When the Snow Cruiser chugged through the open doors of Chicago’s Pullman Company in 1939, it didn’t resemble a vehicle designed by the Armour Institute of Technology as much as something from a Toys R’ Us catalog. The convex driver’s perch resembled a bullfrog sitting on a block. The Cruiser nonetheless grabbed national headlines: ugly or not, no one had ever built anything like her before.
The Snow Cruiser’s blocky girth blazed fire-engine red and surprised reporters. The beast stretched about 56 feet, as long as a professional bowling lane, and its wide frame spanned 17 feet—almost the length of a Coupe Deville. This “car” wasn’t built for sport or luxury. Designer Thomas Poulter created the boxy behemoth for one purpose: survival in the Antarctica, the harshest landscape on Earth.
The human body (and most human machines) fail in Antarctica. Summer temperatures barely nudge above freezing. Winter temperatures can plummet to -130 degrees Fahrenheit. Gasoline freezes. Batteries freeze. Exposed skin dies from frostbite in under two minutes. Even breathing is agony. Tears and saliva freeze instantly. Reduced blood flow diminishes human mental capabilities. In those conditions, it should be no surprise that Earth’s southern-most continent has claimed hundreds of lives since the 1800s. For those early explorers, Antarctica might as well be the surface of the Moon.
The Snow Cruiser was the scientific community’s solution to that environment, and contemporary journalists recognized the importance of the vehicle’s unsightly utility. After learning of the ambitious design, reporter Willis Thornton of the Muncie Evening Press wrote, “Never before has man conceived or dared try to build a vehicle which, like this one, will travel on its own power over most of an Antarctic area as big as all the United States plus Mexico…It is virtually a portable airfield.” That awestruck summary wasn’t an exaggeration. The Snow Cruiser’s roof had a sturdy pad, winch, and fuel tank for a custom-designed Beechcraft biplane. It literally was an airfield.
During an earlier Antarctic expedition, Thomas Poulter’s good friend and expedition commander, Rear Admiral Richard Byrd, nearly died after five months of isolation at a meteorological station. When Byrd failed to radio in to Poulter at his assigned intervals, the designer set out with a rescue party to save him. Twice, the party had to turn back because of the intense cold. On the third try, he reached Byrd and found his friend near death from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Poulter knew the Snow Cruiser would prevent a similar situation during the 1940 expedition to Byrd’s research base in Antarctica, dubbed Little AmericaIII. The Cruiser carried fuel, supplies, and environmental controls robust enough to keep four explorers in plush comfort for four to six months. If required, it could run in a “bare bones” mode and provide one year’s shelter and transportation for its four passengers. No vehicle had ever provided that kind of self-sufficiency.
After leaving the Pullman assembly floor, the Snow Cruiser began a thousand mile journey from the shore of Lake Michigan to a Boston harbor. From there it would travel by boat to Antarctica. Poulter, the Armour Institute of Technology, and the scientific community saw this thousand mile jaunt (the Snow Cruiser’s speed topped out at 30 mph) as a great public relations opportunity. From the cornfields of Indiana to the salt-tinged air of the East Coast, the Snow Cruiser passed dense crowds liningthe roads as it rolled past at a conservative 20 mph.
Each step of its journey was an event, each detail filling newspapers, especially in Indiana. The legendary Cummins Engine Company out of Columbus had manufactured the Cruiser’s state-of-the-art diesel engines—the only reliable engines in the searing cold. The vehicle stored over three thousand pounds of fuel, graciously provided by the massive Whiting oil refineries.
The ingenuity of the Cruiser astounded audiences.Its engine ignored the traditional radiator cooling system. Instead, the hot coolant flowed beneath the passenger’s cabin area, keeping the four souls toasty warm without a specialized environmental system. Hot exhaust puffed out at ports above each wheel well. This kept the rubber tires warm enough to prevent cracking. The wheels also retracted into the Snow Cruiser’s chassis, a design that allowed it to safely cross ice crevices up to 15 feet wide. Using his vast knowledge and experience of Antarctic conditions, Poulter’s gadgetry ensured the Cruiser would conquer the cold.
Among all its strange but photogenic features, the Cruiser’s tires grabbed the most attention. Custom made in Ohio by the Goodyear Tire Company, each tire was ten feet in diameter, three feet wide, and weighed half a ton. Goodyear proudly stamped its name on the treadless tires, which resembled donut balloons. Goodyear milked the press and the attention. Every picture of the Snow Cruiser featured the Goodyear name prominently. Later on, the tire maker would deeply regret this visibility.
