Abominable Snow Sleds

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

| January 2015

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.