Snowmobiling

The year was 1924. Carl Eliason was the proprietor of The Carl Eliason and Company Inc. General Store in Sayner, Wisconsin. His grandson, Jon Eliason, Jr. says, “He was a workaholic during the summer—you had to be in a town of 200 people. You had to work like crazy all summer and save every dime to live on all winter. There was nothing up here then except trapping and hunting and fishing.” 

 

Carl Eliason was born with a club foot, but had determined that it wouldn’t keep him from winter hunting trips with his pals. Skiing was out of the question, so he improvised. He writes, “I fooled around with a Model T Ford and adapted it to skis, but it was too cumbersome for the woods and unworkable in our deep snows or unplowed roads. In those days, a lot of would-be inventors were trying to devise a powered snow vehicle.”

 

 That winter he began work on his ingenious “motor toboggan.” His innovations created a vehicle that is the forebear to the modern snowmobile. He devised the “endless cleated track” and slide rails. The only motor available was a two-and-a-half horsepower Johnson outboard that his general store owned and rented out to fishermen during the summer. He shortened the shaft on it, and improvised a liquid cooling system using one-fourth of a Model T radiator. (Later models would use air-cooled Excelsior and then Indian v-twin motorcycle engines.) 

 

The driver sat atop it like you’d sit on a motorcycle (the only point of reference at the time) and steered the front skis with a lever. Driving it involved manipulation of the engine, choke, and throttle along with timing the lowering of the spinning track into the snow. Passengers sat over the spinning track on a long, rigid seat. 

 

The motor toboggan name Eliason came up with for his device was quite appropriate: his creations look like toboggans turned into (relatively) fast, noisy, mechanized contraptions by a mad scientist working in his middle-of-nowhere shop. Which, of course, is exactly what they were. 

 

Eliason made forty motor toboggans for hunters and other winter outdoors types from 1924 to 1939. He kept refining his design, so that with each new order he would modify some part or another: seating capacity was three or four. 

 

World War II brought obvious uses for the motor toboggan, and the Finnish military put in an order for 200. Carl had only been able to build eight or nine per year, so the Four Wheel Drive company of Clintonville, Wisconsin took over production to help meet demand. (Carl signed a deal as the patent holder but only got $10 per snowmobile that rolled off the line: he never got rich from it.) The Finnish deal never materialized, but the US Army did order 150 all-white motor toboggans to help patrol Alaska. 

 

The Clintonville era motor toboggans were labeled A, B, C, and D with design improvements coming with each successive generation, though steering was never great. Top speed with the Indian 45 engine and three-speed transmission was thirty-five. The Clintonville factory produced about 300 snowmobiles between 1941 and 1947, and Eliason’s invention even graced the cover of Popular Mechanics magazine in 1942 with an article titled “The Age of Air” by Col. Edward S. Evans. 

 

A brochure from the early ‘40s, refers to the creation as “the Eliason Snowmobile” and features the headline “More Thrills Than a Roller Coaster for Winter Sports.” 

 

The Eliason Snowmobile adds new exciting pleasure to winter sports. Speeds up to 40 miles per hour over uncharted country are possible. Speedy and comfortable transportation, to locations that could not be reached except by dog team—or skis—or snow shoes, is a reality. Every lover of outdoor winter sports in the north country will thrill to the new delights of the Eliason Snowmobile—a thrill that is not offered by any other vehicle. 

 

The brochure goes on to explain that operation is quite simple: you kick start the engine (after much choking and fine tuning) then drive it like a stick shift car with a clutch and a gear shift. Throttle control comes with a twist, just like on an Indian motorcycle. Couple that with fair-to-middlin’ steering and you can bet there were some wild rides as drivers grew accustomed to this new contraption. At twelve feet long and five hundred pounds, there was a lot of it to love. 

 

The Indian Motorcyle News wrote about the Eliason Snowmobile in their January 1945 issue, in an article called “Snow Boating: The Winter Sport of the Future” by a gentleman known only as Cyclon. His description is a vivid reminder of just how novel such a mode of transportation must have been in those days. 

 

I don't think I shall ever forget the reaction I had on my first ride on a motor toboggan. At first I was horrified; my pilot really undertook to give me a thrill. He did, too. The speed and acceleration of the thing amazed me; I hadn't quite expected it. Then down we went, straight into an impossible patch of terrain; we weren't slowing down, either. I wouldn't have sent a tank across the spot we were headed for … to my amazement, we kept right on going … It is a queer feeling not to have any of the bumping and jouncing we are used to in wheeled vehicles. Instead, the toboggan seems to slither along over the bumps—you never feel them at all. It reminded me of going somewhere in a dream; for dreams never seem to include little details such as bumps in the road.

The late 50s and 60s would bring Ski-Doos, Polaris Sno-Travelers, and Arctic Cats—smaller, cheaper machines aimed at the mass market—but it all started with an ingenious tinkerer with a bad foot working in a small garage outside his store in Sayner, Wisconsin. In the end, he got what he wanted. “With this machine, I was able to turn the tables on my hunting comrades—as long as there was snow on the ground. While they hoofed it on foot, I would ride and get to our destination in the woods an hour ahead of them!”

 

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