Beacon Journal, Monday, 04 November, 2002

Massive Road Hog
Antarctic Snow Cruiser was a sight to behold in Akron in 1939 rumbling along on (what else?) Goodyear tires to South Pole

By Mark J. Price - Beacon Journal staff writers

The road to Antarctica ran straight through Akron.

If only the city founders had known, they might have made the streets a little wider.

The Antarctic Snow Cruiser, the world's largest automobile, rumbled over Akron's brick pavement in November 1939 en route to the South Pole.

Imagine a street parade from Chicago to Boston, but with only one giant float. That's what it was like to see the steel monster on its 1,021-mile voyage to the East Coast.

An estimated 2 million Americans stopped what they were doing -- be it work, play or sleep -- to catch a quick glimpse of the big vehicle during its travels.

The $150,000, diesel-powered cruiser, heralded as ''one of the most daring scientific dreams conceived by man,'' was built for Adm. Richard E. Byrd's U.S. Antarctic Service expedition.

Honest to gosh, it looked like something out of Flash Gordon or War of the Worlds.

The red, orange and silver vessel was 55 feet long, 20 feet wide and 16 feet high. It had living quarters for five, a kitchen, cabin, engine room, machine shop, darkroom and storeroom.

There were enough food and supplies to last a year, and enough fuel to go 5,000 miles.

But it couldn't get there fast. The top speed was 30 mph.

The road-hogging cruiser needed just about every inch of pavement as it crossed the United States. When it approached oncoming traffic, other motorists had to pull over. A 37-ton vehicle always has the right of way.

The snow cruiser's tires, the largest the world had ever seen, were made in Akron, of course. They measured 10 feet in diameter, weighed 1,500 pounds and were built to withstand temperatures of 75 degrees below zero.

One of them, in fact, was the 300 millionth tire produced by Goodyear Tire & Rubber and spent a week on display in the front window at Polsky's Department Store before being shipped to Chicago.

The cruiser was designed by Thomas C. Poulter, who had rescued Byrd from the South Pole during a 1934 expedition. Poulter wanted a giant vehicle that could roll across ice crevasses, unlike modern tractors that had to go all the way around them.

He persuaded Chicago's Armour Institute of Technology to undertake the project.

Goodyear was one of several U.S. companies to work on the vehicle, which was built in less than three months in Illinois.

Unfortunately, there wasn't a lot of time to test the vehicle. It had to be in Boston by mid-November to catch a ship bound for Antarctica.

The cruiser left Chicago on Oct. 24, 1939, slowly making its way through heavy traffic as police escorts led the way. The trip was supposed to take eight days, but problems soon arose.

For one thing, rain made the going slow. Then a truck accidentally slammed into the cruiser in Indiana. The futuristic car's fuel pump malfunctioned. Then the cruiser struck a bridge near Lima, Ohio, rolled down a hill and got stuck in a muddy ditch for nearly four days. Adding insult to injury, its fuel line burst.

The delays piled up. Akron residents heard the vehicle was on its way, but the arrival time kept getting pushed back.

As the cruiser lumbered through Mansfield, Ashland, West Salem, Lodi and Wadsworth, big crowds gathered to see it. People weren't the only ones amazed. Startled farm animals gawked at the giant intruder and bolted away from it.

An Akron delegation led by Mayor Lee D. Schroy met the polar roller Nov. 2 near Norton. Schroy shook hands with Poulter, who was at the controls.

It finally was here!

Word spread quickly. A line of spectators thickened as the immense car rode into Akron. It traveled along Wooster Avenue, South Hawkins, Mull Avenue and West Exchange. At Rose Boulevard, the vehicle pulled over to pick up Goodyear Vice President E.J. Thomas.

Police pushed back the crowds as the cruiser entered downtown Akron.

At Main and Exchange, the vehicle stopped again to pick up Goodyear President P.W. Litchfield and his two grandsons.

The cruiser rolled past the tire company's headquarters on East Market and then headed south to the Goodyear air dock, where Poulter picked up two spare tires and parked for the night. A massive crowd visited the air dock that evening to take a peek at the strange machine.

''Tens of thousands of Akronites flowed onto the airport and into the dock, jamming traffic for blocks around the vicinity,'' Akron Beacon Journal writer Anthony Weitzel reported. ''There were boys and girls in that crowd, and men and women carrying infants, grandmothers hobbling through the wet grass and grandfathers helping them.''

Poulter begged off a banquet that had been organized in his honor at the Mayflower Hotel. He was too tired. He just wanted to go to sleep.

The next day, the Antarctic Snow Cruiser crept out of Akron and continued eastward, never to be seen again in these parts.

It rambled into Boston on Nov. 12, bringing New England traffic to a screeching halt.

The beast crawled to the wharf, where it was hoisted aboard the ship North Star.

The ''eight-day trip'' had taken 19 days.

The ship and its precious cargo arrived at Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf on Jan. 12, 1940. After the cruiser was unloaded, Poulter made a terrible discovery.

The car was far too heavy.

Its wheels became stuck in the snow. The engines weren't powerful enough to break free. The Goodyear tires spun around and around.

The flawed machine would do little exploration. It couldn't go far without getting stuck.

The best thing that could be said about the immobile home was that it provided a nice shelter from the cold.

As it turned out, the greatest adventure turned out to be that trip from Chicago to Boston.

But even if the vehicle had worked according to plan, it wouldn't have mattered.

After the United States entered World War II, the polar expedition was scrapped. The crew returned home and the Antarctic Snow Cruiser was abandoned on the ice shelf.

The cruiser's whereabouts remain a mystery today.

It might be buried under ice and snow, waiting to be rediscovered by future explorers.

Or it could be resting at the bottom of the sea, a casualty of melting ice and a collapsed shelf.

The road to Antarctica ran straight through Akron.

But who knew it was going to be a dead end?

Mark J. Price is a Beacon Journal copy editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3769 or send e-mail to mjprice@thebeaconjournal.com.


This page last updated: 15 July 2003