Antique Snowmobiles Come Out of Retirement

Let it snow! Late summer Iowa show featured snowmobile display

Polaris Sportsline L-55 snowmobile

The Sportsline L-55, the smallest snowmobile Polaris built, and the company’s first real entry into the recreational equipment market. This one is owned by Aaron Kelly.

Leslie C. McManus

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When it comes to Old Man Winter, you can fight him or join him. Add an antique snowmobile or two to your collection, and the choice is easy.

“They sure make the winter go faster,” says snowmobile enthusiast Russell Willis, Hopedale, Ill. “They’re just fun.”

Vintage snowmobiles are making inroads at antique tractor shows in the snowbelt. For fans of old iron who live in the country, a 40-year-old Ski-Doo or Polaris is a natural extension of the hobby. “I like being outdoors and I like engines,” says Aaron Kelly, Tipton, Iowa. “But I can’t afford tractors and I don’t have room for them, so snowmobiles are a good option for me. They’re just so simple.”

Plenty of variety at Iowa display

A late August display at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, highlighted the category’s variety. Jon Dorman, Exline, Iowa, showed a 1965 Polaris Super Mountaineer complete with cab and 24 hp Kohler engine. “This was the largest production model Polaris made,” he says. “It was the workhorse of the ski slope, and used a lot in logging and utility applications.”

Priced at $2,695 in 1965 (about $18,500 in today’s terms), the backwoods beast was no bargain. “That’s more than a new Mustang cost then,” Jon notes. But the Mountaineer was all muscle. “It has the largest air-cooled engine Kohler made,” Jon says, “with a rated towing capacity of 2,200 pounds.” Fewer than 30 were built in a two-year production run.

Early snowmobiles showed remarkable design ingenuity, Jon notes. “Everybody had an idea,” he says. “Some people used saw blades as a track and the motion was supposed to carry the sled forward. People used whatever they had in the junkyard. Some of the really early ones had lines like reins.”

Those who would restore the relics today must be equally clever. “Sometimes you have to buy two or three sleds just to get the parts you need,” Jon says. “But that’s part of the thrill of the hunt, that and meeting people.”

The hunt is made easier by the existence of the Antique Snowmobile Club of America (Jon was recently named a state director). With more than 2,000 members, online and print communications, and a full schedule of meets year round, the group is an excellent resource for enthusiasts.

The club holds traveling summer and winter meetings similar to those held by tractor and engine enthusiasts. Winter meets include races such as hill climb, cross country, oval, drag and log pull, and even a “reverse race” for machines with reverse gear.

Mustang saves Polaris

Activities like those were exactly what Polaris designers had in mind in the mid-1950s, when the company began producing snowmobiles in Roseau, Minn. The Sportsline L-55 represented the company’s first real attempt at building recreational snowmobiles. Aaron’s 1962 Sportsline features a 5-1/2 hp Lauson engine. “It runs at 20 to 25 mph,” he says. “I use it to pull my son on a toboggan, and we run past all kinds of capable machines.” Fewer than 500 were built; the Sportsline is the company’s smallest model.

Aaron’s collection includes not only the smallest Polaris, but also the model that brought the company back from the brink of financial disaster. Everything that could go wrong with the 1964 Polaris Comet did, and the company was forced to buy back units. Key suppliers were persuaded to extend credit while Polaris scrambled to produce a new model, the Mustang.

And with that, finally, Polaris scored. “The Mustang was revolutionary,” Aaron says. “It was the first snowmobile to use a 2-stroke engine, the first to use rubber track (replacing chain track), the first successful front-engine machine and the first significant use of fiberglass.”

A 1941 Snow Toboggan built by the Eliason Co., Sayner, Wis., was the oldest snowmobile displayed at Mt. Pleasant. In amazing original condition, the motor toboggan featured a 25 hp Indian motorcycle engine and 3-speed transmission. “It’s supposed to go 38 mph but I haven’t run it,” says owner Russell Willis.

Carl Eliason began building snowmobiles in 1924. In the 1930s a large order from the Finnish army prompted sale of design rights to Four Wheel Drive Auto Co., Clintonville, Wis. Although that order eventually fell through, production continued. Used for recreational purposes as well as by trappers and linemen, the Eliason toboggan was marked by progressive design. Early models featured a 3 hp Johnson outboard engine with a quarter of a Ford Model T radiator for cooling. “They used slide track guides and 2-stroke engines,” Russell says, “and that’s all still being used today.”

Simple, easy and fun

Progressive yet simple mechanical design means 40-year-old sleds are easy enough to get running. Use and abuse on the body is another story. Parts donors are available, but the relative rarity of any antique snowmobile (and the expense) makes it hard for some to cannibalize a rusting relic.

“I drove 900 miles in one day to buy an Arctic Cat 100,” Aaron recalls. “It was too rusted to repair, so I was going to use it for parts and then put it in the rock garden. But I just can’t do it. I’m going to look for an engine to put in it, run it and have some fun.”

For Aaron, the hobby is nothing but fun. “I’ve gone all over with snowmobiles,” he says. “We camp together, meet people, have fun. There’s a lot of competition for the high performance racing machines, but those are very spendy and very fussy. We have a riot with the antiques. We just get silly. In the winter, we’ll drive them around the yard; cars stop on the street and people take pictures.” FC