The impressive Antarctic Snow Cruiser was meant to lead the way in the Antarctic expedition of Rear Admiral Richard Byrd in 1940. However when it came time to put in the work the cruiser was left spinning its wheels (quite literally).
The Antarctic Snow Cruiser provides an interesting example of hubris on the ice, the ‘all terrain’ vehicle packed with considerable power and innovative features but ultimately failing to work and quickly becoming obsolete.
It was a suitably impressive design on paper and would have obviously made quite the impact on the roads.
Besides the control cabin for the 5-strong crew the vehicle included a machine shop, combination kitchen/darkroom and plenty of space for food and fuel storage. The fuel was needed not just for the Cruiser but also for the 5-passenger Beechcraft biplane that was winched into place on the top pad of the vehicle.
The innovative design didn’t stop there. The cabin was heated by circulated engine coolant, a system so efficient that the crew said they only needed light blankets when sleeping. In its day the diesel-electric drive train was unique for that size of vehicle, with many large mining trucks now using a similar set-up.
After two years designing these advancements the vehicle would take 11 weeks to build before undertaking its first journey on the 24th of October in 1939. On this trip from Chicago to the Boston Army Wharf the steering system would be damaged and the Cruiser would drive off a bridge and into a stream, where it would be stuck for three days. Perhaps it was an omen.
Subsequently the longest trip made on the ice was 148 kms. This was undertaken in reverse.
Eventually however the vehicle got to the wharf and journeyed via boat to Little America in the Bay of Whales. Things didn’t quite go to plan upon arrival either, the weight of the giant vehicle collapsing the massive timber ramp built to move it from boat to ice. And from there it just got worse.
To start with, it couldn’t move. The Cruiser was fitted with large, tread-less tires, such smooth wheels ideal for moving through a swamp but completely inadequate for driving across snow. The vehicle quickly sank almost a metre into the snow.
The crew eventually attached chains to the rear wheels but then discovered that the tyres had more traction when driven backwards. Subsequently the longest trip made on the ice was 148 kms. This was undertaken in reverse.
Most of its lifespan was spent as crew quarters. While it was used for scientific expeditions with some success the crew had to abandon the vehicle when funding was halted as the United States entered into WWII. There is a fascinating gallery tracking the journey of the Cruiser in this great article by The Atlantic.
Now it has in all likelihood disappeared deep into the ice or sunk to the bottom of the ocean. Either way, this incredible vehicle lives on as a legend and a cautionary warning on how inspirational ambition can still be undone by a cold, pragmatic reality.