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The “Universal Car” – Wintertime Conversions for the Model “T” Ford

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  • This early tank-like design was a different concept than later conversions

Photos of vehicles from the early days of motoring built specifically to deal with adverse winter conditions are always of interest here. Seen above, is a prototype driving system fitted to a Model “T” Ford in 1918 by Charles H. Martin of Springfield, Massachusetts to test the idea for a proposed light tank. While it worked well, its usefulness in civilian applications was limited when compared to Virgil D. White’s later snowmobile design.

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As early as 1906, White experimented with ways to get around in deep snow with a motor vehicle. His first prototype was based on a Buick Model G, but he later concentrated his efforts on the more popular Ford. A 1917 patent followed a refined conversion kit that he built in 1913. By 1922, White was marketing the kit to the public as seen in the left and center photos above. It proved very successful and over seventy kits were sold the following year. He later sold his patents to the Farm Specialty Manufacturing Company of New Holstein, Wisconsin who marketed the kits to rural mail carriers as Mailman’s Specials, one of which can be seen on the right, above.

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  • Mail carriers in Cokato, Minnesota using snowmobiles, the machine on the far left has survived.

The thoroughly unconventional design in the lower photos was based on the ancient principle of the Archimedes screw. Originally conceived by Frederick R. Burch, this ingenious machine actually saw production in the twenties. The January, 1926 issue of Time magazine reported that they were in use for trips over the Mackenzie Pass in Oregon and the Hudson Bay Company ordered some to maintain communications between their remote fur trading stations in Canada. Apparently, orders from Norway, Sweden and Alaska were also in hand at the time. You can see a fascinating video of it in action here.

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  • A Fordson tractor Snow-Motor – Frederick R. Burch’s earlier patent – A rear view of the Snow-Motor

And lastly, the Model “T’ Snowmobile Club is having their annual national meet on February 8, 2014. If you attend, you will have the chance to witness many of these unusual machines in action. Details about this unique winter event can be found here. Photos courtesy of The Henry Ford, the National Postal Museum and the Smithsonian.

6 responses to “The “Universal Car” – Wintertime Conversions for the Model “T” Ford

  1. My Grandfather was a small town doctor in Russell, NY (far upstate) from about 1910 through WWII and had one of those Snowmobile conversions on a Model T in the ’20’s. Early in his career he made house calls with a horse and buggy.

  2. David, Alex Beam’s Memory Lane Museum in Mooresville, NC has a 1919 T Touring with ski’s mounted in front, but uses chains on the rear wheels to drive it. The ski’s are mounted using a jack that allows them to be raised so the car can be driven on roads too. The card on the car says the “front wheels were removed and ski mounted for snow.” In the photo I have, it sure looks like the wheels could be left on as there’s about a foot of travel on the jacks.

  3. Shackleton took a modified Arrol Johnson car to Antarctica in 1907 and Scott took a primitive tracked motor sledge there in 1910, both of which proved fairly unsuccessful.

    Remains of them are still on the continent, abandoned a bit like the Lunar Rovers (LRVs) taken to the moon on the last three Apollo missions 15, 16 and 17, where they are likely to remain! The LRVs were however a complete success unlike the early Polar vehicles.

    Martin Shelley

  4. A fellow in my home town in the Adirondacks had one on a mid-1920’s Dodge pickup. It was still around by 1950 or so.

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