Remember those old yellow Ski-Doo snowmobiles from the 1960s with the black stripe around the hood? You know -like the one Ralph Plaisted rode to the North Pole and Steve Ave won the Eagle River World Championships with? The kind that Grandpa had, or the one you took your very first ride on?
In 2009, the little yellow machine that made winter fun will celebrate an historic milestone. The light and maneuverable snowmobile invented by Joseph Armand Bombardier turns 50 years old.
His patented rubber sprocket, coupled with an endless rubber belt, provided the essential components in an amazing story of success, and became the enduring logo of L'Auto-Neige Bombardier, maker of tracked transport vehicles.
Bombardier's dream of producing a single person vehicle was held in check by motor size. He built a prototype in 1949. utilizing his own engine design. It was too expensive to produce.
The power problem was solved in the late 1950s with the availability of the Kohler four-stroke single-cylinder engine. More prototypes were constructed, and in 1959 the yellow, tin cab Ski Dog was introduced to the world.
The little machines became immensely popular, and production numbers soared to 5,000-plus by 1963, a year of transition.
Tin cabs were replaced by Fiberglass. The twin track, single Ski RD8, forerunner to the Alpine, was introduced. Rotax two-cycle engines became exclusive, and the tiny, 148cc lost Rotax appeared and disappeared. Kohler engine options remained available by dealer or distributor.
Model names were first used in 1965.
The 165cc chalet had a short run, but the Alpine and Olympic would become standards for years. The Canadian Postal Service even issued a commemorative stamp when the Olympic name was retired in 1979!
The largest selling brand in North America, Ski-Doo became synonymous with snowmobile. Whatever brand you rode, you were "Ski Dooing."
This popularity did not occur by accident. It was the result of an excellent marketing scheme. An advertising budget of $32.000 in 1964 expanded to $5 million by 1970. Eighteen North American distributors and 2,000 dealers provided sales and service.
Yellow was the trademark color. The first departure was the Nordic in 1972, with a black hood and yellow side panels. Imagine the chagrin of purists as the 1973 TNT Silver Bullet was introduced, having only a tiny strip of yellow on the side of the hood!
Much was done to keep Bombardier in the public eye. Plaisted's North Pole expeditions were sponsored by Ski-Doo. Dollars were pumped into a highly successful racing campaign, developing TNT, Blizzard, and other performance machines. Ave, Ferland, Duhamel and Karpik were winners on the race track as well as in advertising.
Joseph Armand Bombardier died in 1964, leaving the company to son Germain. While reluctant to remove funds from the industrial side of the corporation to finance the recreational side, his 1966 successor and brother-in-law, Laurent Beaudoin, was not.
In 1969, Bombardier purchased plastic parts manufacturer Les Plastiques La Salle, and Roski Ltee., a fiberglass company. Soon was added a foam seat facility, a chrome plating enterprise, and even a textile manufacturer to produce their own clothing!
In 1970, they purchased Lohnerwerke Gmb H of Vienna, Austria, to obtain their subsidiary, Rotax. Another plant was secured by buying Moto Ski in 1971.
Producing 210,000 units and owning nearly 40 percent of the market, 90 percent of the corporation's profits came from Ski-Doo snowmobiles by the early 1970s.
Low snow winters and the 1973 OPEC oil embargo put a death grip on the industry. Bombardier, also in financial straits, survived by entering other markets. Diversifying enabled the struggling company to become a global giant in aerospace and rail manufacture.
Bombardier produced their one millionth snowmobile in 1974, a TNT Everest.
They very nearly acquired Polaris Industries in 1980, the sale blocked by U.S. Anti-trust authorities.
A 1994 Summit was then" two millionth snowmobile.
Many years after Outboard Marine Corporation attempted to buy out Bombardier in the 1960s, their Johnson and Evinrude engine division was obtained in 2001.
Elan, 12/3, Alpine, Olympic, TNT and Blizzard are names belonging to a glorious past, and will long be remembered and revered by the Ski-Doo faithful.
The little yellow machine that could become the little yellow machine that did, and in a resounding manner.
Happy 50th birthday, Ski-Doo!
Reprinted with permission. More of Steve's work can be found in Iron Dogs Tracks the official newsletter of the Antique Snowmobile Club Of America.