The Antarctic Snow Cruiser was a majestic marvel. It was designed to roam the savage, frozen wilderness of Antarctica, whilst remaining impervious to ice, blizzard, and crevasse. In reality, it proved to be little more than a very expensive, wheeled portacabin.

Dr Thomas C Poulter, Director of the prestigious Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago, knew what the end of the world looked like. He’d been there as part of Admiral Byrd’s second Antarctic expedition in 1934. His experience inspired him to improve working conditions and travel in the inhospitable region. His vision was for a vehicle that provided not just surefooted transport, but a mobile operations base to maximise the time spent in exploration.

Poulter thought big. The Snow Cruiser was big. By 1939 standards it was enormous. It was an Industrial Deco Goliath, with shades of Henry Dreyfuss streamlining in its styling. It resembled something from a Flash Gordon script, or a Dan Dare comic. It was perfect for an episode of Thunderbirds.

Weighing in at thirty seven tons with a range of 5000 miles and a purported top speed of 30mph, it stood sixteen feet high, was fifty five feet long and a girthy, twenty feet wide. It was packed with cutting edge technology, a diesel electric hybrid no less, featuring a pair of Cummins diesel motors providing power to four General Electric 75HP electric motors driving the wheels. It had four wheel steering, four wheel drive, and hydraulic suspension enabling you to raise and lower the wheels independently to traverse a crevasse. The driver’s cab was perched above an insulated, heated, living space that incorporated a radio room, galley and photography dark room, living quarters machine shop, and a sizeable pantry. You could travel, eat, sleep, and work inside, staying toasty and warm, while it most likely blew a gale outdoors.

That wasn’t all; It came with its own aeroplane, a Beechcraft Staggerwing, parked on the roof. You could send American Biggles off in his ‘crate’ to have a look at the ice fields ahead, while you had a leisurely bacon sandwich- except you couldn’t, because this was an American expedition, and everyone knows Americans do ungodly things to bacon.

Dr Poulter it seemed, had thought of everything. Everything that is, except Hitler.

A Third Reich expedition was busy, claiming great swathes of previously unexplored Antarctic territory Alarm bells sounded in Washington. A huge expedition was organized. Poulter was given a rapid green light , over three million dollars in todays money, and a ludicrous time scale to build the cruiser. The unseemly rush would set in motion a cross between a French farce and a classic Harold Lloyd caper.

 Poulter was given just six months for his paper design to set sail. He was doomed from the start, with no time to experiment or evaluate. He faced terrible compromises. The powertrain was underpowered. The tyres he wanted were unavailable. He had to settle for treadless Goodyears from a large swamp buggy. A brief foray to some tame sand dunes in Indiana suggested it worked… on sand.

Against the odds and in just eleven weeks, Poulter rolled out his three million dollar baby to an awed public. With no means of transporting the leviathan, it was required to drive from Chicago to Boston, a thousand odd miles, in eight days.
It took three weeks.

The cruiser’s purported top speed for Antarctic travel was a lolloping 30mph. It averaged 10mph on tarmac whilst guzzling gallons of diesel far in excess of predictions. Chugging towards Boston, its elephantine proportions jammed up pre interstate US roads, allowing it to claim a new record for the longest traffic jam in US history It was said the tailback behind the cruiser reached seventy miles.

Along the route the cruiser was hit by a truck in Indiana,  then it broke a fuel pump. At Fort Wayne it had to pause due to heavy rain: Slippery stuff, rain, especially on smooth, balloon tyres. It inched over and under tight bridges ( one took three hours)  before it plunged, literally, deep into potato country. In Gomer, Ohio, a hydraulic line failed and it ran into a bridge, careered off the road, and stuffed itself nose first into a ditch. Designed to traverse ice fields, and the worst Antarctica could throw at it, the cruiser lay beached, as stodgy and static as America’s most highly regarded indigenous vegetable. No amount of four wheel drive or trick, hydraulic wiggling could shift it. Men with shovels were pictured trying to dig it out.

Weeks late, the cruiser chugged into Boston harbour ready to board the North Star expedition ship. The ship’s Captain took one look and refused to load it, fearing its weight and bulk could destabilise his vessel in rough seas. Byrd was painfully aware of how many tax dollars had been sunk into the cruiser. With the US State Dept, Treasury Dept, government goons and Press jackals looking on, Admiral Byrd pulled rank on the Captain. Now all he had to do was get it on board.
It didn’t fit. They had to dismantle part of it just to squeeze it onto the deck.

 Byrd arrived in the Bay of Whales in January 1940. With film crew rolling, Poulter eased the thirty plus tons of cruiser off the ship via a ramshackle arrangement of timbers forming a ramp. For a moment in time preserved for ever on celluloid, the cruiser lurched over as the ramp collapsed under its weight. In a desperate attempt to avert the brute rolling onto its side, Poulter gunned the engine. Byrd, standing statesmanlike on the cruiser’s roof, was flung from one end of the machine to the other, a headlong comedy pratfall was only prevented by the protuberance of the drivers cab.

You have to give Byrd credit. Like a politician who has just been egged, he recovers swiftly and waves with gusto to the camera crew. ‘Nothing to see here, everything is fine!’

Everything was far from fine. The cruiser couldn’t gain traction on the ice and snow. Designed to climb inclines of 37 degrees, the huge smooth tyres spun uselessly on anything other than a flat, hard pack surface.Soft snow confounded it completely. Crisis management saw the spare wheels added to one set of the driving wheels. It made little difference. The ship was raided for chains which were fitted to the tyres. They didn’t help much. Dreams of conquering a continent were fading. The giant machine floundered about on the ice like a morbidly obese baby seal. Desperate experimentation discovered it could cover ground, albeit very slowly, and only in reverse.

Poulter admitted defeat. The Cruiser was parked up, used only as a work space and spare accommodation. The internal heater was apparently very good. In 1941, war efforts curtailed the expedition. Byrd sailed away, leaving the cruiser to the elements.He dropped by in 1946. The cruiser, deeply buried in snow, was in excellent condition. In 1958 An international expedition had a peek, finding it still perfectly preserved.

Five years later a US Icebreaker spotted the Little America camp floating out to sea. The ice shelf had split. Researchers believed the Snow Cruiser went with it. Mother Nature enabled it to venture further across the Antarctic than it ever achieved under its own power.

Recently some clever science chaps have done some equations on wind and sea movements of the broken ice shelf, identifying an area where they believe the Snow Cruiser might be. The depth of water means that, should anyone be bold enough to look for it, recovery is feasible. The frigid waters make it likely the cruiser will still be in good condition. Somebody, please find it and bring it back. Stick it on a plinth and put the aeroplane on top. Its bold concept, Deco style, and advanced technology for the time, make it a unique, wondrous flop that remains to this day, utterly fabulous.


Image Credits. Wiki Public Domain , AP,

CC Shirley US Antarctic Service – (terrific pictures and detail)

YouTube Calum Snow Cruiser, and webpage Calum Gillies – Byrd’s tricky disembarkation


About The Author

Steve Swanson

Steve turns any opportunity to write about cars into a roadtrip. It's seen him ride shotgun in a Bentley Blower with Clive Cussler, and cross paths with automotive YouTubers in Canada and the US. His work has been published in Magneto, Classic Cars, Classic American and some magazines that no MotorPunk reader has ever heard of. When he's not writing or driving you can find him kicking tyres at seedy auctions and hawking junk optimistically described as Automobilia

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