Snowmobiling's Early Days: The Harley Davidson Story

Since the original invention of the snowmobile in the 1930’s by French-Canadian inventor Joseph-Armand Bombardier, the machine best suited for both work and play on the Arctic tundra has seen many iterations. Here we learn a little more about the short-lived yet notorious arrival of the infamous Harley Davidson to the snowmobile marketplace.

The Harley Davidson journey into snowmobiling began with AMF (American Machine & Foundry) in 1966. In this year, AMF introduced the fantastically named ‘Sno-Clipper’ & ‘Ski-Daddler’ to the American market, powered by a single cylinder engine and sporting a spritely 15.2 horsepower engine with speeds up to 40mph: the image from the 1968 AMF brochure depicts the perfect family-friendly option.

In 1969, AMF acquired the Harley Davidson brand and shortly after, in 1972 the Ski-Daddler was transformed into the first HD snowmobile, named the Y398. With the transformation came the introduction of a 2 stroke parallel engine (a modern version is often found in snowmobiles today) and a consistent 30mph was readily available. The engineering features of the Harley Davidson Y-series weren’t the highlight of this product however. As a well-known brand, and a big player in the American automobile market even then, it is no surprise that the marketing campaigns and accompanying apparel for the Y-series machines were the real highlight. 

‘When it snows, we reign’ was the tagline and initial sales proved promising for the Y-series machines. Also available at the point of sale were a number of essential accessories, including an all in one suit (not dissimilar to the thermal suits provided to our guests today) and crash helmets all in matching colour schemes to the snowmobile livery, which was carefully designed by William G Davidson – the former Chief Styling Officer of the company. With the opportunity to add features such as a built in cigarette lighter (the precursor to the modern day USB port…) and adjustable ‘chopper’ style handlebars the Harley Davidson ensured the snowmobile did not stray far from the brands motorcycle heritage. 

Production of the Y-series ran from 1971-1975, and the number of machines on the market reached the tens of thousands. Alas, with Harley Davidson focused on other marketplaces and with the snowmobile industry developing quickly in line with the new demands of both the American and European markets, in 1975 production was terminated. Today, a few of the original and restored Y-Series can be found on display in various museums across Lapland. 

The Harley Davidson snowmobile may be consigned to museums, but you can still traverse the Arctic tundra of Lapland on one of its descendants. Transun’s Snowmobile Voyager tour runs from January – March.

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