The Antarctic Snow Cruiser was a massive 55-foot land vehicle, built for facilitating Antarctic exploration. It was designed between 1937 and 1939 by scientist and explorer Thomas Poulter. When fully loaded, the behemoth weighed 75,000 pounds or 34,000 kilograms. Also called by nicknames such as “The Penguin” and “Turtle,” the Snow Cruiser was a force to be reckoned with. Despite being one of the greatest engineering legends in the history of America, the vehicle failed to operate as well as it should have. Missing in action to this day, the Antarctic Snow Cruiser was eventually abandoned. It is now buried in a deep layer of snow and ice.
The design and construction of the Snow Cruiser was nothing short of an engineering marvel. It was built to support Admiral Byrd’s third Antarctic expedition.
Thomas C. Poulter had previously been second-in-command in the second Antarctic Expedition, led by Admiral Byrd. During his time in Antarctica, he learned all about the continent’s treacherous terrains and hazardous conditions. This first-hand knowledge helped him to devise several innovative features for the Snow Cruiser. Backed by The Research Foundation of the Armour Institute of Technology, Poulter first showed the plans to Washington D.C. officials on 29 April 1939. With funding from The Research Foundation, the project finally began on 8 August 1939. After 11 weeks, the construction was completed, and the vehicle was loaned to the United States Antarctic Service.
The exact length of the Antarctic Snow Cruiser was 55 feet 9 inches or 17.0 meters, and it had a width of 19 feet 11 inches or 6.06 meters. The vehicle stood on 10-foot-tall pneumatic tires which could be extended and retracted. When the wheels were extended, the Snow Cruiser had a height of 16 feet. With the wheels retracted, it stood 12 feet tall. With a range of 5,000 miles and a maximum speed of 30 mph, the vehicle was set to explore the Antarctic wilderness. Back then, the estimated cost of the construction was $300,000, which is equivalent to $5.4 million today.
The Snow Cruiser had many innovative features. For example, it could be turned into a cabin capable of housing a crew of five people. It was also designed to be self-sufficient for 12 months under extremely harsh conditions.
After retracting the tires and wheels, the vehicle could be used as housing for the crew members. The cabin had different compartments for a control room, food storage, fuel storage, and a kitchen and darkroom combo. Even the tires could be retracted back into the vehicle, where engine exhaust gases would keep them warm and protect the natural rubber compound from low-temperature cracking. The primary fuel storage was under the floor, and it could hold up to 2,500 US gallons of fuel.
Driving the mammoth vehicle on the tricky Antarctic terrain was more than challenging. That is why the Snow Cruiser was fitted with long overhangs in the front and back. They would be used when crossing crevasses that were up to 15 feet wide. However, it was a complicated process involving 20 different steps. The roof of the vehicle had a pad for holding a small, five-passenger aircraft such as the Beechcraft biplane, which was to be used for conducting aerial surveys. There was also additional fuel storage on the roof that had a capacity of 1,000 US gallons. The additional fuel was for the plane.
Engine coolant was used for heating up the cabin. In fact, the heating system was so efficient that the crew needed only light blankets when indoors. When the engine was turned off, batteries would be used for keeping the electricity going. The Snow Cruiser had a diesel-electric drivetrain, which required smaller engines and left more room for the crew. Though diesel-electric powertrains are heavily used today in modern mining trucks, it was first put into use by the Antarctic Snow Cruiser.
The Snow Cruiser, along with the United States Antarctic Service Expedition, arrived in Little America in 1940. Upon arrival, they faced a series of problems, which led to the abandonment of the vehicle.
In January of 1940, the United States Antarctic Service Expedition brought the Snow Cruiser to Little America which was one of the many Antarctic exploration bases located in the Bay of Whales. The crew used a ramp made of timber for unloading the large vehicle. However, while unloading from the ship, one of the Cruiser’s wheels broke through the wooden ramp. Being an innovator, Poulter was able to power the vehicle so that it could be freed from the ramp. Sadly, he was unable to make the Cruiser move through the ice and snow.
The large tires were smooth and tread-less, and they provided insufficient forward movement. The tires even sank three feet into the snow when trying to move forward. Despite using two spare tires on the front wheels and installing chains on the back wheels, the crew was unable to produce enough traction. However, they found that the required traction was achieved when driving the vehicle backward. So, they started driving the Snow Cruiser in reverse and covered 92 miles like that.
By making F. Alton Wade in charge of the crew, Poulter left for the United States towards the end of January 1940. At the base, the scientists conducted cosmic-ray measurements, seismologic experiments, and ice-core sampling. After World War II broke out, the focus shifted from the Antarctic exploration to the war. Soon, funding was canceled and the Snow Cruiser was abandoned in Antarctica.
The vehicle was briefly discovered in late 1946 by an expedition team. The Snow Cruiser was buried under several feet of ice and snow.
In late 1946 during Operation Highjump, a team of researchers found the Snow Cruiser in Antarctica. They reported that the vehicle only needed some basic servicing and air in the tires to be operational. Again, in 1958, during an international expedition, a bulldozer was used to excavate the vehicle from underneath a deep layer of snow. Surprisingly, the inside of the Cruiser was just as the original crew members had left it.
However, in later expeditions, researchers were unable to find the vehicle. Some suspected the Soviet Union to have stolen the Cruiser during the Cold War. However, it is most likely buried deep into the ice and snow or at the bottom of the Southern Ocean.