The Abominable Snow-vehicle
Icon: Tucker Sno-Cat
Your closest encounter with the winter beast known as the Tucker Sno-Cat was probably watching as scientists and explorers with frozen beards made their way through parts unknown in an episode of National Geographic. What you probably don’t know is that these cold-capable snow monsters materialized out of one man’s desire to find a better method of snow travel, or that they comprise a proud family of multi-purpose vehicles that got their start way back in 1942.
Not just overgrown snowmobiles, Sno-Cats look like nothing else out there and are easily the winter wheels we’d imagine James Bond using to run over a herd of enemy skiers. The Tucker Sno-Cat has not only survived more than a half century of unbound snowy travel in the harshest of environs, it’s outdone much of its competition due to its ruggedness, versatility and technological evolution. This is an icon all its own in an industry that has few competitors.
What It’s All About
The Tucker Sno-Cat was birthed in the mind of E.M. Tucker, Sr. of southwest Oregon. Born in 1892, Tucker started his quest for better snow travel when he was just a boy. On his many snowy walks as a child, he began devising alternative methods to get across deep snow and started to build various screw-propelled snow vehicles, all of which proved inefficient, slow and hard to drive. Screw-propelled vehicles also lacked the ability to perform over uneven terrain, and their ability to steer was essentially absent.
As a result, Tucker rethought his methodology and sought to develop an entirely new form of winter transportation, one that would overcome all of the drawbacks of the screw-propelled machines. He wanted something reliable and easy to maintain, something that could handle miles of snow-covered terrain without difficulty. His idea was to use tank-like tracks, enabling high amounts of traction, a previously unknown degree of maneuverability in snow, excellent ground clearance, and the ability to travel on top of the snow as opposed to going through it.
Tucker built the first Sno-Cat in 1942, and in the following decades continued to develop the beasts for enhanced capability and maintenance. By altering the vehicle’s design and materials, Tucker vastly improved its cold-weather utility — the Sno-Cat became not just a tool for temperate transportation and agricultural purposes, but a hardy standby for long-range expeditions in extreme environments. What Tucker achieved was no small feat; other attempts that mimic the Sno-Cat’s design have failed to flourish. Sno-Cat has since become a general term for this segment of vehicles, but the Tucker Sno-Cat remains as the sole success story that’s spanned seventy years. In modern form, the Tucker Sno-Cat is a remarkably easy vehicle to drive, as it’s built around automotive-style controls, requiring little training for the inexperienced rider; those familiar with car operations can helm it sufficiently should an emergency require its immediate operation.
E.M. Tucker’s early designs utilized two sets of steel tracks that rotated around a pair of steel pontoons at the rear of the vehicle, aided by robust skis at the front for steering. One early compact model, sadly called the Kitten (“Yes, I drive a Kitten at work”), made use of only two sets of tracks that were powered by a rousing 10 horsepower. The Kitten’s presence and power were nothing short of paltry.
Tucker eventually changed his two-track system to a full four tracks, one at each corner of the vehicle. The doubling of the tracks provided greater mobility over deep snow and a much increased level of agility that two tracks/skis design never could. Though this new system proved more capable than early models, the materials used still posed a problem. The steel tracks and pontoon system initially provided good traction but did not hold up well in the extreme elements. Corrosion and rust made for a maintenance nightmare on the early Sno-Cats and kept the lifespan of the track belts and the pontoons short. Tucker altered the design to make use of lighter, corrosion-resistant fiberglass pontoons, but this only slightly improved the difficult maintenance of his Sno-Cats.
Perhaps the most significant modification to the Tucker Sno-Cat was the replacement of the steel tracks with rubber belts. These tire-like belts were also embedded with metal grousers for traction, providing the bite of steel tracks without the major corrosion problems. This new system was both more resilient and easier to maintain than the old steel system. The current generation of Sno-Cats takes the belt system into the 21st century by employing a full rubber “Terra Track” system. The metal grousers are now gone, replaced by molded rubber treads designed specifically for snow and ice traction that are mounted atop the multi-ply rubber belt. The current four-track system gives each track an independently sprung unit that pivots at the drive axle, allowing for a great degree of articulation on uneven terrain. All four of those tracks are powered full time, providing continuous movement wherever the vehicle makes contact with the ground.
Tucker’s commitment to building a truly robust machine has resulted in the longest operating and most successful snow vehicle in the world.
They’re no longer shuffled along by a measly 10 horsepower engine, either. Today’s Cummins diesel engines range from 160 hp to a hulking 300 hp and provide the torque and power necessary to get up and over the deepest of drifts. Additional modern features like an Allison 2500 Automatic Transmission, bucket seats, a 50-gallon fuel tank, a 36,000 BTU cabin heater and heated exterior mirrors certainly help long-range cold weather transport and provide a level of comfort that early Sno-Cat drivers could only dream of in their frozen heads. Tucker’s commitment to building a truly robust machine has resulted in the longest operating and most successful snow vehicle in the world.
Why It Matters
Tucker’s four-track Sno-Cats continue to be used all over the globe, covering ground in locations and conditions impassable by the toughest 4x4s. The various iterations of Sno-Cat fulfill a wide range of use that includes polar exploration, search and rescue, military applications, avalanche control, mining, and of course, snow removal. From single seaters to sedans, open bed to closed cabin, large to small models, the sheer variety of the line is impressive.
Tucker’s Sno-Cat has its own place in the annals of history, as well: one of the original Tucker Sno-Cat 743s from Sir Vivian Fuchs’s 2,158-mile 1958 Trans-Antarctic expedition, a journey that constituted the first land crossing of Antarctica, is on display in all its radiant orange glory in the London Science Museum. With four custom-made Sno-Cats, Fuchs was able to cross the continent in 100 days, all the while conducting seismic readings and measuring ice cap thickness. The Sno-Cats proved invincible in the harshest conditions on earth, providing consistency, safety and the kind of endurance no other land vehicle could accomplish at the time.
The Tucker Sno-Cat Corporation has thrived since its inception and endured in a highly specialized segment of vehicles where other companies have failed. They’ve brought the Sno-Cat into the modern age, turning a beast of a vehicle into a singular machine of unsurpassed ruggedness and ease of maintenance. Expect the Sno-Cat to continue to dominate snow-covered hills, deep and muddy waters and rocky landscapes — and perhaps even set new records in the field of extreme expeditioning — in years to come.