Trailside Classic: A Non-Hillman Imp

On a recent camping trip we found a great site in the Tahoe National Forest, a short distance from a field research station jointly run by the University of California and the Forest Service. While my wife and friends were checking out natural beauty and outdoor art installations at the site, I got distracted by some snowcats.

Despite the perception of California as a sunny land of warm beaches and palm trees, our mountains get a lot of snow in winter and snowcats are common sights—plowing or grooming trails in winter, or sitting outside in summer. The first one I spotted was a Thiokol Imp.

Sorry about the reflections, but take my word for it: that’s a Ford industrial V4 right by the driver’s knee. It’s the same 1.7-liter engine used by Saab, originally developed by Ford in the US for the Cardinal concept, and then used in various German Fords. Not the smoothest or quietest engine to be shoved up so close to a driver inside a small metal box.

But at least it was normally fitted with a cover, as seen in this shot of a second Thiokol Imp sitting a few hundred feet away. Hopefully the cover has lots of sound damping and absorption material on the inside, but probably not. On the other hand, it must have kept the driver warm in winter.

And here’s the outside of that second, newer Imp, in company with what’s probably the most used of this facility’s over-the-snow-equipment, a Bombardier BR275. No Ford V4 in this Canadian unit; from what I could find these typically had six cylinder Cummins diesels.

Photo from an Internet for-sale ad; asking price $17,500.

Thiokol made larger snowcats, too; here is a Spryte. Spelling aside, is it just a coincidence these names were shared with British cars? No European V4 here, either; this one, also in California, has a trusty Ford 200 cubic inch straight six. The Thiokol company started with chemicals used in rocket fuels, but diversified in a seemingly odd way and in addition to snowcats, they built ski lifts. Perhaps that was due to the company’s Utah origins. In 1978 they sold the snowcat and ski lift business to…John DeLorean. The chemical and aerospace business merged with Morton (as in salt) and was responsible for the rocket booster with the o-rings implicated in the Challenger space shuttle explosion. DeLorean sold his shares in the snowcat business in 1993, and the company ceased building snowcats around 2000. Bombardier has also stopped building snowcats, though as BRP (Bombardier Recreational Products) they continue to make snowmobiles under the SkiDoo brand.