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Restoring snowmobile history

Posted: August 28, 2014 - 3:52pm

CASPER, Wyo. — One of the snowmobiles looks a little like a 1970s space-pod with tracks.

A rider sits inside, like a car, and the roof is convertible. The power comes from one, big wide track.

Another machine was made to convert a motorcycle to a snowmobile. You read that right. The wheels come off and the frame attaches with a single bar to the tracks.

“I bought it from a guy in the Pedro Mountains,” said Casper snowmobile collector Scott Custer. “When I first found it, I didn’t know what it was.”

The two oddities are only a few of the machines in Custer’s expansive 70-plus antique snowmobile collection. He and his older brother, Lonny Custer, spent nearly two decades buying, selling, digging up and salvaging snowmobiles made between the 1960 and the late ‘80s. Twice a year, they would drag out the best ones for shows around the state.

Lonny, 51, died earlier this year after a battle with cancer, leaving behind an unfinished 1984 John Deere Sprintfire he always wanted to see restored. Custer plans to finish the machine by this weekend, just in time to show the public.

The Rocky Mountain Antique Snowmobile Association’s annual summer show in Casper, this year held Aug. 30-31 in memory of Custer’s brother. Up to 20 collectors were expected to show off their fully-restored winter machines. It’s like a car show, only the displays fit in a hotel ballroom.

“Sleds used to be a winter thing, and now they’re year round. They are in tractor shows or car shows or motorcycle shows,” Custer said. “Too many get crushed up and used up and destroyed and are gone. You keep the ones that have significance to someone or interesting history.”

The first snowmobile was a Ford Model T plopped on top of a track with skis in the front, said Lewis Diehl, Riverton historian and founding member of the Rocky Mountain Antique Snowmobile Association. People used it in fields in the winter to help with livestock or other farming needs

“That was such a good idea, they took it down and made it smaller and used boat motors and things like that,” Diehl said. “It became so much fun they needed to make them lighter.”

For the next several decades, companies popped up, made a few sleds, and mostly went defunct. At one point, more than 350 companies made snowmobiles in the U.S., Custer said, even though some of them may have only made 10 or 15 machines before going out of business.

Companies thought of good ideas, such as snowmobiles with floatation that allows them to move easily on the top of snow, and not so good ideas, like when they put skis on the back instead of the front, Diehl said.

Diehl started collecting the machines when he worked as a snowmobile dealer. About 25 years ago, he and another Riverton collector decided they should hold a show to display their unique finds and explain some of the machines’ histories. When they received enough interest from other snowmobile enthusiasts, they started the vintage snowmobile association.

The shows give snowmobilers a place to see other machines, but also offers the general public a look at a piece of American history. Owners often not only restore the sleds, they also collect advertising brochures, helmets, jackets and other memorabilia.

Shows aren’t museums, exactly, but they offer almost as much information, Custer said.

Restoring old snowmobiles is the same as restoring old cars, trucks, or other machines, said Tony Crnkovich, president of the association.

Only the costs of entry into the hobby are quite a bit lower. A restored vintage snowmobile could be as low as $1,000, with some of the nicer ones ranging between $5,000 and $6,000.

Classic cars, on the other hand, can cost significantly more.

Crnkovich started racing snowmobiles when many of the sleds considered vintage now were new.

“When I was a kid, I remember buying a 1975 machine brand new and I loved it,” he said. “I have some newer machines, too, but my roots were back there.”

He still has the same make and model machine he raced on as a teenager. Now it’s restored and goes to shows and races.

Custer, on the other hand, started collecting a little later in life.

He didn’t own his own sled until his early 20s when he moved to Casper from North Dakota.

With the house he bought came a 1969 Nordic Ski-Doo the former owner swore he planned to retrieve.

A year passed, and the owner finally said he wasn’t coming back. Custer started tinkering. He put lubricating oil in the engine, tweaked parts here and there.

“Eventually the guy came back and asked how I got it running,” he said. “Turns out it spent time in the bottom of the North Platte River. Someone stole it and dumped it in there.”

Custer road the machine for years, replacing parts bit by bit as they broke or wore down. Then he started going to garage sales and collecting more sleds.

“It’s like a disease. It’s the same with motorcycles or cars, you keep getting drawn back in,” he said.

He convinced his brother he needed to invest in a few old machines, and not long after his brother had the same addiction. Between the two, they collected more than 140 snowmobiles.

Custer said it gave his brother something to focus on during his illness. It’s also how Custer ended up with the 1984 Sprintfire, one of only 288 ever made.

Mechanically, the machine is together. It’s just missing a few key items including the seat.

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