With snowmobiles blasting onto the CC scene yesterday – and with this, one of my favorites to date, leaving on a stranger’s trailer yesterday morning – I thought the timing was right for some Sleds Of A Lifetime.
It all started back in the late eighties, when my old man acquired a pair of ’66 Ski-Doo Olympiques, much like this one. I can recall him giving me rides on his – and my mother plowing into trees on hers – at the ripe young age of two. I also remember helping replace the track on my mother’s sled a year later, especially since that was the first time I was “given” a job in the garage. My father laid out the tools, pointed at a few bolts on the suspension, and asked if I would please remove them. Wow! What an opportunity! My three-year-old self wasn’t about to miss a chance like that.
It was 1991 when the sleds, and most of the other toys, got sold off. In one fateful incident my dad had managed to rupture multiple discs in his lower back – a life-changing, career-ending injury which still haunts him to this day.
None of our lives were ever the same after that. And, for the purposes of our topic at hand, the changes were many.
First it was off with the sleds and the Harley, then it was two of his three Grand Prixes (he sold the restored ’71 and the ’72 parts car, keeping the ’72 driver for a few more years), then the ’64 Chevy shortbox stepside (the ’75 Suburban would remain as the family truckster). And then it was the house in the country with the big pole barn garage, the maze of trails in the woods, and the creek at the back property line – which was replaced with a little pink house in town with a 1.5 car garage and a 1/2 acre backyard.
Life pretty much went on in that two-car, zero-motorized-toys fashion for most of my childhood – until one fateful day when a schoolmate turned me on to some free old sleds his neighbor wanted to get rid of. I was in eighth grade and knew nothing about snowmobiles, other than that they had motors, tracks, and skis, and that I wanted one. What kid wouldn’t?
Upon arrival, it turned out there were three of them, all of late ’60s vintage, and mostly in “total loss” condition thanks to years of resting uncovered on black dirt. Only one of them seemed to have any hope of salvation. It was still a mess, but I didn’t care: within minutes it was in the truck and headed home with me.
After extensive cleaning (which included thirty minutes of scooping leaves out of the belly pan and several dollars’ worth of quarters at the car wash), I came to realize I’d picked the right one. It was a ’69 Arctic Cat Panther, and it was in fairly decent shape underneath all that grime. I’d later discover that it was one of less than a thousand produced that year with the big single-cylinder Sachs engine.
I spent months working on that sled. The undercarriage was torn apart, greased, and reassembled. The engine was likewise dismantled and found to be in need of little more than cleaning. Ignition parts and carbides came as a birthday present that year. And of course there was plenty of polishing to be done. Before long, I had it ready to ride – just in time for winter.
But the engine’s magneto setup was constantly coming down with inexplicable issues. Everything seemed right, but yet it still only made spark when it felt like it. Eventually I gave up and began shopping for something more reliable, my modest computer consulting income placing me firmly within the price range of sleds ten years newer.
It wasn’t long before I found what I was looking for. A kid in my shop class had spent days working on his old Ski-Doo, trying and failing to figure out why it ran like garbage, and why the carb wouldn’t tune the way the book said it should. One quick glance told me the reason – but somehow, he wasn’t getting it. One day he finally gave up and loudly declared his intention to push the pile of rubbish off the steep incline behind the voc-ed building. Needless to say I stepped in, and $75 later the sled was mine.
It was a ’77 Ski-Doo Everest, and for a skinny-track sled of the late seventies, it was hot! The 440 under its hood ran great once I replaced the cracked and leaking rubber intake manifold. That machine was a real hot rod, nothing like the old Panther was. It took me all of 2.5 seconds to retire the old Cat to the back of the garage, and begin riding the (N)everest exclusively.
Hot as it was, this sled was far from perfect. The steel belly pan was holey when I got it, and after a couple of years it had rusted beyond the point of salvation. So I yanked the motor, put the carcass out behind the garage, and went on the hunt once again.
A buddy who wanted a laptop gladly took one of my old PowerBooks in trade for his ’81 Ski-Doo Blizzard, which had local racing history and all the scars to prove it. Out came its blown-up Rotax 500, and in went my trusty 440. The sled was bent in every which way and just generally spent, but it was still an improvement over the rusty old Everest.
I kept that sled for several years, until finally getting with the times and upgrading to a ’94 Polaris Indy 580 the winter after I graduated. Now THAT was night and day difference. It could stand its skis up! It could even break 100 MPH if you were crazy enough to do it! And the handling – rear slides, independent front suspension. Next to the sleds I’d been playing around with up to that point, it was like comparing a Corvette to a Vega or a Corvair.
But even with that positively modern sled (which I still own, and in fact rode earlier today) I still missed the simplicity and charm of those old machines.
Fast forward to a little over two years ago. We were helping Dad clean out his garage, and it was time to decide what to do with the old sleds. I junked the Everest’s remains. The Blizzard was put back in running order and sold on craigslist, to a nice older gentleman who wanted something for the grandkids to scoot around on. And the Panther, slight rarity that it was, got sold to a noted collector and was added to his extensive warehouse of old sleds and parts. I’d like to think that it, in whole or part, might have gone on to participate in the vintage sled runs that he so often takes part in.
I had a bit of regret in selling the Panther, but I had neither the time nor the money to restore it at the time, so I was glad to have at least found it a decent home. But I knew I wasn’t done with old sleds.
