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A new life for an old ski sled

Littleton’s Roger Emerson kneels beside the 1959 Bombardier snow sled he restored. Bombardier rechristened its sleds with the brand name Ski-Doo in 1960. Charlie Lentz/The Littleton Courier. (click for larger version)
March 29, 2012
LITTLETON — A pristine 1959 Bombardier snow sled sits tucked away in a corner of Roger Emerson's garage. Two years ago it was little more than a bucket of bolts and a dream.

"A friend of mine brought it back from Canada and decided it was too much of a project for him," Emerson said. "Just a shell, a rusty shell. Four or five people looked at that sled and said it was junk."

Emerson — whose business card reads "Rolling Mechanic" from the days when he paid driveway calls — owns an automobile repair shop in Littleton but he's been riding snow sleds since he was a youngster. His mechanical expertise merged on the trail to his hobby. The '59 Bombardier was a basic vehicle with a seven horsepower motor, wooden skis and few frills.

"It's a lot simpler. Made in a sheet metal shop, there's not any cast aluminum on it or anything like that," said Emerson, 54, from Littleton. "It has wood skis with a steel runner underneath the wooden ski. This is actually a prototype — there was only so many of these hand-made sleds before they geared up for production in 1960."

While today's sleds have plastic skis, the Bombardier's wooden skis were made of birch and Emerson hewed faithfully to the original specifications when restoring it.

"These skis that I got for this came off the original press that Bombardier had," Emerson said.

Plastic skis handle superiorly but the wooden runners are strikingly classic and complement the sled's original yellow color scheme. The wooden skis are four and one-half feet — about twice the length of today's skis.

"The (wood skis) were pretty durable, they were hard on steering components because they were so long — in 1962 they shortened the skis up to the length they are today. Today's sleds handle so much better than the old sleds," Emerson said. "When these sleds were made there were no trails."

Snow sledding was much more laid back 60 years ago and sleds were often viewed as work vehicles. Recreation was sometimes an afterthought.

"You went out across the field, over the stone wall and you went riding a snowmobile," Emerson said. "No windshield frame. No back to the seat."

Finding parts to reconstruct the engine was easier than one might imagine. The seven horsepower Kohler engine was a universal workhorse that could be bought from a distributor and used for anything from a mini-bike to a go-cart. There are plenty of old Kohler engines that Emerson salvaged parts from to reconstruct his powerhouse.

"Bombardier chose the Kohler because it was good in the cold weather — as well as Polaris and Arctic Cat, they all had Kohlers to start with," Emerson said. "The engine I made I put together out of various parts."

Emerson had to mix and match engine parts wherever he could find them.

"The block may be off a snow-blower, the crankshaft off a Ski-Doo, the piston out of a compactor or something like that," Emerson said. "It's all the same engine. It was a universal seven-horse engine. When you look at the (reconstructed) engine it looks original."

To match the color Emerson disassembled an old yellow sled — found an inner area not exposed to the elements — and had the color matched.

"We took the chain case out of it — which is never exposed to the light — we buffed it and we shot it and Sanel duplicated the color for us," Emerson said.

The original seat was vinyl. Emerson and his wife, Debbie, researched the type of vinyl used for the 1959 and she duplicated it.

"The type of material, the texture of it and the color," Emerson said. "We have to dye the material to the proper color and we found the proper texture."

The restored sled rides on a rubber track in back.

"I found (a rubber track) years ago," Emerson said. "I put it aside for this project. I don't know if you can still find them. I've got an exact replacement."

Emerson may never ride his vintage sled. Many of the snowmobiles he's restored over the years have ended up in museums. He valued the restored '59 Bombardier at $8,500 — "brand new it was $495."

The restoration is complete but an early spring thwarted any chance of riding it. Emerson said someone will likely buy it before deep snow reappears on the North Country's trails.

"I will ride it next winter providing someone doesn't make me an offer I can't refuse — because usually that's what happens," Emerson said.

Emerson's sled is a piece of history — the last year Bombardier's name appeared on a snowmobile.

"Bombardier became Ski-Doo," Emerson said. "The sled that I did — the '59 — is before they called them Ski-Doo in 1960."

After hundreds of hours of labor Emerson seemed wistful contemplating his finished work of art but there will be no regrets if a collector scoops it up. Somewhere another bucket of bolts sits neglected — begging to be brought back to life. Another rusted pumpkin awaits its chance to become a gleaming coach.

"I enjoy the challenge. I really do," Emerson said. "There's another one out there to do."

Mike Cryans
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