car could glide right along snow-packed roadways and he was right.
Back in 1917 White patented his unique kit as well as the term “snowmobile.” But as is the case with many completely new inventions, he had to work out some kinks in the setup. Public sales commenced in 1922, with quite a few devotees to the new way of getting around calling it a “Ford on snowshoes.”
To make this work, a third axle with a wheel at each end had to be added to the rear of the car. The four wheels would help keep the tracks in rotation. Early track designs used heavy-duty fabric keeping metal cleats which would dig into the snow. However, problems with the fabric’s durability led White to go with stamped steel shoes connected together by metal chains.
Many assume these Model Ts had to be beefed up big time to deal with the rigors of snow travel and the extra load put on them by the snowmobile modifications. If you have much experience with these classic Fords you know they’re tough as nails. After all, back when they were in high use many roads weren’t paved, so owners would take them off-roading constantly with relatively few problems. In a way, the Model T was the early predecessor to the SUV.
However, there were some mechanical upgrades necessary to power the tracks. White’s snowmobile kit required the factory driveshaft, rear axle, rear spring, and radius rods were removed. Then he would install a 7:1 ratio truck worm gear driveline attached to the Model T frame using two cantilevered semi-elliptical springs. Not just any wheels could be used to turn the track, so heavy-duty versions had to be sourced and ant-skip chains were added for good measure.
Interestingly, some people would take off the front skis on their Model T, leaving the treads in place, using the modified Ford to traverse muddy or sandy off-road areas with greater ease. As one might imagine, customers in areas where it never snows found such a modification incredibly handy, including those in deserts and who lived near swamps.
White offered his Ford Model T snowmobiles in three different gauges or trims. They would modify the body of the car and add other features, all for somewhere between $250 and $395. That wasn’t exactly chump change back in the early 1920s.
Despite the steep cost, around 25,000 of these Model T snowmobile kits were made and shipped all over North America and even abroad. There were even some Model A kits made, although indications are those were actually quite rare. Others jumped in the market with their own snowmobile conversions, which they couldn’t call snowmobiles, like Super Snow Bird, Snow Flyer, Arps, and Eskimobile Companies.
This all might sound rather simple compared to our modern snowmobiles, but the relatively simple setup worked quite well. In fact, there are groups of Ford Model T snowmobile owners who run their classic machines in the winter, hold meets, etc. A Model T Ford Snowmobile Club, which is a chapter of the Model T Ford Club of America, has been around for over two decades. They collect anything related to these unique machines from the past, helping to preserve a piece of American history. And they hold an annual meet at a snowy wintertime location.
Modern kits for the Model T and Model A are offered today by a few companies, each one offering some unique features, allowing people to get a taste for what motoring through snow back in the day must have been like.
Images via YouTube, Model T Ford Snowmobile Club