Fast forward again – this time to the fall of 2012. My sister had turned 11, and was getting old enough to want her own snowmobile. I eventually found her the (modestly powered but still sporty) Arctic Cat seen here – but several other sleds crossed my path in the process.
One of the leads I ran down was for a Polaris that carried an impossibly small price tag and impressive-looking pictures. It wasn’t far from me, so I went and looked. Turned out the pictures had really flattered it beyond its actual condition. I declined to purchase the wreck – but I did notice something else off in the corner. It was an early ’70s Ski-Doo. Super-straight, garage kept, not run in years… and it could be mine for $375. Sold!
As soon as I got it home, preparations began for the restoration of my newly-acquired gem. All the parts were there; it just needed to be freshened up, and a new coat of paint was also in order.
Further research revealed that it was a 1970, a Nordic with its original 399 engine still intact. Better still, it was a local sled – sold at the dealership up the road (which still exists today) and owned by a dentist who still practices in town. What could be better?
Stripping it down and prepping it for paint took no time at all. It was just that clean.
Even the plastic hood was straight and uncracked – pop-up headlight and all! But it had been the unfortunate recipient of these black accents later in life. Removing them without damaging the clearcoat beneath would be impossible, so I did have to repaint the whole hood.
They say that, when restoring vehicles, you should always start with the best one you can find. And they’re RIGHT. I’ve done enough sled “rustorations” to know. (See the edge of that sled at the top of the pic? It’s an ’80 Ski-Doo Citation, which I had to start by replacing the entire belly pan and supports – most of which were made out of an old Chevy pickup hood. No joke!) This one went mighty easy, and turned out great.
After a little work, the motor both looked and ran great.
It’s pretty much a rule on these sleds: tanks crack. Since no sled escapes it, there were no used replacements to be had. So I whipped out the “junk” soldering iron and melted it back together. Ugly, but it held! A bit of epoxy around the filler neck helped to protect against future damage.
The original badges, looking almost as good as they did in 1969.
After painting and installing a pair of NOS skis, new carbides, a new spindle (to replace the crooked rewelded one), and applying the new stripes and license number, it was ready to roll!
The windshield was a bit yellowed from age, but was original and uncracked – and since it survived removal for paint, I had no problem reinstalling it.
About the only part on it with damage was the console, which I simply didn’t install. (It had about a 3″ crack in the lower left side, which I never got around to fixing. It was more convenient having direct access to the carb anyways.)
I took the sled out on several short outings over the winter. It was a bit tippy – as are all sleds of that vintage – but it never left you wanting for power.
Shortly after completing the restoration, I stumbled upon an unbelievable find at a thrift store: a matching Ski-Doo brand snowsuit in great condition, for a mere $10. It was too small for me, but the younger members of the family loved it.
Soon it was 2013. And that February, like every February, our little town would host the event that put it on the map: the Vasaloppet, a huge cross-country ski race that draws participants from around the globe. My business has been a supporter of the race for many years, providing sound and communications equipment for the race officials on a volunteer basis.
But this year, weather conditions hadn’t been good enough to run the race on its usual rustic course which ends downtown, with the finish line and attendant crowd filling Main Street and the blocks around it. So the race officials did what they usually do in such a situation: moved the race to nearby Knife Lake. The skiiers do laps around the lake instead of running the usual course – not the preferable method, but a real lifesaver when snow is in short supply.
Under normal circumstances, a person can drive right up to all the points where we might deploy equipment along the course. But with the race moving to the lake, that wouldn’t be possible. We’d need something else. Like, say, a snowmobile.
With the event’s emphasis on tradition and local history – and with news cameras everywhere – what better way to present the business than with a freshly restored sled, whose history has been intertwined with the area since day one?
I quickly brought my ATV trailer into the garage, and within a couple hours had fabbed up a ski conversion for it. I also built a wooden equipment rack for it, custom-sized to fit the speakers we’d be hauling, and (of course) with room for the company logo to shine. Voila! Two birds with one stone.
I also applied a sticker to the back of the sled’s trunk, which I never got a picture of. I had copies printed up years ago and have put several on my toys over the years. The stickers bear a smallish rendition of the company logo, and the words “COMPUTE THIS!” Rather fitting for an IT consulting firm’s owner to display in his off-hours, I thought 🙂
A bit of trivia: Ever looked closely at the picture that appears next to my comments? If you do, you’ll see said sticker on the bumper of a ’71 Grand Prix.
This would be one such installation. After all the equipment was deployed, I parked the sled and empty trailer conspicuously near the finish line. Then, after the race was over, I hopped back on and took all the equipment back down. It was easily a 40 mile day for the Nordic, much of it being run flat-out, with two people and a loaded trailer while busting through virgin snow in the bays and swamps around the lake. Needless to say, I was impressed with its performance – and exhausted from trying to make it look easy for the onlookers!
Anyone can show up on a brand-new sled – and indeed, many did. Dealer demo units were out in force. But it takes a different kind of animal to arrive on a new-looking old machine, and proceed to work it all day. It got positive attention by the bucketload… a marketing machine indeed!
As nice as that sled was, nothing can last forever. This fall I picked up another vintage sled (to be featured another day), and I didn’t have room for both. So I advertised the Nordic on craigslist, and sold it for a modest profit to the first people who looked at it – a middle-aged couple who wanted to relive the old days with their kids and grandkids. They got a good deal, and it appears to be getting a good home. So as much as I hate to see it go, I’m as happy as I can be with the outcome.
The new owners are clearly looking forward to getting the complete experience. They even gave me $30 for the matching snowsuit.