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How snowmobiles launched Polaris into a nationally known company

Minnesota’s snowmobile industry was born in January 1956, when a mechanic named David Johnson assembled a prototype of a snow-going vehicle in the garage of Polaris Industries, a small machine shop in Roseau.

image of historic pamphlet advertising sno traveler snow mobile
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
1964 Polaris sales brochure. From “Pamphlets relating to snowmobiles and snow cruisers, 1939–.” Pamphlets collection (TL234), Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
Polaris Industries of Roseau, Minnesota, manufactured its first snowmobiles in 1956. In the years since then, it has remained an industry leader in production, sales, and innovation, even as it has diversified into other, more lucrative product lines.

Minnesota’s snowmobile industry was born in January 1956, when a mechanic named David Johnson assembled a prototype of a snow-going vehicle in the garage of Polaris Industries, a small machine shop in Roseau. Johnson based his design loosely on an early snow machine called the motor toboggan, built by Wisconsin inventor Carl Eliason. But Johnson’s invention was smaller, lighter, and more nimble than Eliason’s. By the end of 1956, Johnson and his Polaris business partners, brothers Edgar and Allan Hetteen, had refined the machine’s design and named it the Sno-Traveler.

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Over the next several years, Johnson and the Hetteen brothers slowly ramped up Sno-Traveler production and assembled of network of dealers. An early breakthrough came in March 1960, when Edgar Hetteen led a caravan of three Sno-Travelers on a 1,200-mile trek across Alaska. The successful journey proved the machine’s ruggedness and reliability, and helped convince skeptics that the snowmobile was a viable consumer product. By 1962, Sno-Traveler sales were approaching $800,000 a year and accounting for 85 percent of the company’s annual revenues.

In 1963, Polaris introduced the Comet, a light, front-engine sled designed to compete directly with the Ski-Doo, manufactured by Polaris’s main rival, Bombardier of Valcourt, Quebec. But the Comet suffered from multiple design flaws that emerged only after it hit the market. The subsequent customer backlash nearly bankrupted the company. The following year, Polaris unveiled a new line of snowmobiles including the user-friendly Mustang. The new sleds were hits with consumers and led the company into a sustained period of growth. Polaris’s improved performance attracted corporate suitors, and in 1968, the Rhode Island-based conglomerate Textron acquired it for about $11 million.

Polaris sold a record 30,000 snowmobiles during the 1970–71 season, but business fell off sharply after that. The 1973 OPEC oil embargo and the ensuing energy crisis turned snowmobiling into a luxury activity that many Americans could no longer afford. Sales plummeted. More than a dozen snowmobile manufacturers got out of the business. Polaris survived by cutting production and slashing its workforce.

The company won accolades in 1979, when it introduced the TX-L Indy, the industry’s first consumer snowmobile with race-tested independent front suspension (IFS). But the path to recovery remained difficult. In 1981, when a group of managers bought Polaris from Textron, the company’s production plant in Roseau employed just twelve people. In 1983, industry-wide snowmobile sales dipped to historic lows. Polaris responded, in part, by diversifying into new product lines including all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), which it introduced in 1985.

Polaris continued to manufacture snowmobiles and introduce breakthrough technologies like electronic fuel injection (1989) and long-travel rear suspension (1994), but it gradually deemphasized the business through which it came to prominence. In 1996, for the first time, Polaris produced more ATVs than snowmobiles. By 2018, snowmobiles accounted for just 6 percent of the company’s sales.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.