Drivers today have little concept of what it was like to travel snow-covered rural roads in the days well before four-wheel drive vehicles were even dreamed of. But Ken Schindeldecker has a clear understanding of the wintertime challenges faced by mailmen, utility workers and doctors in the 1920s and ’30s.
“One time I drove my 1928 Ford Model A Super Snow Bird conversion to an antique get-together 2 miles from my house instead of hauling it on a trailer,” Ken recalls. “I decided to climb over a big, deep snowdrift by a fence line but the back end dug right down into 3 feet of snow and bottomed out.”
Ken, who lives in Rosemount, Minn., ended up hiking the 2 miles home. “It’s not much fun when the conversions get stuck,” he says. “It takes a lot of shoveling to get them unstuck. Now I always keep a shovel in the back.”
At one time, conversion vehicles were a regular sight in the upper Midwest. “They were mostly used by utility workers, mailmen and doctors,” he says. “Also, before 1938 or so, the mail always had to go through. Not a lot of secondary roads were plowed. Rural mailmen used farm tractors with cabs, horses and sleighs, all kinds of vehicles to deliver the mail. This conversion was a big advantage for the mail carrier.”
An avid collector, Ken has amassed several Ford Model A vehicles. “As a maintenance machinist by trade, my whole life involved mechanical stuff, so I fell into old iron,” he says. “Without a lot of electric components, levers and cams make them work and that fascinated me.”
After seeing his first Snowmobile conversion Model A about 40 years ago, Ken began gathering up parts to build his own. Conversion kits typically included final drives, tracks, idler axles, suspension and skis (and spindles to change the front axle over, if necessary). On some conversions the tracks interfered with the door, requiring an 8-inch trim off the bottom.
Framework is required under the chassis to hold one idler axle (or two, depending on the tracks) and then the metal track is run over the tire. In the front, spindles are changed to accept skis. “Some conversions had wheels and skis,” Ken says. “The skis could be raised or lowered when the car encountered a hard surface.”
Eventually Ken found a 1928 Ford Model A Super Snow Bird chassis in Boyceville, Wis. “The Super Snow Bird chassis is a Ford Model A frame with a differential,” Ken says, noting it’s equipped with gear reduction at the rear wheels. “That reduces the rear end gear ratio to 5-to-1 and gains a lot of power.”
Rusty 60-year-old skis needed wear bars, sandblasting and paint. Suspension bushings were worn out, so Ken made new ones and added new bolts. “We just went through everything, fixed it up, cleaned it up and painted it,” he says. Standard Model A 4-cylinder, 40 hp engines (200-1/2 cubic inches) were used in the conversions.
Ken added a pickup box to the cab, but if he had it to do it again, he says he’d do it differently. “Because I give lots of rides, I would make it bigger so I could have more fun hauling four people rather than just two.”
Ken brushed on green paint because that’s what he had on hand. “I tried to make it as authentic as I could,” he says. “A mailman in the past couldn’t go to a body man for work; he had to go to the local blacksmith. When the work was finished, they painted it with paintbrushes to keep it from rusting.”
The Super Snow Bird’s debut was pure fun. “I couldn’t help but smile, with all the snow flying all over the place,” he says. “There were only 8 or 10 inches on the fields, but snow from the tracks was flying up past the closed side windows and with the heater working, it was really fun.”
Model A conversions had standard 10-inch tracks (11- and 12-inch tracks were available as options) with center-to-center tread widths of 38 to 63 inches. Ken’s 1928 Model A has three rear wheels, also offered as an option. “Buyers could get the long track or the short track,” he says. “The long track with three wheels had more flotation, because the Model A was heavier than the Model T. You don’t find many Model A conversions with short tracks, because eventually people found out that the longer track climbed up snow easier.”
Conversion kits manufactured for the Ford Model A included Super Snow Bird and Snow Bird by Farm Specialty Mfg. Co. (later, Arps Corp.), New Holstein, Wis.; Hilco Auto Sled, St. Cloud, Minn.; Eskimobile by Eskimobile Co., Almena, Wis.; and the Snow Flyer by Adolf Langenfeld Co., New Holstein.
Snowmobile Co. Inc., West Ossipee, N.H., produced the Snowmobile for the Ford Model T. Snowmobile inventor and Ford dealer Virgil D. White persuaded many upper Midwest Ford dealers to sell the conversion, which cost almost as much as the new car. Fords could be ordered with the conversion or owners could buy a kit and do the work themselves.
Ken’s Model T Snowmobile conversion project got off to a rough start. “I found the 1925 Model T sitting behind a barn near St. Croix Falls, Wis.,” he says. “It was a really rough old chassis with steel wheels welded onto the hubs. Basically it was a frame with a rear end, idler axle, rusted-up engine and front axle — and that was it.” He found an engine and a transmission, painted the frame, added skis, wheels and tracks, and set it all together.
A friend offered the front half of a Ford Model T touring car body; Ken added a box on the back. “I pounded out the dents to make it presentable,” he says. “I didn’t want to make it too nice, because then you can’t have fun with it. You start worrying that kids climbing in back might scratch the paint. After I used it enough I painted the body green, like the Model A.”
Tracks on the Model T measure 44 inches from center to center, fitting neatly in the tracks of a horse-drawn bobsled. “When a sleigh drove through, it followed the tracks made by other sleighs,” Ken says, “packing them down and making the run nice and easy for the bobsleds afterward.” In parts of Canada, bobsled tracks were just 38 inches wide; Snowmobile conversions were available in that width as well. “I don’t see how they could stand up,” Ken says. “I think they were laying on their side most of the time. It looks like they would tip right over.”
Ken says some Ford conversions must have been switched back to summer use because he occasionally sees idler wheels removed with axles hanging. “In that situation, with the gear reducer on the rear end, you couldn’t go very fast,” he says.
“Top speed for the Model A was 29 mph and 25 mph for the Model T, so with the conversion kit removed, summer driving would be slow. Some owners just parked them in the shed for winter use.”
In later years, Ford conversions were used in the woods to drag out logs or access remote hunting shacks. “People put big tires on them and drove them,” he says. “I’ve seen several that have little tractor tires on them so they could be used in the woods.”
Despite the fact that the Model T is unheated, Ken has no shortage of passengers. “It’s a lot more user-friendly for giving rides,” he says. “It also has an extra transmission behind the first one to add power.” The Model T 1-ton truck rear end has a 7-to-1 ratio.
Model T parts were interchangeable from 1916-’25 and the Model A chassis was the same from 1928-’31, so only purists required parts from the same year as the one they were working on. “But the conversion kits for the two models were different,” Ken says, “and they don’t interchange readily.”
The 1928 Ford Model A is Ken’s favorite. “I know Model A’s inside and out, but the Model T stuff is kind of new to me and a little bit strange, with a different ignition system and things I don’t know about,” he says. “But the style with the open cab of the Model T is nice too.”
Ken’s discovered that he enjoys the people he meets as much as the relics themselves. “I’ve gotten to where owning them is secondary to meeting people and giving rides,” he admits. Onlookers are fascinated by the vehicles. “The metal tracks throw snow into the air, which makes a good show,” Ken says. “Snowmobilers crawl underneath and take pictures to see how they are put together. They are quite the crowd-pleaser.”
Some people collect old iron as an investment. For Ken, it’s just sheer pleasure. “Old iron is something that struck my fancy,” he says. “I get a kick out of this stuff and have a lot of fun with it, and that’s all I ask of it.” FC
For more information: Ken Schindeldecker, 4485 160th St. E., Rosemount, MN 55068-2016; (651) 437-7164.
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: email@example.com.