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Vintage Sled of the Month: The Eliason

Well, here we are. Another season here at Michigan Snowmobiler magazine. And, there have been a few changes here. First, after 53 years, the magazine has been sold. Now, on that, I am sad to see the end of an era. Lyle Shipe built this magazine into the finest snowmobile magazine in the country. He turned it into the icon of snowmobile publications.

But he went and got old and had to get out of the business. From there, his daughter Patti and son-in-law Bill Tisron took over. They kept up the tradition of excellence. Then, it came time for them to call it quits.

Now, a new company has taken over. Farago and Associates. They are a small company. But much bigger than we were. And, with their staff and resources, I see them taking this publication to the next level. So, I am very optimistic about the change.

As for this column, as you may know, it was started many years ago by my old friend and mentor Bud “The Professor” Knapp. Then, he went and got old. And a few years back, after he passed away, I took over.

Now, I am not “The Professor,” but the first sled I drove had the engine in the back. Not even a real “snowmobile.” More of a “powered toboggan.” So, I have a bit of history behind me as well. And, I have done my best to continue the tradition that Lyle and Bud started.

Vintage Sled of the Month: The Eliason

This month, with all the changes, I decided to go back to the beginning. What many are calling the first real snowmobile. Again, actually more of a “powered toboggan” than a “snowmobile” as we know it today. This is what many call the beginning of the modern snowmobile. The Eliason.

Now, if you ever have the chance to see one — one is displayed at the Top of the Lake Snowmobile Museum in Naubinway — you will be amazed.

It just barely resembles the snow sleds of today. It looks like the name suggests, a powered toboggan. And it is big. About 10 feet long. And relatively heavy. At least as heavy as most of today’s sleds, or even heavier.

It looks like what it is. Basically, Carl Eliason figured out how to put a motor on a toboggan. First, a bit from Carl himself: “I was raised in the northwoods and like to hunt, fish and trap as much as any outdoorsman. Because of my crippled foot, I could not keep up with my pals on treks through the snow. I fooled around with a Model T Ford and adapted it to skis, but it was to cumbersome and unworkable in our deep snow and unplowed roads. In those days, a lot of inventors were trying to devise a powered snow vehicle. My brother-in-law worked on a machine that would get its power from a wind propeller.

“In the winter of 1924, I started working on my ‘Motor Toboggan.’ In my mind, this would be the most practical means of transportation over the snow. The endless cleated track, the slide rails and the liquid-cooled power unit would prove to set a standard for the future. My machine would be granted a patent in 1927.

Vintage Sled of the Month: The Eliason
Gotta love a sled that come with a pair of snowshoes. In the days before cell phones, this was the “self rescue” option.

“With this machine, I was able to turn the tables on my hunting comrades, as long as there was snow on the ground. While they hoofed it on foot, I would ride and get to our hunting destination an hour ahead of them.”
OK, now, I am getting old. But not “that old.” I never knew Carl. Got this bit off a website hosted by the museum, dedicated to Carl and his invention. The website is simply “Eliason Snowmobiles.”

Now, those first machines had power. But not that much power. The first one had as a power unit a 2.5 hp outboard motor engine. For cooling, it had part of a Ford radiator.

But his real invention was the endless track and the slide rails. This allowed the thing to move along over the snow. As big and heavy as it was, it was still designed to go over the snow. With the size of the toboggan part of it, it tended to float on the snow. The cleated track propelled it forward. And there you were, scooting along over the snow.

Years later, another inventor would downsize this beast into what we now think of as a real snowmobile. That was J. Armand Bombardier. He took Carl’s invention and redesigned it into a recreational ride. But that is another story for another month.

And about that “airplane propeller thing.” That, too, was actually made. Seen them. They became the ancestors of today’s air sleds. A most cool version I have seen flying about on the lakes. Also, the old Model T Ford. That got some traction as well. Some postal workers used to use them to deliver the mail.

But, for the moment, if you get a chance, stop in at the Top of the Lake Snowmobile Museum in Naubinway and check out the Eliason. Plus, a lot of other cool old rides. Or take a trip over to Wisconsin and go to Sayner and check out the birthplace of snowmobiling. •

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