Old Cars Weekly News & Marketplace, 27 January, 1994

The snowless journey of the Snow Cruiser

By Chad Elmore

Their plan seemed simple. The United States Antarctic Service, under the command of polar veteran Admiral Richard E. Byrd, would use the 75,000-pound Snow Cruiser to travel in self-contained comfort to the South Pole, opening much of the continent’s frozen and impossibly remote, unexplored territory. The expedition would, among other things, develop several bases on the continent to secure United States’ claims.

The reality of the Snow Cruiser, how- ever, was far from simple. A “shakedown cruise” from its birthplace in Chicago to port in Boston would be its longest journey under its own power, and a one-way trip at that. Problems en route would be common but nothing compared to those in Antarctica, where, ironically, snow would prove to be its downfall.

The Snow Cruiser was the brainchild of Dr. Thomas C. Poulter. Poulter had accompanied Byrd on the second Byrd Antarctic expedition between 1933-’35. Byrd nearly died on this trip while wintering alone in the continent’s interior. After three attempts, a rescue team composed of Poulter and two other men had finally reached Byrd after a three-day, 123-mile journey through the austral winter’s endless night. The men arrived in one of the expedition’s three Citroen half-tracks donated by Andre Citroen himself when Byrd could not find a suitable American vehicle.

For Poulter, this trip to rescue Byrd planted the seed for what would become the Snow Cruiser. A specialized vehicle was needed to open Antarctica’s interior with safety.

In 1939 Poulter was scientific director of the Research Foundation of the Armour Institute of Chicago, where the Snow Cruiser was designed. There was little difficulty in making the concept a reality. Estimated to cost more than $150,000, it was funded by the Foundation and 70 manufacturers. Construction of the vehicle took place over the summer of 1939 in the Pullman Standard Car Manufacturing shops near Chicago.

On Oct. 24, 1939, the completed Cruiser was driven to a Soldier Field parking lot in downtown Chicago and shown to the public. Poulter’s creation looked like something straight off an artist-rendered 1930s Popular Mechanics cover. The bright red, steel-bodied vehicle stood 15 feet tall, was 20 feet wide, and 55 feet long. It rode on four 10-foot tall Goodyear tires, each powered by its own 75-hp electric motor hooked to two generators powered by two 150-hp Cummins Diesel engines.

Four-wheel steering allowed it to turn within a radius of 30 feet. Using hydraulic jacks, the Cruiser could cross 15-foot crevasses, one of the most dangerous aspects of traveling across Antarctica. At a crevasse, the driver would retract the cruiser’s front wheels, push the body across with the rear, then reverse the process and pull the Cruiser across with the lowered front wheels.

The back of the Cruiser was designed to carry a five-passenger Beechcraft airplane, which would be winched up a 30-foot ramp in the rear. The plane would allow the crew to scout out the areas they passed through.

Inside, there was living quarters for four men for up to a year. There was an engine room, a radio room, a machine shop, a darkroom/galley, and a storeroom. With a range of more than 5,000 miles, comfortable travel – Detroit style – had finally come to Antarctica.

The actual location of its public introduction was intended to be at Grant Park in Chicago, but mechanical problems had plagued the crew immediately after pulling out of the Pullman shops.

The vehicle snarled Chicago traffic, but impressed the many onlookers. At a tight corner, its wheels turned and twisted the cruiser’s way around, often moving sideways at a 25-degree angle. At a low bridge, Poulter simply lowered the entire craft and slid under.

The trip through Chicago was cut short when one of the automatic jacks used to raise the wheels jammed. Delayed a day, the Gary (Ind.) Times wrote the following: “Gary still was awaiting glimpses of Admiral Byrd’s Antarctic Snow Cruiser today and last official word from the Soldier Field parking lot, where it is marooned with a broken jack, or something, was that it should be here for its sand dune tests tomorrow noon – that is, maybe.”

Undaunted by the problems and reminding the media that the nature of this trip was intended to bring out the bugs, Poulter moved slowly into Indiana, with police from the respective states along as escorts. Traveling only during the daylight for safety reasons, they arrived in Gary during the morning of Oct. 26, where they tested the vehicle’s power in the sand hills west of the city. More than 5,000 watched its successful performance.

