Going totally dieselpunk with the Antarctic Snow Cruiser

Picture the scene: you’re standing on an ice-shelf in Antaractica circa 1940 and suddenly spot a huge orange-red vehicle approaching on just four 10-foot high balloon tyres. It’s got a small aircraft on its back. And it’s absolutely enormous: 16 feet high, 20 feet wide and 55 feet long – a giant of a vehicle straight out of Flash Gordon.

This sounds like a bonkers dieselpunk fantasy – the sort of vehicle somebody might build in 1/72 scale and plop into an Antarctic diorama. We can imagine such a diorama would also feature the inevitable secret Nazi base. Except it isn’t. The Antarctic Snow Cruiser, aka Penguin 1, actually existed. The Nazis had a bit to do with it, to the extent that German interest in the Antarctic sub-continent was growing during the 1930s and, inevitably, the other major powers also felt they needed to get involved.

It was against this background that Richard Byrd explored the Antarctic continent during the 1930s for the United States Antarctic Service. He planned a new research base – Little America III – for the end of the decade. The main problem for some of the long-range science they intended was transport; dog-sleds were practical but limited. Vehicles had been tried on the ice since the early twentieth century, but without much success.

Enter Thomas Poulter (1897-1978), an engineer and Antarctic explorer, who thought the answer was a mobile laboratory, optimised to meet the challenging conditions. In 1939, as Byrd’s plans came together, Poulter pitched the idea in Washington and got the green light; the estimated $150,000 build cost was funded by the Armour Institute of Technology and what became known as the Antarctic Snow Cruiser was constructed by the Pullman Company, near Chicago, during mid-late 1939.

Poulter’s design had many innovations for the day, not least being its diesel-electric propulsion; two 11 litre Cummings H-6 diesels drove a generator providing electricity to four 56 kW motors. Engine coolant was circulated through the walls to keep the crew warm. Aside from sleeping quarters it contained a combined kitchen/darkroom and a small machine shop. There was also – wait for it – an aircraft pad atop, designed to carry a Beechcraft that could be lowered to the ice for takeoff. This mammoth vehicle was designed to cruise across the ice for months while keeping its crew toasty warm inside, occasionally retracting its four huge wheels into the wheel bays to bathe them in exhaust gases and keep the rubber from cracking under the cold. That same retraction system could also be used, in a complex procedure, to help the vehicle get over crevasses.

The completed vehicle was driven, under its own power, from near Chicago to Boston, despite being over-size. The journey was a media sensation: 125,000 people jammed Route 30 to see it pass. It only crashed once, when the steering failed. Finally, in November 1939, the Snow Cruiser was loaded on the North Star for the trip to Antarctica. That had its own problems; the 37-ton vehicle was heavy deck cargo.

That weight nearly caused it to crash while being unloaded; the men built a wooden ramp to get it from the ship to the ice – but the Snow Cruiser broke through. Here’s a clip of the accident, in Kodacolour:

The next problem was that the tyres lacked traction on the ice. In an effort to cure the problem Byrd’s men tried adding two spare wheels outside the front pair. Eventually they discovered that the machine got better traction when driven backwards. But it was also under-powered, and never did roam the sub-continent. It was instead converted into a static laboratory at the base.

The cruiser was left there when the US Antarctic effort was cancelled in early 1941. It was rediscovered by US explorers in 1946, apparently in near-perfect condition, then re-rediscovered in 1958, by which time it was buried in snow. What happened next is unclear. There were rumours that the Soviets captured it. The more likely outcome is that it was lost at sea in the mid-1960s when part of the ice-shelf carrying the Little America base broke away, potentially carrying the cruiser with it.

Ultimately the whole idea of a huge 37-ton vehicle roaming the sub-continent for months on end just didn’t work. It wasn’t until 1957-58 that the massive Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition successfully operated long-range vehicles on the ice – deploying Tucker Sno-Cats, M-29 Weasels and slightly modified Ferguson TE-20 farm tractors in an epic motorised crossing of the sub-continent. The tractors were meant to be for backup, but ended up reaching the pole first thanks, basically, to cheek. However, that is another story.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019

6 thoughts on “Going totally dieselpunk with the Antarctic Snow Cruiser

  1. I was born in 1924… or was that 1984? Either way it’s close enough. And there were big red things in my day as well. Namely communism. And then that ended in 1991. And then everything got great. And if you do “Tucker Sno-Cats, M-29 Weasels” – weasels are never going to do anything.

    Er, I sometimes wish my brain was scientific. Or mathematical. Like yourself, sir, so I can figure some of this stuff out. But I really only ever did well at uni with English. And they made me read Beer Wolf. So it goes.

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