It’s said that necessity is the mother of invention, but I think inventions come from a mix of needs, dreams and desire. That’s why I love the picture, taken sometime in Quebec during the winter of 1957.
In the picture, Joseph Armand Bombardier is piloting the prototype, which would become the Ski-Doo snowmobile. One of his hands rests calmly on the steering wheel, which looks like it came from a car. The illusion of speed shows up in the snow kicked up from the vehicle’s track, but somehow Bombardier’s brimmed hat has stayed on for the ride.
He looks happy in the photo, and with good reason. Twenty years after building his first snowmobile, he was on the verge of witnessing his dream become reality.
Bombardier was born in 1907 near the village of Valcourt in Quebec. It was a rural and remote area, and even as a youngster Bombardier talked about inventing a motorized vehicle that could travel on snow-covered roads, and relieve the isolation created by the long winters.
By the age of 19, he set up a garage and was working as a mechanic. In his spare time, from about 1926 to 1935, he developed various prototype snowmobiles. The models had both one-seat and two-seats, but the automobile engines available at the time weren’t working out with the light machines. In 1935, he began building heavier models, which would hold several passengers.
In the summer of 1937, Bombardier built a seven-passenger snowmobile, which included a revolutionary rear-wheel drive and suspension system. He named it the B7, and in a short time sold 20 of them. Key parts of the invention were the rubber-coated sprocket wheel (still seem in the Bombardier logo today) and a rubber track system.
Demand for the B7 continued to grow because it was a necessity in the north.
Early customers included country doctors and veterinarians, taxi and bus owners, hotel-keepers, foresters, and electric and telephone companies. To keep up with the demand, Bombardier built a factory in 1940, and a year later developed a bigger and more powerful snowmobile called the B12. He incorporated his company — L’Auto-Neige Bombardier — in 1942.
World War II put civilian snowmobile production on hold, but the Canadian military and its allies were looking for ways to transport troops over snowbound battlefields. Bombardier was given the go-ahead to design a military version of the B-12, which was called the B1. The Canadian army proceeded to buy 130 of them.
In 1943, Bombardier developed armored all-track snowmobiles called the Kaki and the Mark 1 (with changes made by the Army, it became the Mark 2, also known as the Penguin). In all, more than 1,900 tracked vehicles based on Bombardier’s design were built for military applications between 1942 and 1946.
Bombardier has branched out to designing and building ATVs.
Four major improvements in snowmobiles, invented by Bombardier, were patented during that time period. They were the wheel mounting, a traction device, a vehicle spring system and a rubberized sprocket wheel. But, while allowing the use of his patents in military vehicles, Bombardier had given up the royalties for their use.
Back On Track
During the war years, production of civilian snowmobiles has increased year to year, from 27 units in 1942 to 230 in 1945. The demand continued to rise, and Bombardier first expanded his factory, then built a vast assembly facility that could produce 1,000 units a year.
Two products were the mainstays of the company then, the B12 and the C18. The C18 was a school snowmobile that could transport 25 children, and it became very popular in Quebec and Ontario. With his commercial efforts well established, Bombardier returned to his research. In 1947, the company’s sales volume reached $2.3 million, compared to $211,800 in 1942.
But, changes affected the company’s growth. In 1948, the Quebec government implemented a new snow removal policy for rural roads. Orders for the big snowmobiles were on the decline, and Bombardier again refocused.
He kept demand for the B12 steady by modifying it for loading and transporting lumber. The company also developed a traction mechanism for tractors used in muddy terrain. The Tractor Tracking Attachment was an instant success in the agricultural sector, and sold by the thousands across North and South American and Europe.
In 1953, the company invented the unbreakable and warp-proof rubber sprocket, and also designed a new vulcanizing machine that allowed the production of seamless and shock-resistant tracks. Those innovations were incorporated in the Muskeg tractor, for use in difficult terrain, and the J5, designed for use in forestry.
Childhood Dreams Revisited
In 1957, while running the business, Bombardier stepped up his research on the small snowmobile he had dreamed about since childhood. The use of an all-rubber track reinforced with hidden metal rods and the arrival of lighter engines helped his dream come true at last. He settled on a four-stroke Kohler engine.
Field trials of his prototypes took place at a Catholic mission for Ojibway Indians run by Father Maurice Ouimet, a close friend of Bombardier’s. Mass production began in 1959, and 225 Ski-Doo snowmobiles were sold (for $900 each) the following winter. Demand was slow to take off, but picked up each year. Bombardier made few changes in the model until 1962, when he changed to a fiberglass cab and the Austrian-made rotax engine.
Although the first customers for the machine were those who needed individual transportation over snow in isolated regions such as prospectors, surveyors, game wardens — the sport of snowmobiling began to spread across Quebec and into New England. Although his inventions and dreams gave birth to this new sport, Bombardier would only live to see the first signs of the success. He died on February 19, 1964.
The Bombardier Company today has customers in many different markets. It manufactures vehicles for urban, commuter and intercity rail transit, and a full-line of business jets. In addition to the snowmobile industry, Bombardier manufactures watercraft, snow grooming equipment and ATVs. Bombardier supplies snowmobiles, grooming equipment and ATVs for use during winter Olympics. Customers are on five continents, and 90 percent of the company’s sales are outside Canada.