When a hardy band of vintage snowmobile enthusiasts gather for their second-ever exhibition this February, they'll have fingers crossed for a critical ingredient: snow.
At the first-ever Ski Whiz snowmobile exhibition held last February in Bellechester, Minn. (just southeast of Minneapolis), unseasonably warm weather had melted the local snow base. But a 40-degree day and dry pavement did little to melt spirits at the event.
An occasional Ski Whiz will turn up at Massey tractor shows, but until last February, there'd never been anything like a Ski Whiz convention. Collectors Joe and Jo-Jo Poncelet, Bellechester, and Steve and Sandy Miller, Atwater, Minn., decided it was time the Ski Whiz had its own show. The two couples spent a year planning the event they christened "Whiz-N-Day." Sponsored by the Massey Collectors Association and hosted by the Poncelets, the event drew aficionados from Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota.
Whiz-N-Day is believed to be the first antique snowmobile exhibition featuring a specific brand. The Ski Whiz snowmobile was produced by the Massey Ferguson tractor company from 1969 to 1978 during the heyday of snowmobile manufacturing. At that time, as many as 170 U.S. companies manufactured snowmobiles; today fewer than six are still in production. Thirty-five years ago, Massey Ferguson dealerships were a familiar part of rural America, and the Ski Whiz thrived by extension.
Joe has had a lifelong interest in the brand: His dad, Milton Poncelet, was a Massey dealer. The Ski Whiz is at the heart of some of Joe's fondest memories. Today he has a collection of 30 Ski Whiz snowmobiles and some 40 tractors made under the various Massey names and their forerunner, Wallis. Active in the Massey Collectors Association, Joe and Jo-Jo have attended tractor shows all over the U.S. and Canada, and will host the 2006 Massey Reunion June 15-17.
Joe and his brother, Dan, operate Poncelet Metals in Bellechester (population 150), and that's where the first Whiz-N-Day was held in 2005. Thanks to a string of unseasonably warm Minnesota winter days, Dan was forced to fill their lot with the only snow he could find: a pile he'd generated while plowing the previous weekend.
As the event got underway, traffic slowed to a crawl as motorists took a close look at the collection of 44 snowmobiles, three Sno Cruiser (or Skiboose) passenger sleds and two Ski Whiz trailers assembled at Whiz-N-Day headquarters. Collectors and sleds came from as far away as Kempton, Ill. One enthusiast brought a trailer of 10 classics from Mankato, Minn. Sonny Pace and Tim Pace, father and son from Muscatine, Iowa, traveled 270 miles with their sled and Skiboose. "For the first-ever Whiz-N-Day," Joe says, "we were very pleased with the turnout. We welcomed Whizzers all day long."
Most of the owners knew at least a little history behind the sleds they brought. Some were discovered locally and in good shape. Others, unearthed from the backs of old farm buildings, had been dusted off and made trail-worthy. Collectors swapped stories on where they found their machines, how they got them home and how much work they had done on them. Two models had been retrofitted with new seating. One boasted an interesting (and comfortable-looking) bucket seat from a car; another had a considerably less cushy cast iron tractor seat.
Looking for a Ski Whiz of your own? They're readily found in the Midwest, not far from where most originally were sold. The Internet trading site eBay is also a popular resource. "I got most of my sleds within 150 miles of home," Joe says, "but one followed me home all the way from Ohio when we were at the National Massey Show in Plain City." Demand is on the rise: As the number of Massey collectors grows, so does the demand for the Ski Whiz snowmobile.
Massey tractor enthusiasts like to collect the sleds because it gives them something to do in the long winter months. Vintage snowmobiles remain fairly accessible and inexpensive, and do not usually need a lot of work to get in running order. Usually it is just a matter of cleaning out the gas tank. Most parts are still available, and windshields can be handmade.
The earliest models produced (1969-71) are the 300s, 350ss, 400sst and 500sst. They were followed by the 300, 340t, 400t, 440t, 400wt, 440wt, Formula I, Formula II, Formula III and Formula IV in 1972 and 1973. From 1973 to 1976, the 304, 304t, 344t, 404t, 444t, 404wt and 444wt (by then painted black instead of the previous yellow) were produced.
Newer models - the Whirlwind, Storm and Chinook - were produced from 1977 until the sleds were discontinued. In about 1978, Massey made a short-lived entry into the racing market, selling several snowmobiles made for racing by the Brute Co., but then ended production altogether.
Early Ski Whiz models went at speeds of up to 55 mph; later ones to 65 mph. Horsepower ranged from 18-1/2 to 28. The sleds came with optional equipment such as cigarette lighters, tachometers, hour meters, speedometers, gas gauges, different speed sprockets, electric start and low-profile windshields.
Joe remains loyal to the Ski Whiz, saying it was comparable to other sleds manufactured at that time. But while organizing the first Whiz-N-Day, he hedged his bets. "I don't know how far we plan to ride," he told registrants, "as I know how these old sleds ran when they were in their prime. I think I walked just as far as I rode, and my right arm was 6 inches longer than my left from pulling on the rope!"
Snow or no snow, the urge was overwhelming a year ago for Whiz-N-Day participants who started about a dozen sleds and rode down the bare street to a ditch lined with mud and snow. The short-distance ditch ride lasted 90 minutes. All of the snowmobiles made it back under their own power, except one (with a stuck clutch) that was carried off the trail by "pallbearers."
Both riders and spectators had fun and they're gearing up for the 2006 event. "Get your sleds ready because this is something you can not miss next time," Joe says. Joe will be there: Of his collection of 30 Massey snowmobiles, he says about half run well and will be entered in the Whiz-N-Day ride set for Feb. 4, 2006. And if history repeats with another unseasonably balmy day? The Poncelets will take it with a grain of salt. They'll still be spending the day with friends, and as members of the Massey Collectors Association say, "Old Masseys collect the nicest people."
For more information:
Whiz-N-Day, Feb. 4, 2006, and Massey Days Summer Reunion Tractor Show, June 15-17, 2006, hosted by Joe and Jo-Jo Poncelet; (507) 753-2053; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
MCA page at www.masseycollectors.org
Beth Brekke is a dairy farmer and freelance writer from Goodhue, Minn. Contact her at 35555 215th Ave., Goodhue, MN 55027; (651) 923-4034; e-mail: thecowchick@Yahoo.com