Revisiting the Antarctic Snow Cruiser, 1939’s Most Ambitious Ride

Impressive engineering, underwhelming performance

Antarctic Snow Cruiser
The Antarctic Snow Cruiser in 1940.
United States Antarctic Service

Sometimes when you’re looking to drive off-road, you need something that’s nimble and graceful and able to deftly cross hazardous terrain. And sometimes, you need a vehicle the size of a small building. In 1939, the Antarctic Snow Cruiser was unveiled. How did such a massive vehicle come about? And — given that the Antarctic Snow Cruiser is hardly a household name — what happened to it when it first ventured to the world’s southernmost continent?

Writing at Jalopnik, Erin Marquis has the story of one of the strangest vehicles ever made. Scientist and explorer Thomas Poulter worked on the project, along with the Research Foundation of the Armour Institute of Technology (now the Illinois Institute of Technology). The design process took 2 years, as the Snow Cruiser was designed to be a movable lab in which scientists could conduct experiments in the field. Marquis gives a good sense of the vehicle’s scale:

This monster measured 55 feet long, weighed more than 37 tons fully loaded, and cost $150,000 to build in 1939 dollars, which would make it a $2.7 million piece of equipment today. Its completely smooth 10-foot-tall tires were somehow meant to traverse ice crevasses.

Unfortunately, the Snow Cruiser wasn’t particularly good at moving around, on or off the ice. Getting it from Chicago to Boston involved numerous unforeseen obstacles, and once it reached Antarctica, its mobility issues continued. Eventually, it was abandoned in late 1940.

As Marquis recounts, the abandoned vehicle was visited by explorers several times in the years that followed, although by now the Antarctic Snow Cruiser is likely located underwater. Still, the sheer size of the thing — 10-foot-high tires! — is enough to impress, even if its field performance left something to be desired.

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