Three hours after arriving the crew once again started east. Traffic on the roads ahead of the Cruiser had to be held back or ordered to park on the side as the huge vehicle passed by. Tow trucks followed to help motorists that got stuck in ditches. Although the route had been scouted before the trip, the crew was delayed on the second day outside of Warsaw, Ind., when a bridge proved too narrow.

While entering Columbia City, Ind., the juggernaut sideswiped a parked truck, knocking off one of the cruiser’s hubcaps and slightly damaging its victim. Delayed once more as the crew checked for damages, it was later slowed by another narrow bridge east of town.

The Snow Cruiser's 1,020-mile journey from Chicago to Boston in 1939 would offer no snow.
(Allen County Historical Society, Lima, Ohio, Photos)

Already behind schedule, the Snow Cruiser plunged almost silently into Pike Run Creek near Lima, Ohio, Oct. 28, 1939.

Realizing there would be no outside help in Antartica, the crew was determined to get the vehicle out of the creek themselves.

Ohio would not be any kinder to the Snow Cruiser. On Saturday, Oct. 28, the Cruiser “coasted gracefully through a guardrail, farm fence, and came to rest, at an angle, in Pike Run,” west of Lima near Gomer, reported The Lima News. F. Alton Wade, the man who would command the Cruiser in Antarctica, had taken control for the first time 10 miles before it landed in the creek. No one was hurt, although after the crash Poulter’s wife, who had been riding in the vehicle, was reported to have jumped out of the vehicle beating her head with both hands and screaming, afraid her husband’s “lifelong dream” had been destroyed.

Crowds lined up along the road wherever the cruiser went, so there were a number of eyewitnesses to the incident. With the odd creature trapped in their community, a large, camera-wielding crowd quickly converged upon the beast. Several nearby residents offered their land for parking and one sold photographs of the wreck. The state police estimated that as many as 125,000 visited the site Saturday night and all Sunday. Some walked five miles to see it. Traffic was detoured from the road past the site while the Cruiser sat in the creek.

The Cruiser was moving at close to its 25 mph top speed at the time of the crash, and it was presumed the crew was attempting to make up for lost time. The outside of the Snow Cruiser was not hurt in the incident, but damage to the left motors, steering mechanism, and high-pressure lines delayed the luckless Cruiser for three days.

Free from the ditch and once again lumbering toward Boston, the machine broke down when an oil line broke near Upper Sandusky, and was again delayed by two hours.

Many people began to express doubt in the machine’s practicality and wondered how it could work in Antarctica when it had problems getting through Ohio. Still confident, Poulter replied that his machine was simply not built for travel in the U.S., but was specially designed for the unique conditions of Antarctica.

On Nov. 2, as the Snow Cruiser was nearing Akron, Byrd announced it would have to be left behind if it did not start making better time. The next day he set the expedition’s embarkation date back a week, but denied that the Snow Cruiser was the cause of this late decision. They had hoped to leave on Nov. 4. An assistant field representative for the expedition announced, “We will wait within reason for the Cruiser.”

In Akron, the crew picked up two spare tires, carried inside the rear of the vehicle, from Goodyear. On Nov. 4, the Cruiser reached Erie, Pa., where General Electric replaced the two motors damaged in Ohio. They hoped to leave two days later, but difficulty in installing the motors delayed them, and, while attempting to sneak out of the shop early Nov. 7 to beat the crowds, another oil line broke.

Poulter still had 600 miles left to go before he reached port in Boston. The media began to describe the Snow Cruiser as “jinxed,” “cumbersome,” or “luckless.” Far off schedule, Byrd contemplated picking up the vehicle in Philadelphia, but Poulter finally reached the Massachusetts border on Nov. 11.

On Nov. 12 the Snow Cruiser, “the most tenacious road hog ever to invade New England, steered a leisurely, bouncing course... from Pittsfield to Framingham, caused the greatest traffic jam in Massachusetts history,” reported The New York Times. It also “inspired an influx of telephone calls unprecedented since the hurricane and struck mingled terror and delight to more than a million open-mouthed spectators.”