Problems plagued the Snow Cruiser from the very start. Its first major performance test came at the Dunes State Park in Gary. Poulter wanted to prove his beast could surmount the snow drifts of Antarctica, but there were no such snow drifts in the US. Gary’s rolling sand dunes served as ersatz dunes. When the big test arrived, crowds came to watch the technical marvel climb up the first sand dune and…get stuck.
Almost immediately, its heavy tires sank into the soft sand. The Goodyear tires spun uselessly for purchase, shooting fountains of sand into the air. The crowd waited silently as trucks hooked chains to the Snow Cruiser and yanked it free from the sand. Everyone there thought the same thing: there were no tow trucks in Antarctica. There, if that beast got stuck, it would stay stuck.
Determined to prove the Snow Cruiser’s worth, the crew once again made for the sand dune. The vehicle’s two, 150-horsepower diesel engines thrummed at full speed. It hit the dune, careened up…and OVER! Relieved applause erupted. Although the Cruiser had passed the dune test successfully, its first failure lodged in the public’s throat. At fifty below zero, one failure could cost lives.
That wasn’t the end to the Cruiser’s very public mishaps. In Columbia City, Indiana, the Snow Cruiser had to undergo body repairs after a negligent truck driver sideswiped it. In Fort Wayne, a fuel pump suddenly failed and had to be replaced. The Snow Cruiser’s most infamous debacle happened in Lima, Ohio, just twenty miles over the Indiana-Ohio border. As the Cruiser rolled over a small bridge on Lincoln Highway, the vehicle’s steering suddenly failed, and the Cruiser violently jerked to one side.
Thirty-five tons of rolling steel slid off the bridge, dropped a few feet, and landed in a muddy creek. Because of the broken steering, the driver could not back it out. It remained there for three days, suffering the indignity of hundreds of photos and gawkers. After mechanics fixed its steering and replaced two electric motors, the Snow Cruiser started out yet again. Twelve miles later an oil line cracked and gushed amber oil all over Lincoln Highway and it had to be repaired yet again.
By now, the Snow Cruiser had become a national joke and subject for gallows’ humor. This masked the public’s real concern for the explorers. Small problems here would mean big problems near the South Pole. When the cruiser finally made arrived in Boston and was firmly strapped across the width of a Coast Guard cutter, the American public was sure they’d never see the red beast again. They were right.
When the Cruiser sailed into the Bay of Whales three months later, Thomas Poulter ordered the construction of a makeshift wooden ramp. As the 35 tons rolled over the thick logs, one snapped like a gunshot and a tire dropped sharply, very nearly taking the vehicle and crew into the deathly cold water below. Poulter himself piloted the Cruiser off the ramp and onto the Antarctic snow for the first time, greeted by a chorus of cheers and congratulations.
The sentiment didn’t last long. Even with four-wheel drive, the Cruiser’s Goodyear tires spun and slipped in the snow and ice. The bald tires might have been two inches thick and as durable as steel, but without treads they only carved snow trenches. The Cruiser sank a full three feet before a heartbroken Poulter gave up and leaned back in the driver’s seat. Years of his life and $300,000 (about $5 million today) had been poured into the Cruiser. Now, a dogsled team could beat it.
A tenacious man, Poulter’s spirits didn’t sink long. He improvised. Poulter had the crew attach the Cruiser’s two spare tires to the front, doubling the contact area with the snow’s surface. Then he had snow chains wrapped around the rear wheels. Once again he gassed the Cruiser. The engines roared, the tires dug and then spun uselessly again. It didn’t budge. Poulter slammed the Cruiser into reverse and suddenly it lurched backwards easily.
Outside the vehicle, the crowd cheered. Poulter drove the Cruiser around the Bay of Whales backwards, turning and testing the red beast. The forward gears were all but useless but it maintained decent traction in reverse, no doubt helped by that gear’s high torque. It would have to do. In the future, vehicles designed to serve in constant ice and snow would rely on crawler tracks rather than wheels to better distribute weight. This might seem obvious today, but the Snow Cruiser was the forerunner of mechanized snow exploration. Simply put, Poulter didn’t know better because no one knew better.
