Stories

In Search of the Legendary Antarctic Snow Cruiser

written by Mark McKee

Known in the historical auto circles as the Snow Cruiser, this massive exploration machine represented the US's pre-WWII expansion into Antarctica. It caused tailbacks along a 1020-mile route stretching from Chicago to Boston. However, things didn't quite go according to plan.

Designed by physicist and explorer Thomas C. Poulter, and constructed by the Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago, the Snow Cruiser was staggeringly large; 17 meters in length, 6 meters wide, and 5 meters in height when standing atop impossibly large pneumatic tires – even by modern standards, this was a behemoth.

The Snow Cruiser was constructed in 11 weeks over the summer of 1939 for a cool $150,000 was the ultimate mobile Antarctic base. Poulter imagined that a mobile research center would be much safer and more effective, so he set out to build one.

Driven by four massive wheels and an early diesel-electric drivetrain, the Snow Cruiser had accommodations for five crew members and could move along at a speed of a face-melting 30 miles per hour when on solid ground. However, upon arriving in the Antarctic, the crew members discovered that it could not do that on snow. After disembarking the North Star, the smooth treadless tires couldn't find traction on the snow it was built for.

Where is the Snow Cruiser?

Driving in reverse to get better traction, the Snow Cruiser got to the Antarctic base called Little America III, near the Bay of Whales on the Ross Sea. This was where the ill-fated journey ended. The crew converted it to a stationary bunker until 1941 when it was marked by a few bamboo poles and abandoned due to the onset of WWII along with the rest of Little America III.

Explorers spotted the Cruiser in 1946, slowly being buried in the snow and ice. A crew spotted its signal poles in 1958 and dug down to it with a bulldozer. The Snow Cruiser disappeared forever.

Unfortunately, finding the Snow Cruiser today in Antarica's ever-changing landscape is more complicated. The ice shelf where Little America III was last seen fractured long ago, breaking apart several massive icebergs. One of them carried visible debris from the camp that sailors spotted on the USS Edisto in 1963 in the Ross Sea. 

Two dedicated researchers revealed exciting findings of its final resting place. Ted Scambos and Clarence Novak published their evidence and theories in an academic paper in 2005 to share their hypothesis.

According to the paper, this large chunk of ice floated about 18km from the coast. Still, Scambos and Novak think it's unlikely the Snow Cruiser was on it, saying "the relative position of the aircraft hangars, poles, and Snow Cruiser [based on a map of the area made in 1941] makes it almost certain that the Snow Cruiser had separated from the Edisto berg at some earlier time."

It's much more likely that the lost Snow Cruiser resides on a smaller iceberg around the Bay of Whales or had already separated from the Edisto berg earlier. From there, the iceberg carrying the Snow Cruiser would've likely drifted north or west along the coast of the shelf, banging into the shelf as it went and slowly eroding. 

The paper notes these two paths are common for bergs from the Bay of Whales to take, citing several examples of ice taking this route in the past. This leads Scambos and Novak to think the Snow Cruiser, at some point in 1962, was deposited from an iceberg into the ocean somewhere along the Ross Ice Shelf. However, the machine is lost in ice, which means its current hiding places are constantly changing and migrating, making it seemingly impossible to find.