The Snow Cruiser-Antarctica’s Abandoned Behemoth

No place on earth carries the same level of mystery, sense of discovery or adventure than that of the frozen continent of Antarctica. Since the tentative discovery by Captain Cook in the 1770s and it’s eventual sighting by Von Bellingshausen in the 1820s, people have been desperate to understand, explore and lay claim to this harsh and bleak wasteland.

To do this, however, innovation was required. Each expedition to the Antarctic, from the end of the 19th century until today has brought new and experimental equipment and techniques to better explore and conquer Antarctica’s unforgiving, almost otherworldly environment. Innovation would not prove easy, however- specifically, early vehicles and motorised equipment were still in their infancy during the early Antarctic expeditions, and each early attempt to introduce them to the difficult landscape and conditions suffered faults, failures and numerous setbacks. Ernest Shackelton, in the Nimrod Expedition that achieved the “Furthest South” in 1909 managed to bring the first motor car to the continent, a specially designed Arrol-Johnston
The 4 cylinder, 15 horsepower air cooled motorcar that was kitted out for pulling sledges and donated by the Scottish William Beardmore and Company. It saw some limited use, but was ineffective in navigating the ice and deep snow and running in sub-zero temperatures (ironically, the engine frequently suffered overheating problems while making excursions). The car is notable however in that it was not abandoned in Antarctica and left but instead shipped back to England in 1909 and donated to a museum. What happened to it after that is unknown.

It would not be the end of the engine in the pole, however. Robert Falcon Scott, seeing potential in Shackleton’s idea, pioneered experimental though ultimately unsuccessful motor driven sledges in his ill-fated “race to the pole” two years later. Every minutia of Scott’s expedition has and will be picked apart for the rest of history- perhaps unfairly so- but some have pointed out that their failure may have been lessened had Scott chosen men better experienced in the use and maintenance of the sleds for his team to strike out for the pole. The sleds were eventually all abandoned on the continent, but were rediscovered a number of years by the ‘lost men’ of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition.

Finally there was Douglas Mawson, the famed Australian Explorer attempted to bring the first aeroplane to the continent in his 1911 expedition. The plane, however, crashed during an air show demonstration before they even left home.  Mawson was always one to make the best out of a bad situation however and had it hastily converted into an experimental “air tractor” for pulling sledges- this, too, was unsuccessful and was eventually abandoned, becoming yet another failed experiment in Antarctic motoring. The road to success, as they say, is paved with failure, but the worst was yet to come. For in the 1930s, the Antarctic was home to one of the most incredible vehicles ever made- impressive not just in its gigantic size and innovative features for the time, but remarkable in its almost instantaneous and complete failure. I’m referring to the relatively unknown but nonetheless incredible Antarctic Snow Cruiser

Richard E Byrd was an American Naval Officer and Polar Explorer. Byrd had become known for his disputed flight over the North Pole, as well a trans-Atlantic flight in 1927. From the late 1920s, he had been organising expeditions into Antarctica, taking the place of what had predominately been a British and Norwegian effort during the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration”. He had established two bases on the continent, Little America I in 1929, and Little America II in 1934.

By the end of the 1930s, war was threatening to engulf the globe for a second time and both Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan were increasing activities and territorial ambitions around Antarctica. President Roosevelt wanted to make the US presence in Antarctic firmly established and thus Byrd’s newly planned third expedition grew from the smaller, privately funded enterprises of the past two trips and into a far-reaching US scheme to establish bases on both sides of Antarctica, one of which was to be the third “Little America” base. It to be organised jointly by the US Departments of State, War, the Navy and the Interior and it was one of the major turning points in America’s interest and dedication to the Antarctic on a governmental level.

The world, especially the nations very much interested in laying claim to parts of Antarctica, were on tenterhooks to find out the final scale and aims of this grand American Antarctic expedition. None, however probably guessed what was about to roll onto the stage-

Byrd had been inspired by the partial success of Robert Falcon Scotts motor-sledges from 1910, and had considerable success with adapted Citroën’s half-tracks in his second expedition. In fact, their use had directly saved his life when he had been stranded alone in a remote outpost during the second expedition. His deputy, Dr Thomas Poulter, had spent the years since then trying to replace these motorised, adapted half-tracks with a more reliable form of transport that would better suit the difficult Arctic conditions.