For two weeks, Poulter put the Snow Cruiser through its paces, testing and adjusting the Cruiser’s mechanics until he felt it trustworthy. The Cruiser spent almost its entire working life in a reverse gear. Even its longest voyage, consisting of a hundred mile trek circling the Little America base, would be in reverse. The Cruiser performed beautifully and its passengers were delighted with the vehicle’s heating system. Even at night, when temperatures dropped their lowest, the vehicle’s interior was warm enough so sleepers only needed light blankets.
Once he proved its mettle in the Antarctic cold, Poulter said goodbye to the red beast and returned to America. For several months the Snow Cruiser did exactly what it had been designed to do—conduct scientific explorations. The crew studied cosmic rays, extracted core samples from the ice, and studied seismograph readings across the frozen wasteland. All in a comfortable room temperature.
The Snow Cruiser’s story didn’t end from mechanical failure, but from fascists. The United States’ entry into World War II necessitated many spending cuts, and the Snow Cruiser was one of the first to go. The crew would leave Antarctica, but the bulky Cruiser would not. They parked it near the Little America III station, bundled it up as best they could and pounded tall bamboo poles so it could be found even under snow. They left the red beast behind with little fanfare. What had once been a front-page newspaper story now faded into a whisper buried in the third page. World War II had now captured America’s full attention.
Five years passed.
In 1946, Rear Admiral Byrd returned to Little America for the purpose of establishing yet another research station and to train American troops in the hostile environment. Unlike his earlier expeditions, which had involved less than a hundred men and a single ship, Byrd now had almost five thousand men and a navy at his disposal. Naturally, once Byrd arrived, he sent out a crew of engineers to find the Snow Cruiser. It was right where they had left it, sprinkled with a thin layer of snow.
After a quick battery charge, the Cruiser’s diesels puttered, chugged, and then roared to life for the first time in half a decade. After a few minutes of checking the vehicle’s systems, the soldiers happily discovered it in top shape. The Snow Cruiser only needed some air in its tires, and they could pilot it back to base. They had no such orders. Although happy to confirm his friend’s engineering skills, Admiral Byrd told them to close her up.
Twelve years passed before explorers would find the Cruiser again in 1958. This time only curiosity drove the search, not exploration or military orders. An international geophysical research team found it buried beneath several feet of snow. The bamboo poles still jutted up proudly and the researchers’ bulldozer had the entrance quickly cleared.
The Snow Cruiser looked as it had been emptied a few days, not a few years. Sealed tight from the weather, the flotsam of its crew’s daily lives remained. Worn magazines folded on top of a bunk. A crushed pack of cigarettes kicked into one corner. A fan of file folders covering the dining table. No one started it or made any tests. What had been state-of-the-art in 1939 now sat a relic of yesterday’s science. Before leaving, the researchers replaced the bamboo poles to mark the Cruiser’s location. Just in case.
In 1962, polar geologists confirmed the ice shelf containing the Snow Cruiser and Little America III had broken into dozens of icebergs and floes of varying size. One of these contained the Snow Cruiser, but there was no way of knowing which one, or if the Cruiser had just tumbled into the ocean. Rumors of Soviet theft circulated among the public, although this possibility raised little alarm with the military. If the Soviets wanted twenty-three year-old technology that badly, they could have it.
In 1963, spotters on the Navy icebreaker the USS Edisto saw the remains of a building jutting from the side of a flat iceberg. The captain steered the Edisto as close as possible and then snapped a quick picture before yawing away. Analysts examined the photos later and confirmed it was Little America III, apparently torn in half from splitting ice. And in the top of the photo, above and to the left of the gutted building, the two bamboo poles marking the Snow Cruiser’s location still stood, a full twenty-two years after being placed there.
After that, no one has seen a trace of the Snow Cruiser again.
Want to Know More?
If you’re a fan of primary research, then read the “Bulletin of the US Antarctic Projects Officer” from April, 1963. This contains the full report from the icebreaker USS Edisto on the discovery of Little America III and the Snow Cruiser’s bamboo poles, including the crew’s attempt to climb into the abandoned station.
Want to see the Snow Cruiser in its prime? The November 1939 article from Popular Science “Planting the Stars and Stripes in Antarctica” details the design, construction, and mission of the Snow Cruiser, published just as the Cruiser rolled across the United States to Boston.