June 23, 2016

The Misplaced Antarctic Snow Cruiser


As Rolled out of the Chicago construction yards in October, 1939

In 1939, scientists and engineers at Chicago’s Armour Institute of Technology designed and built a massive new vehicle intended for use in Antarctic exploration.

The Antarctic Snow Cruiser measured 55 feet long, weighed more than 37 tons fully loaded, and rolled on four smooth 10-foot-tall tires designed to retract and allow part of the vehicle to scoot across crevasses. The Institute loaned the $150,000 machine to the U.S. government for its upcoming Antarctic expedition headed by Rear Admiral Richard Byrd, and had the Snow Cruiser driven from Chicago to Boston (at a top speed of 30 mph) to be loaded on the ship the North Star.


The crew managed to deliver the Snow Cruiser to the Antarctic ice, but the design proved faulty, and the vehicle was soon converted to a stationary crew quarters, never to leave Antarctica again. The diesel-electric hybrid powertrain was severely underpowered, and the smooth tires, designed for swampy terrain, offered very little traction, sinking into the snow. More than 75 years later, the world is still unsure where it is—the Antarctic Snow Cruiser could remain buried somewhere under sheets of ice, or it could have broken off with an ice floe, eventually sinking to the bottom of the ocean. —Updated - The Atlantic

On duty in Antarctica with its crew in September, 1940

The Snow Cruiser arrived at Little America in the Bay of Whales, Antarctica with United States Antarctic Service Expedition in early January 1940 and experienced many problems.

It was necessary to construct a ramp from timber to unload the vehicle. As the vehicle was unloaded from the ship, one of the wheels broke though the ramp.

The crew cheered when Poulter powered the vehicle free from the ramp but the cheers fell silent when the vehicle failed to move through the snow and ice. The large, smooth, tread-less tires were originally designed for a large swamp vehicle; they spun freely and provided very little forward movement, sinking as much a 3 feet (0.91 m) into the snow. The crew attached the two spare tires to the front wheels of the vehicle and installed chains on the rear wheels, but were unable to overcome the lack of traction. The crew later found that the tires produced more traction when driven backwards. The longest trek was 92 miles (148 km) – driven completely in reverse.
During Operation Highjump in late 1946, an expedition team found the vehicle and discovered it needed only air in the tires and some servicing to make it operational. In 1958, an international expedition uncovered the snow cruiser using a bulldozer. It was covered by several feet of snow but a long bamboo pole marked its position. They were able to dig down to the location of the bottom of the wheels and accurately measure the amount of snowfall since it was abandoned. Inside, the vehicle was exactly as the crew had left it, with papers, magazines, and cigarettes scattered all around.
Later expeditions reported no trace of the vehicle. Although there was some unsubstantiated speculation that the (traction-less) Snow Cruiser was taken by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the vehicle most likely is either at the bottom of the Southern Ocean or buried deep under snow and ice. Antarctic ice is in constant motion and the ice shelf is constantly moving out to sea. In the mid-1960s, a large chunk of the Ross Ice Shelf broke off and drifted away; the break occurred right through Little America. It is not known on which side of the ice shelf the Snow Cruiser was located. The Antarctic Snow Cruiser

As it was abandoned in December, 1940

Just because a big idea turned sour is no reason to forget about it....


Posted by gerardvanderleun at June 23, 2016 10:18 AM
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Did you notice the 4-wheel steering?
At one point, you can see all 4 wheels turned in the same direction, making the vehicle crab sideways.
At another point, it is seen turning a sharp corner, with the rear wheels pointed in, and the front wheels pointed out; this makes it turn in a very small radius.
The 1989-91 Honda Prelude had a similar system, driven through a weird gearcase in the back.
Is there any documentation on what kind of system the Snow Cruiser used?

Posted by: steve at June 23, 2016 9:15 AM

Rumor has it that it was involved in the Miskatonic University Antarctic expedition.

Posted by: el baboso at June 23, 2016 3:54 PM