Working at the Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago (now the Illinois Institute of Technology),  Poulter designed what he called The Snow Cruiser. Fifty-five feet long and twenty feet wide, weighing 37 tonnes fully loaded this gigantic vehicle was designed to have a range of over 8000 miles and sustain a crew for up to a year on the ice without resupply. The giant machine was powered by two diesel engines, giving it a proposed speed of up to fifty miles per hour.

She was also crammed with clever innovations-her four 10 foot tall balloon wheels could be moved individually, and lifted clear of crevasses and other obstructions. They could also retract into the chassis of the cruiser itself, to keep the rubberised tyres warm via the heat from the engines. The inside featured all the faculties a crew of 4 could need for exploring and living in the Antarctic wastes while they racked up the miles- it included a control cabin, machine shop, combination galley and darkroom, extra tanks for fuel, food stores, a crew quarters and even space aft for two gigantic spare tyres.

The range of gadgets and proposed capabilities didn’t end there. On the top of the Cruiser was even a cradle for an aircraft that could be used for finding routes through the snow and ice. With a range of 300 miles, this plane could be loaded via the sloped back of the cruiser, acting as a scout to the giant wheeled mothership. US government officials gave the go-ahead to the project, handing over $150,000 (almost 3 million in today’s money) to construct the cruiser for the forthcoming expedition. The Antarctic cruiser was seen as a clear advantage to the US expedition, especially when recent competition from other countries was starting to pick up. While the US was preparing for more expeditions, a German catapult ship Schwabenland had been operating survey planes around the Antarctic and claiming large tracts of land in the name of Nazi Germany. In an effort to further impress and justify the huge budget for this project, Poulter made extraordinary claims about the cruisers capabilities- telling one congressional committee that “it could explore over 500,000 square miles of unknown territory during a single Antarctic summer”. With international competition worrying the government and the deadline for the expedition looming, the Antarctic cruiser was thus hurriedly constructed in the Pullman Coach Works in Chicago just in time for the departure of the expedition.

Lumbering out of the Pullman coach works, this half-tank half-bus created a national stir as it raced off the production line and across 1000 miles of American roads to reach the Boston dockyard where the expedition would depart. Wider than most roads, it closed highways and forced cars off the road as it trundled through the states followed by a convoy of police cars. The cruiser at one point actually ran off the road and became stranded in a creek, which was hardly the most encouraging show of strength for a vehicle that was supposed to soon traverse some of the most difficult and unknown landscapes on earth. Nonetheless, it reached the expedition docks in time and was loaded onto the deck of the supply ship North Star, along with expedition supplies, stores, prefabricated huts and several Tanks that had been loaned by the Department of war for testing on the Antarctic ice. The entire aft wheel section of the vehicle had to be removed to fit her on board, and it was only with Bryds absolute insistence that she was allowed on at all, due to worries about her huge bulk destabilising the ship.

Finally, and with much fanfare, the North Star, with the Snow Cruiser strapped precariously to her deck, nervously edged out of the Boston Docks and left for Antarctica on the 15ht of November 1939. The New York Times reported somewhat presumptuously that “The Snow Cruiser has connected West Base with East Base; or has rolled along that coast which no man has surely seen… Or, perhaps, made of itself a laboratory base, for a period of months, at the Pole itself.

None of these hopefully claims it turned out, were to come true.

The expedition arrived at the site of Little America III in January 1940. As you can see from one of the only pieces of colour film footage of the Snow Cruiser, the unloading almost ended in disaster when it broke through the wooden ramps leading from the North Star to the ice shelf. You can see Byrd, here, riding on the roof, and being nearly thrown off when the giant cruiser suddenly shifts. The situation is only saved when Poulter, at the controls of the huge machine, hits the accelerator, lurching the cruiser forward and onto the relative safety of the ice.

Unfortunately, worse was to come for the Cruiser. The Vehicle that was meant to be able to climb slopes of up to thirty-seven degrees was practically immovable on the ice and snow, even after the two huge spare tyres were fitted for extra traction. It may seem obvious to us now, but tyre technology was still somewhat in it’s infancy and Goodyear has believed smooth balloon tyres would fare better in the snow after testing in what they thought was similar conditions in swamps and mud. but instead of sinking down the cruiser simply skipped and slid on the frozen antarctic surface. Nicknamed the “Bouncing Betty”, it was simply too heavy and it’s innovative deasil-electric drive train was too underpowered. The cruisers only limited success was found driving it in reverse, and even then at such slow speeds that it proved essentially useless.

After some fruitless attempts at longer range exploration, the expedition was forced to admit the cruiser was useless as anything other than a cramped, stationary laboratory and crew quarters. The innovative heating system and insulation proved incredibly effective, but the great beast was consigned to forever remain at the Western Base and the Antarctic continent. Eventually buried with snow, it was abandoned when Little America III was defunded and evacuated in 1941 as concentration moved towards the War effort.

So what happened to the Snow Cruiser? Well, in 1946, as part of Operation Highjump, another American Antarctic expedition, teams located the abandoned base and the gigantic Snow cruiser, still sitting where it had been left. The team found the vehicle to be in remarkably good condition, reporting that only air in the tyes and a basic servicing would have had it up and running again. However, nothing further was done and the beast once again was left to the elements. Finally, in 1958 the Cruiser made her final appearance, this time to an International Expedition, who uncovered the Snow Cruiser from its tomb of snow and ice with a bulldozer. She was hidden underneath several feet of snow but a long bamboo pole still marked her position. The team were able to dig down to the bottom of the wheels and measure the amount of snowfall it had seen since the cruiser was abandoned. Inside, the vehicle was exactly as the crew had left it almost two decades ago, with papers, magazines, and cigarettes still scattered around. They then left for the final time, probably unaware that they were to be the last people to ever see the incredible and unique Snow Cruiser again. Or were they?

Could the cruiser still be in the ice?

Could it be that the Snow Cruiser still sits under the snow and ice in the Bay of Whales? Only recently a team located the remains of Mawson’s “Air Tractor” from the 1911 Australasian Antarctic Expedition, buried under 3m of ice where she too had been abandoned. Relics of the various expeditions in the south are still discovered on a semi-regular basis, preserved in the sub-zero temperatures. Some conspiracy theories even maintain that the Soviets recovered the cruiser for themselves after it’s last discovery. So is there still hope for the Snow Cruiser? The reality, sadly, is probably not.

In February of 1963, the US Navy Icebreaker  Edisto sighted an unusual streak of black amongst whites and blues of passing icebergs of The Ross Sea. As they edged closer, the were amazed to find what appeared to be the remains of one of the Little America stations, buried in the ice. The Edisto’s helicopter landed on the iceberg and attempted to gain entry to the station but they were ultimately unable to find any way in. However, what could clearly be made out were the remains of tents, fabric and even prefabricated huts, bisected as the berg had broken away from the Ross Ice Shelf. Much like the team who discovered the cruiser in the 50s, cans and equipment placed neatly and left on shelves were still clearly visible, still preserved in time from the moment the site had been abandoned all those years ago. Five telephone poles with antenna fittings still stood above the snow, and what’s more two bamboo marker poles were still in place.

If it is to be presumed that this was likely was the remains of Little America III, it means the majority, if not all, of the site, has now washed into the sea. We don’t know what part of the base that berg held, but it’s entirely possible one of those bamboo markers stood over the buried cruiser, now drifting out into the Ross Sea and to the eventual sea bed. Part of me still hopes that one day she’ll reemerge, be it jutting out of a decades-old Iceberg, or somehow still clinging to the Ross Ice Shelf, or even dredged up from the sea bed by a confused trawler. One thing is for sure though- however much the Antarctic Snow Cruiser completely failed in her task to explore the southern continent, she’ll live on as one of the most impressive and ambitious pieces in automotive history and exploration. 

Source & Further Reading:

One of the best websites for archives and information on the cruiser: http://www.joeld.net/snowcruiser/snowcruiser.html

Best overview and details on the design and history of the cruiser:
https://www.autoclassics.com/posts/reviews/1939-antarctic-snow-cruiser

An Atlantic article with great photos of the cruiser:
http://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2016/01/the-antarctic-snow-cruiser-updated/424851/

Interview with someone who saw it in person:
https://web.archive.org/web/20070129102944/http://antarcticsun.usap.gov/oldissues99-2000/99_1024/byrdflop.html

Colour footage of the cruiser:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUXq8NWh5vg

With Byrd at the South Pole“- a documentary Byrd made (where I got most of the stock footage) that went on to be the first documentary to win an Oscar. – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nyv0Ss18Py4


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