12/7/2013 7:00 AM
By Sue Bowman Southeastern Pa. Correspondent
HERSHEY, Pa. — Atop a hill that looks like it was made for wintertime fun, high above the town of Hershey, Pa., stands the Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) Museum. While the museum is currently playing host to a number of special holiday exhibits, such as the taxi cab made famous in the classic 1946 movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and a display of Hess toy truck models through the years, the stars of the current Christmas season are the vintage snowmobiles on display. The oldest of these classic winter transports might date back to 1959, but all of them look ready to rocket down the snowy hillside.
Snowmobiles originated back in the late 1930s as tracked vehicles intended for essential transportation across snowy terrain. Joseph-Armand Bombardier, a repair shop owner in Valcourt, Quebec, Canada, gets the credit for designing and producing the first snowmobile, which he patented in 1937. Those early snowmobiles were much larger in scale than their modern-day cousins and were built for tasks such as transporting children to school, delivering the mail, carrying freight and serving as ambulances.
While Bombardier sold just 12 snowmobiles in his first year of production, 1942, this venture grew in popularity after World War II and eventually became the Ski-Doo brand in 1959. Interestingly, the original name for this model was intended to be “Ski-Dog,” harkening back to sled dogs; however, a painter adding the name to the snowmobile misread it and thus, “Ski-Doo” was born. The AACA exhibit includes a 1964 Ski-Doo RD-64 single ski, dual track with an Austrian-made Rotax 247cc single-cylinder, two-stroke engine, as well as a 1969 Ski-Doo Olympique 320 A/S. Both are painted a bright yellow with red seats, which was a throwback to Bombardier’s involvement with Canadian school bus service.
Snowmobiling took off in the early 1950s when the equipment was scaled down to accommodate one or two persons skimming across the snow for pleasure, as well as necessity. In the U.S, Edward Hetteen’s Polaris Industries, originally a Minnesota-based farm machinery manufacturer, got its start in snowmobiles when some employees built one using a grain elevator conveyor belt track and a Chevy bumper ski. The eventual result was the Sno-Traveler. The light blue 1959 Sno-Traveler on display in Hershey features full-length wooden skis and a rear crank to winch the tracks off the surface in the event it became stuck and some traction enhancement needed to be inserted underneath it. Powered by a rear-mounted 9-1/2 horsepower Kohler single-cylinder four-stroke engine, the gas tank on this model does double duty as the driver’s backrest. Also displayed is a bright red 1963 Polaris K-70D with a 7 horsepower Kohler engine.
By the mid-1960s, another farm equipment firm, Ashland Industries of Wisconsin, also began dabbling in the snowmobile business. Between 1966 and 1976, when it went out of business, the company produced a total of less than 500 Viking snowmobiles, making them somewhat of a rarity. The 1974 Viking Vigilante on exhibit at the museum is powered by a Kohler 440cc 30 horsepower engine and stands out from the crowd because of its bright purple body; Viking was the first company to offer a choice of exterior colors.
The younger set will love the 1972 Arctic Cat “Kitty Cat” — a scaled-down snowmobile designed just for children. Powered by a single-cylinder 60cc two-stroke Kawasaki engine, it has a top speed of only 8 miles per hour and numerous other safety features such as rubber-tipped skis and headlights and taillights on at all times. Another plus was that no trailer was needed — the small machine could be fit into the trunks of most full-sized cars of its day.
Also on display is a 1971 Arctic Cat Lynx/Cat Freighter with a Kawasaki single-cylinder 292cc engine. It originally sold for a suggested price of just $795, with larger Wankel rotary motor-powered models listing at $895 to $950.
The rare 1969 Ski-Jet 292 on display was produced in Archbald, Lackawanna County, Pa. It is a pre-production model in completely original condition and lacks even serial or model numbers. It is powered by a German manufactured Sach single-cylinder, two-stroke engine and has a 15-inch track.
Those who enjoy snowmobile racing will want to take a look at the 1973 Yamaha SR 292 race sled, which was specifically built for use on a racing oval.
Another high point of the AACA’s snowmobile exhibit is the featured 1971 Johnson Pegasus Bonneville drag sled, which set the land-speed record that same year at 140.625 miles per hour.
Fans of the Discovery Channel television show “Monster Garage” will be excited to get a first-hand look at the “Monster Machine” snowmobile created in 2003 using a Mini Cooper hardtop, which was recently donated to the AACA.
The current display of vintage snowmobiles, which was organized by AACA member Roger Garman of Carlisle, Pa., and other holiday exhibits including model trains and Christmas trees decorated as a competition between local schools, will continue at the AACA Museum through Jan. 5. Located along Route 39 one mile north of Hershey, the museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. There is an admission fee.
For further information, visit www.aacamuseum.org or call at 717-566-7100.