Bombardier B-12 snow bus

Tisdale - Thursday, February 16, 2012

Travelling in rural Canada during the winter months can always be a challenge. During the first three decades of the twentieth century the prairie provinces had farm families on nearly every quarter section of land and villages were spaced seven miles apart on the network of railway lines. This meant that most rural Saskatchewan people did not travel much and when they did it was usually with horses and a cutter. When medical emergencies happened a trip by cutter was going to take nearly an hour to get the seven or eight miles to a doctor or for the doctor to get to the patient. Even when my brother was born in 1950 we were living in the tinny village of Kelso and Uncle Wesley picked us up with his cutter, with its little wood stove and on the night of January 24 we set out the eight miles into Wawota.

Similar conditions were present in much of Canada at the time and motorized transportation was pretty limited before the mid thirties and the depression meant that the cars of the time were getting old fast because no one could afford new ones. Municipal government just did not clear the roads in winter, fortunately farming with horses did not vanish with the arrival of the small farm tractors of the era.

But the mechanical world was evolving and through the twenties and thirties there were a few attempts to build machines that could cope with snow and ice. Really, none of them amounted to anything because Armand Bombardier from Valcourt Quebec nailed a design that is the template for mechanized snow travel. His first product was a wood enclosed vehicle with tracks in the back and skis in the front that carried seven people. He began selling his B-7 in 1937.

Through the war he was involved in making equipment for the war effort but in 1942 he produced a production model of the B-12. The B-12 was made of metal but followed the same design as the B-7 and he also built larger 18 passenger B-18 versions. Though they could be painted any colour the standard production model was a
shade of yellow not unlike the colour of school buses and for the same reason, visibility. I remember them being used in the mean winters of the fifties by Natural Resources, as ambulances, school buses, mail delivery and bus/taxi operators.

The standard of the time was powered by Chrysler “L” head six cylinder engines which were used in a wide variety of machines of the day including combines. In good conditions they would hustle along at 30 miles an hour and that was about three times as fast as a light team with a cutter. There were only 2,596 of these machines made between 1945 and 1951.

Wilfred McKillop operated a mail route from our village of Langbank and the Bombardier was out of reach financially for him but I remember the first snow machine to come to town in about 1954 or so. Wilfred ordered it from Winnipeg and it was a wooden contraption about the size of a fridge. It was red and had skis in the front and a canvas track with wood slats. He unpacked it at the station after it came in on the way-freight and we all gathered around to see him start it up and sail across the snow. Well, it started up with a cloud of blue smoke, Wilfred mounted the thing and it made about fifty feet before it ground to a halt with a broken slat on the canvas track there it sat for the rest of the day.

Armand Bombardier had a much better idea. He had used a continuous rubber track system on the B-12 and when in the early 50s he built his first single person machine it had rubber tracks with metal cleats and it worked. Of course it was painted yellow and by 1968 the “
Ski-doo” had defined the mode of transport both for fun and work.

The remarkable design of the snow bus was the key and when we looked over a restored machine today it was obvious this was a great invention.
(a nice review of the history of these types of machines)

The owner of this machine seen in these pictures is a fellow who knows how to build and restore things and this B-12 is a work of art. From it’s V-8 engine and automatic transmission to its propane heater and GPS, it is smooth, almost silent and left the airport across the snow with its suspension flattening the snowscape.

The interior is a far cry from the utilitarian vehicles that I had seen and this one has some cool features. A jackal jack slipped into place on the back bumper and a hefty electric winch on the bumper. Original equipment did not include a bumper, nor did they have the slick wire guides that parallel the nose, lights and windshield. When he gets bogged down in slush on a frozen lake (ice flows are common under the snow on all lakes) he has a cleverly designed drill bit to bore a hole in the ice, then a machine steel shaft to go into the hole with a ring on the top to hook onto the winch line. He runs the winch from the driver’s seat and pulls the vehicle ahead then without stopping drives away with the steel pin slipping out as he passes over it and away he goes.

The owner is working on a second machine in his shop but there are still some of these vintage vehicles for sale. I checked the web for them and did not actually find any but apparently machines do come up for sale. There are still
commercial operators who use them every winter and I consider myself lucky to have seen this one in action.