Revved up: Saving a piece of snowmobile history

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 23, 2013 - 7:32 AM

Snowmobile collectors and fans from across the United States will gather this weekend at Lake Waconia to show off and inspect some 800 vintage sleds dating to the 1950s.

After several hearty yanks on the starter cord, the 1972 Brut snowmobile sputtered loudly to life, spewing a cloud of blue smoke.

Ron Ebbers revved the ear-piercing, two-stroke engine, then motored out of his garage onto a patch of crusted snow to exercise the lightning-quick blaze-orange sled -- one of 100 vintage snow machines he owns.

"I've always loved snowmobiles,'' the 69-year-old Ebbers of Hector, Minn., said this week in his heated shop, where he displays about 40 of his restored or preserved sleds, some dating back to the birth of snowmobiling. "And I love all the old vintage sleds -- they're so unique. Today's are all pretty much alike.''

Ebbers, a former snowmobile seller and racer, is among a growing number of enthusiasts intent on preserving old snowmobiles and snowmobile lore -- an industry Minnesotans helped launch. He will be among about 5,000 fans from around the nation who will gather this weekend at the Waconia Ride-In at Lake Waconia -- billed as the world's largest vintage and antique snowmobile event. Upwards of 800 old machines, some dating to the 1950s, will be driven or displayed, including a handful owned by Ebbers.

Old snowmobiles and snowmobile parts also will be peddled, and there are races, a banquet and more. For Ebbers and pal Jack Speckel, 72, of Watertown, who owns 45 vintage Arctic Cats, the Waconia show is the crème de la crème of such events.

"They'll drive here from all over ... New York, Montana, California, Oregon,'' said Speckel, sitting on one of Ebbers' machines. "This is the highlight.''

The event started 23 years ago with just a handful of snowmobiles.

"Part of it is nostalgia,'' said Valdi Stefanson, 59, of Stacy, who owns 45 vintage sleds. But the other is affordability. "You can buy one of these old machines for $400 or $500,'' he said. "A new snowmobile is over $10,000. That's why the vintage segment continues to grow. These machines are coming out of barns and sheds.''

Stefanson, Speckel and Ebbers are members of the Midwest Vintage Snowmobile Shows, a nonprofit group that puts on the Waconia show, with help from several local snowmobile clubs. Money raised from admittance fees is distributed to the clubs.

'It just snowballed'

For Ebbers, his snowmobile addiction started in 1966 when he bought his first sled, a new Johnson Skee-Horse. "They did 14 or 15 miles per hour, tops,'' he said.

The snow-machine industry was in its infancy; literally everybody and their brother started making and selling them. At the peak more than 100 companies made them, including outboard motor-makers Evinrude and Johnson, as well as tractor-makers John Deere and Massey Ferguson and even motorcycle-maker Harley Davidson. More than 30 companies produced machines with "Snow" or "Sno" as part of their name.

"Sears, Montgomery Ward and J.C. Penney even had snowmobiles,'' Speckel said.

But the oil crisis in the 1970s extinguished many dreams, and today oly four snowmobile manufacturers are left: Arctic Cat and Polaris, (both headquartered in Minnesota), Yamaha (California) and Ski-Doo (Canada).

Ebbers raced snowmobiles from 1969 to 1975, and sold them until 1983. But after his wife died in 2004, he started buying vintage sleds and restoring them. One led to another, and pretty soon he had dozens.

"It just snowballed,'' Ebbers said with a grin. "It's a disease.''

Among his favorites:

• A 1973 Brut (made in Brooten, Minn.) 440cc three-cylinder. "It was the first water-cooled machine,'' he said. "It was top of the line. I fell in love with it.'' The company made Bruts for just two years.

• A 1971 Arctic Cat Lynx, with the trademark leapord skin-patterened seat, was used in the 1972 Disney movie "Snowball Express.''

• A 1967 Es-kee-mo Scout, a blunt-nosed, baby-blue machine with twin headlights that was made in Canada. The single-cylinder sled produced only about 15 horsepower. "I've only seen maybe three of these,'' he said. "It's different.''

• A 1966 Johnson Skee-Horse, a twin-cylinder, in classic Johnson green paint. "It's exactly like my first snowmobile,'' Ebbers said.

• A 1972 AMF Ski-Daddler 340cc racing machine, orange and blue, with exposed twin carburetors facing the driver. "If you leaned too hard into a turn they would suck in your snowmobile suit and stall the engine,'' he said. It's in original condition.

Ebbers doesn't own a modern snowmobile anymore. "I like working on the old ones; the new ones are all computerized,'' he said.

So when it gets the urge, he climbs on one of his vintage sleds. "It's still to fun to ride these old things,'' he said.

Doug Smith • dsmith@startribune.com Twitter: @dougsmithstrib

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  • Chart: Waconia Ride-In at-a-glance

    Tuesday January 22, 2013

    Some 5,000 people from across the nation are expected to attend what is billed as the world's largest vintage and antique snowmobile event this weekend at Waconia. Here are details:

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