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Snowmachine vs Snowmobile: What’s the Difference? (Origins)

Snow enthusiasts often encounter the words “snowmachine” and “snowmobile” being used interchangeably, sparking curiosity about potential distinctions. In this article, we’ll determine once and for all if there’s actually a difference between these two terms.

What’s the difference between a snowmachine and a snowmobile? Snowmobiles and snowmachines are essentially the same. The names vary based on regional or personal preferences. Both motorized vehicles feature steerable front skis and a continuous rear track for traversing snow.

Linguistic nuances aside, there’s no way (or reason) to tell the features and functionalities of these snow rigs apart. This guide will focus on the origins and series of innovations leading to the modern-day snowmobile.

Man Riding Snowmobile Through Forest Trail

Snowmachine vs. Snowmobile Narratives

Like my other recent posts, understanding the dissimilarities between two vehicle types entails looking back at their origins. This is especially true for snowmobiles and snowmachines, as their histories may provide further insight into what truly sets them apart.

You may be surprised to learn that there’s no fundamental difference between snowmobiles and snowmachines. They’re essentially the same. However, what the machine is called is primarily a matter of regional or individual language preferences.

The basic concept is the same: either is a motorized vehicle designed to travel over snow — typically with steerable skis in the front and a continuous track in the back for propulsion.

I hope this is a good enough answer to the question: “Why do Alaskans call it a snowmachine?” (Although some online sources claim that Alaskans find the term ‘snowmobile’ too sissy.)

As for their origins, contemporary snowmobiles are more linked to creations during the mid-1950s. But in truth, their forerunners date back much farther than that period. As early as the late 1800s, many innovations have already been in play — as you’ll soon find out in the subsequent sections.

Aerosledge, Snowbuggies & the Kégresse Track System

Three remarkable inventions between 1895 and 1910 come to mind concerning over-snow vehicles. These early advances laid the groundwork for modern-day snowmobiles.

Many trials and contraptions were made during the latter part of the 18th century. But those with the most bearing had to do with sled engines and propulsion prototypes.

The Sled-Propeller design (a.k.a. snowbuggies), patented by William J. Culman and William B. Follis in 1985, is among these significant innovations. The same goes for the Boston-produced 1905 American Motor Sleigh, which featured a sleigh body mounted on a framework supporting an engine, a drive-shaft system, and runners for better stability and maneuverability in snowy conditions.

Igor Sikorsky’s Aerosledge (a.k.a. Aerosanis) also makes the cut as an indispensable forerunner of the snowmobile — despite the absence of tracks. This design was propeller-driven, ran on skis, and served as an efficient mode of transportation over snow-covered terrains, particularly in military applications.

Last but not least is Adolphe Kégresse’s track system, which was developed between 1906 and 1916. This track system used a flexible continuous belt instead of interlocking metal segments for enhanced mobility over diverse terrains. It could be affixed to regular cars or trucks.

Though not exclusive to snowmobiles, converting traditional wheeled vehicles into half-track configurations significantly influenced off-road vehicle design.

“Ford on Snowshoes” — The First Snowmobile

The first mass-produced snowmobile wasn’t the B7 Auto-Neige by Joseph-Armand Bombardier. Instead, the Model T Ford with snowmobile attachments was developed by New Hampshire auto dealer Virgil White, which was in the works as early as 1913.

These precursors began production in 1922 and were the first to sport a tracked belt and steerable front skis. Approximately 25,000 of these accessories were sold in five years until 1927 (1929 in other sources).

Fondly referred to as “Ford on snowshoes,” these modified rigs came in three gauges, as follows:

  • 56-inch gauge: Suited regions where automobiles were commonplace (listed for $395 in 1926)
  • 44-inch gauge: Facilitated following horse-drawn bobsled tracks
  • 38-inch gauge: Accommodated areas with standard narrower sleigh tracks (like parts of Canada)

Virgil White’s auto dealership in Ossipee claimed that the snowmobile attachments included in their gauge packages could traverse over 2.5 feet of uninterrupted snow at an average speed of 18 mph. These add-ons also furthered the Model T Ford’s impeccable functionality.

Being attached to the vehicle’s frame made it easy to swap the front skis for wheels (for instance), effectively converting the automobile into a sandmobile when needed.

From “Snow-Husky” to “Snowmachine”

Regarding snowmobiles and North America, one interesting facet is that the region seems to be split into seven territories — the US, Canada, Mexico, Greenland, the Caribbean, Central American countries, and Alaska. Obviously, there’s a pun intended in how I divided the area. Alaska is part of the US. But because it has its own snowmobiling customs, it makes sense that the state also has its own term for the snow vehicle.

History-wise, the first snowmachine used in Alaska is often credited to the Snow-Husky. This early snowmachine was introduced in the 1920s by Carl Eliason, the same inventor credited with creating the prototype of the modern snowmobile in Wisconsin.

The Snow-Husky was a significant development in snow travel technology and played a role in transportation in Alaska’s winter conditions. It had a similar design to Eliason’s original snowmobile, featuring a tracked system for movement over snow and skis for steering at the front.

Unfortunately, pinpointing an exact date for when Alaskans switched from the term snow-husky to snowmachine (or if they ever used snow-husky at all) can be pretty obscure. What is clear, however, is that snowmachine is the preferred local term. It is largely attributed to a desire for a word that encapsulates the rugged, practical, and utilitarian nature of these snow rigs in the Alaskan wilderness.

Notable Snow Vehicles Throughout History

(Source: Snow Goer and Snoriders West)

  • 1950 Ingham Motor Toboggan (the first Canadian-designed single-track snowmobile)
  • 1957 Polaris Sno-Traveler
  • 1967 Arctic Cat Panther (a breakthrough sled finished in black with a fiberglass hood, slide rails, riveted aluminum chassis, and low-mounted engine)
  • 1969 Ski-Doo Track N’ Trail with its 2-stroke Rotax power mill, 20—40 hp rating, up to 60-mph top speed, and long, narrow body (plus a raised front hood)
  • 1971 Sno-Jet Thunderjet with its remarkable power-to-weight ratio, front-mounted engine, and the use of lightweight materials in its construction
  • 1972 Skiroule RTX
  • 1972 Rupp Nitro (the snowmachine that ushered in the era of “hot rod sleds”)
  • 1973 OMC Golden Ghost by Outboard Marine Corp with its 73 dB noise limit
  • 1974 Mercury Sno-Twister (combined all the good attributes of the production models of the ’70s and paved the way for smallish snowmobiles)
  • 1977 Yamaha Enticer (a milestone vehicle in the entry-level segment of snowmobiling)
  • 1980 Polaris TX-L Indy, the undeniable king of cross-country racing
  • 1984 Yamaha Phazer with its then state-of-the-art independent front and long-travel rear suspensions and “relatively modest weight,” raising the bar for mountain snowmobiling

Snowmachine vs Snowmobile Comparison

Let’s briefly discuss the specific parameters important for these sleds:

ParameterSnowmachines vs Snowmobiles
Signature DesignLong, narrow body with skis at the front for steering and a continuous track at the rear for propulsion
ApplicationThey are primarily used for recreational purposes, snowmobiling, and winter travel. They are also for various professional applications, including search and rescue.
Displacementfrom 50cc to more powerful ones exceeding 1,000cc
Motor Rating40 to over 200 hp (29.4—147.1 kW)
Maximum Speed25 to over 128 mph (25—206 km/h)
Power TransmissionUsually with a belt-driven continuously variable transmission (CVT) system
Age RestrictionAt least 10 y/o for young riders (with adult supervision), ages 16 to 18 for teenage riders, and at least 18 y/o for adult riders
RequisitesRegistration, insurance, emissions compliance, safety certification, licensing, trail permits, environmental stewardship requirements
SafetyHand warmers, electric start, and safety tethers (in addition to other snowmobile essentials)
Fuel EfficiencyVaries, with modern models incorporating technologies for improved efficiency

Note that some of these parameters differ significantly in competitive racing. The minimum rider age, for instance, changes from 10 to 12 years old.

Shifts in these criteria apply to professional and amateur competitions since these events demand participants possess the physical and mental capabilities necessary for competitive racing challenges. Safety-wise, younger riders are always required to meet additional safety measures.

Conclusion — Snowmachine vs Snowmobile

As established in today’s guide, the debate between snowmachine and snowmobile terminology is more about words than vehicles. Whether you call it a snowmachine in the icy expanses of Alaska or a snowmobile in the snow-covered trails of Canada, the thrill of gliding through pillowy snow remains a universal joy.

Still, it pays to grasp these linguistic subtleties. It’s a show of respect for regional preferences and a way to add depth to your appreciation of diverse winter cultures.