Great Drives 05 - The Snow Cruiser

Does a drive actually have to be successful to qualify as great? Or, if a journey is attempted with sufficient panache, can a failure count as a great drive? We feel that as all of the truly ambitious drives in history have been undertaken with failure a very possible outcome, there's nothing wrong with celebrating the occasional failure, provided it snatches defeat from the jaws of victory with sufficient elan.

And with that in mind, we give you one of the most spectacular vehicles to come out of the 1930s - the Antarctic Snow Cruiser. Though to be honest, it didn't so much snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, as go straight out and fail spectacularly at the one task it was designed for - the exploration of Antarctica. But it was so visionary a design, we'll let that minor point go because let's face it, who wouldn't warm to a huge land-ship with a range of 5,000 miles, an ability to be self-sufficient for up to a year, and a bi-plane strapped to its back?

The Antarctic Snow Cruiser

The Snow Cruiser was designed to roam and map huge swathes of Antarctica for months on end, without outside support. It was 17 metres long, 6 metres wide, weighed 34 tonnes and had a somewhat ahead-of-its-time diesel electric hybrid powertrain, with two diesel engines feeding generators to power electric motors mounted in each wheel. Onboard, it carried accommodation for a crew of five, a darkroom, machine shop, galley, mess room, ten tonnes of fuel and enough food to last a year. Each of the four wheels had a diameter of three metres, each of its two engines had an 11-litre capacity. And then there was that biplane. A Beech Staggerwing to be exact, which could be carried strapped to the back of the giant, turtle-like contraption. If, as the saying goes, nothing succeeds like excess, then this thing couldn't fail.

Except it did. It was a disaster from the start.

The behemoth was shipped to Antarctica onboard the USCGS North Star in late 1939, its mission to map undiscovered landscapes, seek out strange new snow-forms, and to boldly go where no 17m long vehicle with a biplane on its back has ever gone before. But things went wrong right from the start. When while being unloaded from the ship, it's 33-tonne mass broke through the ramp leading onto the ice, and it was almost lost at mile zero.

Once on the ice, things didn't get much better. It was found that the smooth rubber tyres - spec'd as it was assumed a tread pattern would quickly become clogged with ice - wouldn't provide any traction. The vehicle was found to have two settings - completely stationary, and stationary and wheelspinning. On a continent which is basically one big ice cube, this is rather a problem.

To attempt to overcome the lack of traction, the crew of the now ironically-named Snow Cruiser doubled up the front wheels using the spares, and fitted chains on the back, but this did little to help. Antarctica's most ambitious-ever machine could still barely drag itself along the ice. For most of the United States Antarctic Service Expedition, the $300,000 (or $5.5 million in today's money) Snow Cruiser sat in camp, covered over with tarpaulins and in use as living accommodation, while its biplane tender flew its survey missions. White Elephants don't get much bigger. When it was used, the effort required just to get the thing to move across the ice meant the scientific benefits of taking the Snow Cruiser out of camp were minimal, though some interesting discoveries were made by its surely-frustrated crew, such as the discovery that the $300,000 technical tour-de-force actually gripped better in reverse; a fact which was taken full advantage of in the Snow Cruiser's longest continuous run on the ice, which covered 92 miles, all in reverse - an accomplishment which is surely a reversing world record, and hence qualifies as a 'great drive' - even if it took five days to cover the distance.

On the completion of the expedition, the Snow Cruiser was abandoned in the Antarctic and with the onset of World war Two, forgotten about. It was briefly rediscovered in 1958, but with the movement of the coastal ice, it has most likely now sunk to the depths of the Southern Ocean - a sad end to a flawed legend.

The Snow Cruiser may not have fulfilled its brief, but it should be remembered as one of the most glorious of all failures; a machine which, even when spinning its wheels while stationary in camp, deserves to be celebrated as one of the boldest entries in the pantheon of automotive design.


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