In the decade of the Great Depression, Americans wanted desperately to believe that science and invention would bring us a gee-whiz, Buck Rogers world. Feeding this dream were Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines, whose covers often featured gigantic, amazing machines of the future.
Very few of these imaginative designs ever came to fruition. One, however, managed to make it past the drawing board: the Antarctic Snow Cruiser.
Created to drive to the South Pole and (not coincidentally) claim a large chunk of Antarctica in the name of the United States, the Snow Cruiser was designed from 1937 to 1939 under the direction of Thomas Poulter. Poulter had been second in command of Byrd’s Second Antarctic Expedition, launched in 1934. From his time in the Antarctic, Poulter had devised several innovative features for his monster vehicle. However, despite two years in the planning, the construction was hurried along in a mere 11 weeks, to meet Byrd’s schedule.
Some specifications: the Antarctic Snow Cruiser was 55 feet long, at the time the largest motor vehicle ever built. Fully loaded, it weighed 37 tons. It had a nominal 5,000-mile range and could carry supplies for a crew of four for a year. Its cost was $150,000, nearly $3 million in 2021 dollars. It carried 2500 gallons of diesel for powering itself, as well as 1000 gallons of fuel for the attached Beechcraft Staggerwing Scout bi-plane, used to conduct aerial surveys.
There was literally zero testing before the completed Cruiser went on its less-than-merry way. On October 24, 1939, the vehicle was fired up for the first time at the Pullman Company just south of Chicago, and began the 1,020-mile journey to the Boston Army Wharf. What little testing there was would take place en route. There was much fanfare and enthusiasm at the sendoff, most of which would soon fade as it took to the road.
Various systems – brakes, electrical, and more – soon began to fail. A stuck steering unit sent the behemoth reeling into a ditch in Ohio. The four tire-mounted engines were woefully underpowered to propel a vehicle that size, and the Cruiser rarely made it above 20 mph. Tow trucks had to help it up hills. The trip ended up taking weeks longer than planned.
The route of travel was laid out to have the “Penguin,” as it was unofficially called, make a stop in Albany. The city was ready with bells and whistles. The district managers of the American Oil Company, and Goodyear were preparing to have their photos taken next to the vehicle which their companies had a hand creating.
The Snow Cruiser lumbered slowly out of Western New York. Crowds gathered everywhere it went.
Thousands of school children came out see the Cruiser as it rolled through Cherry Valley. One youth was caught trying to dig out a piece of the vehicle’s armor with a can opener, and other kids managed to scribble their names on it. Additional State Police were brought in to guard from souvenir hunters.
Because it was the width of a two-lane highway, and then some (its hubs extended a foot beyond the pavement), all traffic in both directions had to be cleared hours in advance. During its frequent breakdowns, local traffic along the route was brought to a complete standstill (the traffic jam as it neared its Boston terminus involved 70,000 vehicles).
As the Cruiser inched along, both the Times-Union and the Knickerbocker News incorrectly guesstimated the arrival date of the South Pole rover. They were also mistaken in reporting it would stop over at the Plaza in downtown Albany, which it never did.
On November 11, 1931, after taking seven hours for the 50-mile trip from Richmond Springs, the Antarctic Snow Cruiser limped into Schenectady at 11:30 a.m. It had promised General Electric – a major contractor – that it would make a stop in that city. It was parked on Rice Road, near the WGY radio studios, where Dr. Thomas C. Poultier, its builder and chief operator, was interviewed.
After just one hour, the Cruiser again took to the road, crawling over Erie Boulevard to Union Street, then taking the Troy-Schenectady road to Latham Traffic Circle, down to Loudonville and Menands roads to Broadway, and over the Menands Bridge into South Troy, where it made a brief stop. After leaving Troy, the cruiser took the East Greenbush road to Pittsfield, just outside of which the crew planned an overnight stop before tackling the hairpin turns of the Berkshires. The Penguin arrived in Boston on November 15, 1939, where it was loaded aboard Admiral Byrd and his expedition’s ship, the North Star.
And it never came to Albany. One can only imagine that the crew – hopelessly behind schedule – was in no mood for any more time-consuming detours. We was robbed!
Once unloaded at its ultimate destination. the Antarctic Snow Cruiser would prove to be the giant boondoggle its overland route had promised. It was underpowered and its smooth tires provided almost no traction in the deep snow. It would only move in reverse, and its longest journey ended up being 92 miles, all in reverse. The airplane soon blew a rod and had to be removed.
The near-useless Cruiser was finally parked and used as a base camp. As Byrd’s expedition wound to a close in 1941, it was abandoned and left to the elements.
I really haven’t done justice to the full story of the Antarctic Snow Cruiser. I highly recommend this YouTube video about its history:
There’s also a nice color home movie of its appearance at Westfield, NY:
Alan Taylor of The Atlantic dug out an amazing series of photos from the National Archives: