Abominable Snow Sleds

Homemade snow sleds and over-the-snow vehicles went from fun to necessity in the early years of World War II.

World War II Studebaker Weasel

The World War II Studebaker Weasel was the first successful dual-track, over-the-snow vehicle.

Photo courtesy Clell G. Ballard

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In the early years of motorized vehicles, many farmers built their own tractors. Using great creativity and whatever old vehicles were available as a basis, they came up with something useful on the farm.

Even though about half of the country has to deal with snow in the winter to some degree or another, there is almost no record of early homemade attempts to build motorized over-the-snow vehicles. Even in deep snow areas such as ours, it wasn’t until the 1930s that the first of such vehicles were made.

Practicality was not the major focus then: recreation was. Young men who were not occupied with farming in those months began making snow sleds. The standard build pattern was three skis: two behind and one in the front that steered. On that platform was built a framework on which the driver sat. The engine was placed behind the driver. Special-made propellers were fitted to the engines and they pushed the sleds forward.

Of course the width and length of the skis (or runners, as they were called) depended on the weight of the frame, engine and driver. In every case they were several times larger than ordinary skis. The front ski had a metal strip on the underside that stuck down in the snow so steering was possible. Only minor adjustments could be made but the driver could keep the snow sled going in the correct general direction.

Designs fueled by creativity

Three things were necessary for any attempt to succeed. First, a fairly long (two or more miles in length) and basically flat, snow-covered area with no obstructions was essential. The sleds traveled at a fairly high speed and had, for all practical purposes, no brakes. Second, the snow had to be crusted. Soft snow could not be traversed. That meant the ideal time for snow sledding was in late winter when snow had been on the ground for some time and nights were below freezing. Third, the power-to-weight ratio of the snow vehicle had to be adequate.

My father, Claude Ballard, helped build a snow sled in the early 1930s. A lack of resources dictated that the engine used was from a Model A Ford. Model As had twice the power of a Model T but they still put out only 40 hp. The long-awaited, special-order propeller finally arrived. The builders were disappointed to learn that the 4-cylinder Ford engine didn’t have enough power to spin the large propeller at a high enough rpm to adequately move the sled. By the time they recruited another crew member who could supply a more powerful Marmon engine, the snow season was over. Happily, the next year their air-powered sled skimmed over the snow in exhilarating fashion.

As can be imagined, early homemade snow sleds were pretty crude but after a year or two they became more sophisticated. By the late 1930s a few were enclosed in aluminum skins that made them resemble airplanes. Because of the need to be lightweight, none of the snow sleds in our area carried more than just the driver. Crew members had to get a vicarious thrill as their creation flew across the crusted snow, or take turns at the controls.

Studebaker’s Weasel

Not until the early years of World War II did a practical, over-the-snow vehicle become a reality. In 1940, as it overran all the smaller European nations, Germany took over Norway. The British, allies of the defeated Norwegian government, considered an attack to win back that Scandinavian country. Since Norway has snow on the ground throughout a major part of the year, a motorized snow vehicle was needed for the proposed invasion. Due to its precarious situation as the last major European country to resist the Nazis, Great Britain didn’t have the resources to produce a vehicle from scratch.

An American company, Studebaker Corp. of South Bend, Indiana, agreed to design and build a vehicle that would meet British requirements even though nothing of the sort had existed before.

The result was the Studebaker “Weasel,” a two-tracked, lightweight vehicle that could carry three soldiers and tow a significant load over every kind of snow. In spite of the fact that the British gave up on an invasion of Norway, the Weasel proved to be a successful military vehicle because, in addition to snow travel, it could be driven through deep mud and on dirt roads. With flotation tanks affixed fore and aft, it became amphibious. About 40,000 were built; they were used longer by our military than any other World War II vehicle.

The Weasel established the basic format for almost every other over-the-snow vehicle built since then. Now every ski resort uses two-tracked snow vehicles with huge wide tracks to groom trails. Western utility companies have fleets of large-tracked, snow-going vehicles that can carry supplies where needed during wintertime power outages.

Pacer gets a second wind

Since commercial products are so common today, what’s more rarely seen is an individual’s attempt to create an over-the-snow vehicle made from bits and pieces of whatever is available. Since the unoccupied farm boys now have individual snow machines for wintertime recreation, they apparently aren’t tinkering in the shop.

However, I recently ran across a homemade snow tractor that caused me to stop and stare for two reasons. First, what I saw was in an area where snow is rarely encountered. Second, an unusual collector car – an American Motors Corp. Pacer – was a major part of the vehicle.

This is the vehicle’s interesting story as related by the owner/builder who lives in a rural area in southern Idaho that is basically snow-free. A ski resort in northern Nevada used several snow tractors to groom its trails. As one can imagine, the operators had to be very careful not to get the machines sideways on steep hills. Apparently that happened and the snow tractor rolled several times down the hill and was destroyed. Later, at a summer auction, the hulk was disposed of and the current owner bought it.

Not quite ready for prime time

In spite of the fact that the major superstructure was demolished in the accident, the snow tractor platform and tracks were undamaged. The idea of creating a usable vehicle came to the new owner. A body of some kind was needed to place on the platform.

Because snow tractors are short and wide to provide enough flotation on snow, no common car or truck body would fit. A trip through a wrecking yard with a tape measure revealed only the AMC Pacer, sold from 1975 through 1980 as “the wide small car,” came close. A decent used Pacer was available so it was purchased and adapted to the stripped frame.

The Pacer’s construction is referred to as “unibody,” which means the car has no separate frame. All that needed to be done was remove its running gear and fashion mountings to fasten it to the snow tractor platform. The Pacer’s 6-cylinder engine powers the snow tractor through its regular automatic transmission, which powers the rear sprockets. Steering levers now occupy the space once held by the original steering wheel. In the build process only those features of the car that absolutely had to be modified were changed. Thus the nice upholstery and interior fittings still exist.

Since its completion, this most unusual snow tractor has been used only a couple of times in the snow. Transporting it to a place where there is enough snow to actually try it out takes some effort. When asked his impressions of it, the owner mentioned only that it is very slow and vibration is pretty dramatic. For anyone who’s seen the vehicle, “dramatic” is an excellent description. FC

One-of-a-kind snow sled spoke with a French accent

An enterprising team of brothers built the only snow sled in our area in the 1930s that wasn’t a “pusher.” One of the Hallowell brothers had taken training as an airplane mechanic, and the facility that provided the instruction used various kinds of vintage engines for hands-on experience. At the end of that training, the student was able to buy, still in the crate, a surplus World War I engine used to power a French Air Corps plane. The assumption is that since even the “victors” in that terrible conflict were economically devastated, the engine ended up being sold in the U.S. to boost foreign economies.

That engine, an 80 hp LeRhone 9-cylinder rotary radial, was used to power a snow sled that looked pretty much like an airplane with no wings. It basically had a tube frame where the driver sat. Like on a plane, steering was by a tail rudder. Make note of the small chains fastened front and rear to the skis. Because the snow’s surface is always uneven, the chains were necessary to keep the skis from being sucked into higher-than-normal drifts. If that happened, disaster would occur.

The “puller” air sled was very successful. Not only was it unique in appearance but its 9-cylinder engine that was built to airplane practices of the time amazed onlookers. The reason? The crankshaft was fixed and the engine itself rotated ’round and ’round. In 1930s rural Idaho, that was almost something out of science fiction.

A retired high school history teacher, Clell Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email at cballard@northrim.net.