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Cars that "Ride on Snow"

For the week of Monday June 26, 2000

On June 29, 1937, Joseph-Armand Bombardier patented the first commercial snowmobile, a great leap towards surmounting the difficult Canadian winter.

B-7 in front of Garage Bombardier, 1937

B-7 in front of Garage Bombardier, 1937
© Musée J. Armand Bombardier

Born in Valcourt, Quebec, in 1907, Bombardier always showed a talent for mechanics. At 15 he invented his first snowmobile using a sleigh, a car motor and a propeller! After a brief stint studying for the priesthood, Bombardier devoted himself to mechanics, apprenticing in Montréal. Returning home at 19, his father bought him "Garage Bombardier," where he repaired motors while selling cars and gasoline.

In 1934, tragedy focused Bombardier's determination to invent a snowmobile. One winter night Bombardier's infant son, Yvon, developed appendicitis. Yvon needed immediate hospitalization, but the roads were buried under snow. In those days there were no snowploughs, so cars often couldn't travel in the winter. Bombardier had to watch his son die, knowing that if only there had been some way to travel through snow, Yvon might have lived.

In 1935, Bombardier succeeded in creating a fully functioning snowmobile by using front skis for steering, two endless caterpillar tracks in the rear for driving, and parts able to withstand extreme cold and snow. Finding great demand for these "autoneiges," Bombardier applied for the first of his many patents to protect his designs. He then transformed his business into a snowmobile factory.

Bomabardier on a Ski-Doo, 1959

Bombardier on a Ski-Doo, 1959
© Musée J. Armand Bombardier

Early snowmobiles were large and used as school buses, public transportation and ambulances. They also carried lumber and delivered mail. During the Second World War Bombardier built tracked snowmobiles for army troops. In 1953 Bombardier introduced the "Muskeg," an all-terrain vehicle that was used worldwide from the Arctic to the Sahara Desert!

A particular challenge for Bombardier was to create a snowmobile small enough for only one or two passengers. By 1959 he had succeeded. He created a snowmobile that ran on a single track, with its engine mounted in front. Intended to replace dogsleds, it was thus named "Ski-dog." A spelling error led to the name "Ski-doo."

In 1964, Bombardier died a very successful man. In addition to establishing a family-owned, multimillion-dollar business based in Valcourt, he'd also created a brand new winter sport! Today, the company he began is involved in everything from snowmobiles to trains to aerospace.

Joseph-Armand Bombardier is celebrated in the Canadian Business Hall of Fame. In 1994, he was designated a person of national historic significance.

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