Welcome to a world few even know exists.
To the average person who knows almost nothing about cars, other than there’s a stick to check the coolant level or something, the Ford Model T must be some delicate antique which will crumble like a graham cracker if you were to breathe on it wrong. The truth is Model Ts are incredibly tough, which is why owners took them off-roading back in the day and do so today. What you might not have known before is owners used to convert them into snowmobiles with tracks in the back and skis in the front, perhaps making them superior to all-wheel-drive cars of today.
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The history of these Ford Model T snowmobiles stretches back further than you might expect. It was Virgil D. White, a Ford dealer located in Ossipee, New Hampshire who dreamt up the idea, which he called the “snowmobile.” Quite literally nobody had thought of such a thing before, so we have him to thank for an engine-driven vehicle with skis and treads.
Rather than making a completely new vehicle, White fabricated a conversion kit for his Model T. It allowed the car to travel in deep snow, making impassable roads accessible in the bitter New Hampshire winter. It included wooden and metal skis to replace the front wheels, plus an extra axle and wheels around back. The early kits used tracks made of metal cleats connected by heavy fabric, but that was later updated to stamped steel shoes with chain links connecting them. To accommodate the modifications, the factory rear axle, rear spring, radius rods, and driveshaft were swapped out. In their place went a 7:1 Ford truck worm gear driveline, which was anchored to the frame using two cantilevered semi-elliptical springs. The car would also need heavy-duty wheels to accommodate the TT rear axle, plus anti-skip chains were also in the kit.
The man patented both the kit and the term “snowmobile” in 1917. However, it wasn’t until 1922 that he started selling kits to the public. It was hailed as a “Ford on snowshoes” by many. Three gauges were offered, the narrowest one coming with a slip-on hard maple body. Depending on the kit, it could range in price from $250 to $395, a considerable sum for the time.
It was discovered that not installing the front skis would turn a Ford Model T into a more capable machine when driving through sand and mud. That alternative was attractive from the Florida Everglades to the Middle East. Some will tell you the snowmobile conversion kits were rare back in the day, but they weren’t. White’s company ultimately made about 25,000 of them and they were shipped across the country.
Quite a few other companies capitalized on the desire people had to own a Ford Model T snowmobile. Among them were Snow Flyer, Eskimobile Companies, Super Snow Bird, and Arps. Often the kits were shipped from the manufacturer to a Ford dealer which would do the installation work.
Ford Model A snowmobile kits were also made, but those seem to be much harder to find. Both companies and private individuals making conversion kits for the Model T and Model A today with a ranger of prices and designs.
There’s a Model T Ford Snowmobile Club which was founded in 2000 and is a chapter of the Model T Ford Club of America. No Model A Ford Snowmobile Club seems to be in existence, maybe because most were turned into hotrods. The club is all about preserving both the unique snowmobiles and the history surrounding them, which is fantastic. These types of historical nuggets absolutely shouldn’t be lost in the name of “progress.” In fact, the club has an open call for any period pictures, literature, or ads for Model T snowmobiles, if you happen to have some.
According to the website, there are members around the world, so don’t think for a minute this is just a crazy American thing. Also, there’s a periodical published by the club, called The Snowmobile “T”imes. Catchy.
Once a winter the club sponsors a national meet here in the US. Obviously, they’re never held in Florida but instead somewhere with snow, preferably plenty of the white stuff. Most seem to center in New England, but the club also says it encourages regional meetups.
Sources: Model T Ford Snowmobile Club, Concord Monitor