27 May 2016

This is how an explorer’s lost Model T-based Snowmobile is being resurrected

In a snowy northeastern Canadian forest, scattered bits of a Ford Model T were discovered. As discoveries of long-neglected vehicles go, this one hardly seems worth mentioning. After all, between 1908 and ’27, over 14 million were produced.

But this 1927 roadster pickup had a significant history. It had been converted to a snowmobile—skis in front and tracks in back—using a kit available in the 1920s. In fact, this wasn’t so unusual; according to the Model T Ford Snowmobile Club, one Virgil T. White designed the conversion, sold through Ford dealers, which transformed any Model T into what he copyrighted as a Snowmobile.

Such a snowmobile conversion was the ideal machine for an explorer named Donald B. MacMillan. Sailing north from Maine, along with his Snowmobile aboard the schooner Bowdoin, MacMillan embarked on a sub-Arctic expedition in 1927. He was headed to a northern part of Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada known as the Big Land.

Upon landing, the snowmobile was used to explore Inuit and Innu villages and for hauling wood to heat the building that housed the explorers. The T was abandoned in 1928, though, a result of mechanical problems, but not before it made a lasting impression on Labrador, where dog teams or walking had been the modes of travel.

The Model T was located in 2011 by Jamie Brake, an archeologist on the Nunatsiavut government team. Plans were made in 2013 to record and extract the dismantled, but historically significant, hulk, with an eye on restoration. “In the fall we went out and set up an excavation grid and mapped everything,” Brake said. “We treated it the same as any other archeological site.”

Smaller parts were unearthed during the warmer months with extraction of larger pieces put off until winter. Moving powertrain and chassis by canoe would have been dangerous, so the team put everything above ground on logs and returned in the winter of 2014. Traditional-style komatik sleds and modern snowmobiles were used to move the heavier parts over sea ice and back to Nain in Labrador.

“A lot of that machine was still there,” Brake said. “The radiator was missing but we knew where it was. It was in excellent condition, in an old trading post not that far from the site.”
 
Word got out even before the powertrain and chassis were recovered, and the restoration effort gained momentum. The worlds of archeology and Model T Ford restoration joined forces in an international effort to get the snowmobile back in action. Ford Model T groups, along with the Model T Snowmobile community, offered to help with everything from parts and plans to scale models of a White Snowmobile. Frank Noseworthy, a machinist and restorer based in Port au Choix, Nfld., stepped up for the powertrain and body work.

The school principal in Nain got the wood shop students involved, first in building crates for shipping the powertrain and chassis and later for fabricating a new wood bed, floor and bracing parts. Noseworthy was able sort out why the engine quit almost a century earlier: A valve failure led to an improvised fix, which in turn failed. He also determined the rear end was a Model TT truck unit.

The ongoing restoration is nearing completion. The engine, transmission and differential are back in the chassis and the body work is largely complete. The missing wooden wheels were recreated. Once finished, the machine will return to Nain for a new mission. “The plan is to display the snowmobile and teach people about Labrador heritage and culture by using it, rather than having just an old rusty thing in a museum,” Brake said.

1 Reader Comment

  • 1
    Robert Geiser WI May 30, 2016 at 01:01
    In the forties and early fifties there was a similar machine setting in the orchard on the farm where I grew up. Unfortunately my father and uncle cut it up for scrap. Your picture and other information was interesting.

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