An estimated 70,000 cars were cramming the last 20 miles of the journey. Fatigued from nervous tension and afraid to maneuver the vehicle through the throngs of people, Poulter decided to stop for the night in Framingham. Thousands of people converged upon the city when news reached them that it had stopped.

For the final stretch, a 10-ton crane was borrowed to lift cars and trucks unfortunate enough to be parked in front of the “dinosaur on wheels.” Only one minor incident marred the rest of the trip, when the Cruiser knocked off a glass globe on a highway light in the Boston suburb of Wellesley.

On Nov. 13 the Snow Cruiser, with Poulter at the controls, pulled up alongside the ship that would carry it to the southern continent. Despite problems encountered en route, Poulter did not lose faith in his creation’s ability to perform on the ice. “The cruiser actually moved off the blueprints onto the road without even preliminary testing given an ordinary family car,” Poulter was quoted in The New York Times on Nov. 14, 1939, “but I think we have gotten the bugs and kinks out of her now.”

Thankful that the Snow Cruiser’s journey was over and that it would soon be carried far south where it could no longer create record-breaking traffic jams, an editorial in the same issue of The New York Times imagined what traffic would be like if everyone drove one.

They wrote: “20,000,000 snow cruisers, roaming the highways of the United States, breaking through bridges, falling into creeks, rolling into wheat fields, rearing up like dinosaurs to contest the right-of-way, would no doubt reduce the traffic mortality to a minimum. No one would get hurt unless he fell asleep in one of the few unoccupied places in the road. Life would take on a slow-moving dignity. The driver who now holds the wheel with one hand, the other gracefully clutching the top of the window frame outside, would become a grave and serious man, preoccupied beyond speech by the task of controlling power delivered separately to four mighty wheels.”

Ten feet had to be removed from the rear of the Cruiser to fit it on the ship. The removed section would be welded back on when they arrived in Antarctica. On Nov. 15 the “North Star” sailed from port in Boston.

Misfortune did not leave the Snow Cruiser in America. While the crew attempted to slowly move the Cruiser down the ramp from the deck of the North Star, the front wheels broke through the cross timbers, suddenly stopping the Cruiser’s descent. Poised on the brink of a wet, cold end to the project, Poulter, who had traveled south to oversee its unloading, quickly applied full power, allowing the machine to make a sudden lunge off the ramp and onto the bay ice.

The Snow Cruiser barely made it the two miles to West Base (also known as Little America III), the very location of which had been dictated by the Snow Cruiser’s off-loading requirements. The machine was too heavy to cruise gracefully over the snow as had been hoped; the huge tires did not provide adequate traction, and there was not enough power to drive the Cruiser over the chocks of snow that formed in front of the wheels. Had the crew carried equipment to change the Cruiser’s gear ratio the problem may have been fixed – power had been sacrificed for speed. The Cruiser never left the bay ice of the Ross Ice Shelf (which can be as thick as 1,000 feet).

The Snow Cruiser was parked at West Base in a shelter made of snow blocks and canvas. Several men used the otherwise useless vehicle as sleeping quarters. The Cruiser’s four-man team and its plane joined the rest of the expedition at West Base.

During the austral winter of 1940 Wade quietly launched one final attempt to make use of Poulter’s creation, hoping the winter cold had hardened the ice enough to support its weight. For a while it actually moved along the ice, but a blizzard soon followed and the surface was again too soft. The Snow Cruiser was a white elephant.

The worsening international situation called a premature close to the U.S. Antarctic Expedition. The government hoped to reoccupy West Base one day, so most of the equipment was left behind, including the Snow Cruiser. The ships left West Base on Feb. 1, 1941. When the United States returned in 1946 during Operation Highjump, West Base could not be used. The Snow Cruiser was soon buried under several feet of snow and ice.

Ten years ago a number of articles were written on the Snow Cruiser claiming that it continued to sit preserved in nature’s biggest freezer, abandoned, and therefore free for the taking. Unfortunately, the continent it was abandoned on does not play by ordinary continental rules. The ice that covers most of Antarctica’s surface is constantly moving out to sea and breaking off into icebergs in a process called “calving.” The Snow Cruiser’s luckless life had one final event in store. By the early 1960s the Cruiser and portions of Little America III had drifted into the Ross Sea and disappeared.

This page last updated: 13 August 2000