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Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010

The Snowmobile: A Wisconsin Invention

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Any Wisconsinite worth his salt knows that the best way to survive the long, frigid, dark winter months is to invest oneself in a good project. If it weren’t for the inclement weather conditions, Christopher Latham Sholes may have preferred jogging over tinkering with the typewriter, and Carl Eliason simply wouldn’t have had the need to invent the prototype of the modern snowmobile.

Born in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in 1899, Eliason was raised in the deep North Woods of Sayner, Wis., and like most of his peers, he enjoyed hunting, fishing and trapping. A congenital foot disability kept him from keeping pace with his buddies on treks through the snow on snowshoes. So he, like many amateur inventors in snowy climes, began experimenting with other forms of winter transportation. After a failed attempt to outfit a Ford Model T with skis, Eliason began working on an over-the-snow vehicle he called a Motor Toboggan in the winter of 1924.

Working in a small garage behind his recently opened General Store, Eliason mounted a 2.5 horsepower, liquid-cooled, gasoline-powered Johnson Outboard marine engine on the front of a long hickory toboggan. The operator sat on a tandem seat situated above the rear, single, endless track that propelled the vehicle forward and steered using rope-controlled skis mounted under the front of the machine. On Nov. 22, 1927, Eliason received a patent for his “Vehicle for Snow Travel.”

Over the next 15 years, and through many trials and errors, Eliason produced roughly 40 machines out of his Sayner-based operations. At the dawn of World War II, there was talk that Finland wanted to order 200 Motor Toboggans, so Eliason began negotiating to sell his patent to the Four Wheel Drive Auto Company (FWD) in Clintonville, Wis., in hopes of filling the massive military order. The Finnish deal fell through, but the U.S. Army later purchased 150 all-white Eliason/FWD Motor Toboggans for the defense of Alaska.

By 1947, FWD experienced an increase in its truck sales and witnessed a decline in Motor Toboggan interest, spurring the company to transfer production to its Canadian subsidiary in Kitchener, Ontario, where it would be closer to its customer market. The design principles of the 1953 Eliason Motor Toboggan Model K-12 inspired the owners of Polaris in Roseau, Minn., when they started to build rear-engine snowmobiles in 1955. This, in turn, influenced Arctic Cat, Fox Trac, Tee Nee Trailer and all rear-engine designs that came along in the early-1960s. The Eliason/FWD dream continued until 1963, when the company sold its parts and rights to the Carter Brothers of Waterloo, Ontario. After one year, production of the Eliason snowmobile ceased. But its legacy, and the indelible mark it left on snow travel, lives on.

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