Snowmobile Wheel Kits

29 Oct 17

This following is dedicated to all the people involved in all disciplines related to snowmobile wheel kits past and present; folks keeping this important part of snowmobile history alive; and those organizing, hosting, participating in, and watching the upcoming Snowmobile the Mighty Mac Event on 16 Dec 17. 

When at the Marion Swap Meet a couple weeks ago I was asked, "What's the hottest thing going in Michigan Vintage Snowmobiling right now?" I didn't take a New York minute for me to answer, "The Mighty Mac Bridge Crossing in a couple months; it's the hottest thing in the Antique and Vintage Snowmobile world period!" "The link on the Vintage Snowmobile Michigan events page for information on the Mighty Mac crossing gets hammered everyday!"

On the way home I thought about what I said. Maybe someone should do a story about Snowmobile Wheel Kits as I tapped my right hand on top the steering wheel with my index finger pointed forward. That left three fingers pointing back at me. Guess I'm the one. The following highlights some short history starting with the snowmobile boom years, products offered, and information about the upcoming Bridge Crossing,

Why a conversion in the first place? Buying a snowmobile and then have it sit for three quarters of a year is not a very good selling point. Except for Enduro and Dirt Bike motorcycles options for off-road riding were thin. Some of the early manufactures recognized this and developed an All Season Vehicle (ASV) concepts.

In the late-fifties and early sixties there were a handful manufactures designing and building sleds. Of those, one of first ski/wheel combos were on a couple of the 1962 Polar (Arctic Cat) models.

Getting down to the sprit of the intent of a Wheel Conversion Kit for snowmobiles one of the earliest mentions is in the 1963 Polaris Brochure, on the K-95-D page, it mentions you can convert to wheels and be a summer traveler also. There is even artwork with a K-70-D with the wheel kit.

In 1965 the Fox Trac 140B and the 1965 Polaris "Lil' Andy" were wheel kit options. Of note, on the Fox Trac not only could you swap out the skis for wheels, you could swap the track for a chain, sprocket, and wheel set-up. Polaris did an outstanding job marketing the "Lil' Andy" as a four-season vehicle with the optional wheel kit (low-pressure turf tires and fiberglass fenders). The Arctic Cat Kitten Model 10 should also be mentioned, the Kitten was actually a ski/wheel combo sled utilizing large rubber wheels in-lieu of a track.
andy.jpg (85685 bytes)  artic_cat_kitten.jpg (44762 bytes)

After 1965 there were some serious efforts by a few snowmobilers, using wheel kits, making some pretty long trips.

In late 1966 Jim Langley and Clark Dahlin, both of Minnesota on Polaris Colts, traveled coast to coast from Vancouver, BC (passing through Michigan via the Mighty Mac on December 14th, 1966) to Portland, ME. Trip was done in 24 days covering a tad over 4,000 miles (averaging a little over 170 miles a day!). During the trip they added wheels to the skis to help in low snow conditions. The trip received much deserved attention and the Jan 9th, 1967 issue of Sports Illustrated has a nice article about it.

The longest trip was by Norm Vaughan in 1968 riding a ski-doo from Fort Yukon, Alaska to Boston. Considering back then it was only a rough trail between Fort Yukon to Fairbanks just to get to Fairbanks, let alone he traveled about 5,500 miles, is quite an accomplishment.

Another long journey using wheels for skis was in 1970 when Tom Shiflet rode between New York and San Francisco on a Chaparral.

Snowmobile numbers in the late-sixties and early-seventies were nothing more than amazing. When the snow went away there was a huge demand of wanting to have fun and the ATV followed by Side By Side off-road vehicles where basically decades away. Now more than ever some manufactures and aftermarket companies saw the need for wheel conversion kits. They were way more plentiful then most people think. There was a myriad of conversion choices from a basic two wheels to a ski with wheels built in to a complete chassis system.

The following paragraphs highlight the most popular aftermarket kits during this era.

* Quality Axle Manufacturing in Portland, Michigan started out with a two wheel kit then went on to make a four wheel kit. Being made in Michigan these were pretty popular in the Great Lakes State.
quality_axle_1.jpg (176924 bytes)  quality_axle_2.jpg (144081 bytes)

* An impressive four-wheel kit, with a Michigan connection, is the Land-Grabber in Window, MN. Back in the day there were quite a few of these kits mounted in concert with Big Boss snowmobiles made in Michigan. Interesting to note, the Land-Grabber was the winner, Special Events Award category, at the 1970 Inventor's Congress.  Picture shows a Land-Grabber mounted on the wicked green single headlight Big Boss.
land_grabber.jpg (118971 bytes)

* Forward Ideas Ltd of Tillsonburg, Ontario made Wunder Wheels that featured a complete chassis system with two front wheels and one rear wheel. This was without question the most advanced conversion system with two uni-servo hydraulic brakes on the front wheels with a foot brake pedal actuating the master cylinder. Another great feature of Wunder Wheels was about 10-inches of ground clearance. As you can imagine this was expensive (retail was $430) and time consuming to do the conversion.
wunder_wheels.jpg (450925 bytes)

* On the flip end of ease of conversion the Turfski make in Vermont was pretty easy to install, you just unhooked the ski from the springs and using the springs attached the Turfski. It also had another big advantage: There was a series of elliptical solid rubber rollers mounted in a very slight arc, spreading the forward weight of the sled over a pretty board surface area similar to the standard sled ski--reducing the lateral skid in tight cornering. The first Turfskis were just a basic channel, the later model had a ski tip for increased deflection that also had a hand grab welded in the tip.  Also, Turfskis came in the most popular sled colors of the day so you could match them with your sled.
turf_ski.jpg (118569 bytes)

* Two other popular aftermarket kits were the SKAT-TRAK, a very impressive kit, and SKWHEELS. SKI WHEELS, the makers of SKWHEELS even coined phrases, "SKWEELing" and SKWEEL RACING".
SKAT_TRAK.jpg (397119 bytes)  ski_wheels_1.jpg (98047 bytes)   ski_wheels_2.jpg (85373 bytes)

* As far as the manufactures, SNO-PONY offered a really slick and cool looking ASV (remember the term ASV from above), the 220C. The C stood for conversion. But, the 220C was not a snowmobile that many think. It was an all terrain vehicle that converted to a snowmobile!
SNO-PONY_220C.jpg (61658 bytes)

Perhaps the most impressive Wheel Kit in the works was by Elmer "Carl" Kiehaefer (Mercury) with a full blown front suspension with an extend rear wheel behind the back of the sled for a smoother ride.  He received a patent, US3774706 A, for it.   I highly recommend you check out the patent information with the incredible drawings by visiting this link.  

* Mention is well deserved to the sled owners and shade-tree mechanics that designed and made their own wheel conversion kits to enjoy using a snowmobile year around.

Of note, even on today's modern sleds wheel kits are still being offered complete kits to retractable front wheels for crossing roads or short rides off snow. 

In closing, what started this whole story is the great, great, interest in December 16, 2017 Snowmobile The Might Mac Event. Details and contact information can be found on the following link:
http://www.stignace.com/event/snowmobile-the-mighty-mac 

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